New CD Review: Rush – Clockwork Angels

The moment has arrived.

 

I have heard the new music.

 

The verdict is in.

 

Rush no longer needs–nor have they *ever* needed–the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” With this release, they have inducted themselves into their own hall of fame. Once again, their newest offering triumphs over pretty much everything else that’s available today. The songs are epic (not in the trendy sense of “Whoa … that’s so epic, man!!”), cinematic, and … simply VAST. There are 12 tracks on Clockwork Angels, and every single one of them is a home run. Or a hat trick. Or a Gordie Howe hat trick. In fact, that’s it right there–they are the Gordie Howe hat trick to end all. There’s scoring. There are assists all over the place. And there are brutal, drop-the-gloves, bare-knuckle fights that will rend your soul in two.

“Wait … what? how can there be an actual fight?”

 

Sit back, relax. If you’re reading this on your phone and have Instapaper installed, you might want to open it. This review’s gonna be commute-worthy.

 

This is Rush’s first “concept album” since their heady days of 2112, Hemispheres, Caress of Steel, etc. However, this CD differs from them in that the concept spans THE WHOLE CD. None of their previous concept albums lasted longer than 1 side of an LP. 2112 clocks in at 20:33. Between “The Fountain of Lamneth” and “The Necromancer,” Caress of Steel‘s concept tracks span 31:27. Cygnus X-1: Book 2″ from Hemispheres lasts a “paltry” 18:08.

 

Clockwork Angels is over 65 minutes long, recounting the story of a young man longing to leave his lands. He yearns for the enormity and grandiosity of Crown City. After successfully landing work as a carnival worker in Chronos Square, he falls in love, and is rejected. He seeks comfort by seeking out Cibola–the City of Gold, meanwhile working in the port city of Poseidon.

 

Themes of order, chaos, anger, forgiveness, wonder, love found and lost, heroism, failed journeys … this CD has it all.

 

You know what? Read the book. It comes out in September. The collaborative book between Kevin Anderson (for all you Star Wars novelists, that name should be *extremely* familiar) and Neil Peart expands on the story told by the CD.

 

In truth, I’ve had this CD now for about 5 days. I won’t lie: I downloaded it as soon as it hit the torrent sites. Call me what you will. I have every intention of buying it outright on Tuesday; probably two or three times. So no–I’m not a pirate. I am, however, a die-hard Rush fan, and I make no bones about it.

 

That being the case and knowing that Clockwork Angels was literally days away, I figured it might have leaked. I downloaded it and literally ushered my daughters to the backyard for a couple hours of sprinkler summer fun. Or … late spring, since, you know … it was June 5th. Technically, still spring.

 

The musicianship on the whole CD is ridiculously superb. There have been so many times over the last few days that I’ve just sat here in stunned silence, thinking “I don’t think I’ve ever heard them at this level … and they’ve been doing this for almost 40 years.” And the lyrics … seriously. This is beyond classic Neil; he elevated his game to a whole new level for this go-round. His drumming is equally stratospheric. There are parts that he sounds like he had 10 arms. Geddy pulls out some bass lines that are simply inhuman. “Headlong Flight” has this bass line that just leaves you staring into the distance, wondering how anyone can play all the notes he hits with just one hand. Alex pulls out all the stops on every single song. His solos range from haunting to twisted and everything in between. There are chords that he plays that I’m fairly confident have never been played by ANYone. “Clockwork Angels” has a couple, as does “Headlong Flight.” There are intense, spine-shattering moments, and moments where he plucks what sounds like a 12-string (“The Garden”) that give me the shivers.

 

I queued up “Caravan,” though I’ve had that and “BU2B” memorized since early 2010. I figured if I was going to enjoy the new CD,  I was going to enjoy the whole CD.

 

Even being familiar with the first two tracks through the singles released a couple of years ago, there were subtle differences that were obvious. The echoed chorus at the end of “Caravan,” the lamenting melancholy of the acoustic intro to “BU2B” … even on Neil’s fill before after the second “verse” in “BU2B”, it seems like there’s an extra length to the cymbals. The singles were excellent. The CD versions are even more polished.

 

Eventually, my playlist navigated to track 3, “Clockwork Angels.” This is where the “Gordie Howe hat trick” reference should make a whole lot of sense. There have been a few times in life where music has literally left my jaw hanging on by the sinewy tendrils of my mandibular tendons. This was one of those instances–where the opening leaves you feeling like you just got punched in the gut and had the wind literally knocked out of you. You *want* to breathe, but you can’t. And even if you could, you’re afraid to because you might miss a single, solitary note, and that pain is inexplicably more unbearable than a complete and utter lack of oxygen.

 

“Clockwork Angels” is a lengthy one, clocking it at over 7 and a half minutes. It opens with this sad, echoing, almost gregorian chant performed by Geddy Lee, which follows with an “archer’s lob” of cymbals before the full-on frontal assault hits–a barrage of guitar that sounds like it’s straight out of a “Meddle”-era Pink Floyd song. Specifically, “One of These Days.” And it’s sooooo much more dark and ominous than is the PF track. The opening is at once frantic and frenetic, pummeling you with lefts and rights of guitar and bass upper-cuts that leave you wondering when the beating will ever end. Here’s the thing: you do not WANT it to end. You WANT it. You CRAVE IT. But you are denied as the dynamic completely shifts to this whimsical, light and airy melody that recalls moments of driving through a big city for the first time, with the top down, eyes wide, and drinking in all the grandeur and splendor that you’ve always imagined. For example, imagine you’ve always dreamed of visiting someplace like NYC, Paris, Shanghai … and checking out places like the Empire State Building, Ground Zero, or the Oriental Pearl Tower, Eiffel tower, Louvre … imagine visiting any of these places for the first time. That’s the wonder I felt when the transition hit … except that feeling of wonder and comfort lasts precsiely 21 seconds. That’s all the more time you’re allotted to catch your breath and return your trays and chairs to their original upright positions. The next thing you know, Alex comes roaring back and reminds you just why he’s one of the premiere guitarists of all time, pulling out one of the most ace riffs in the Rush arsenal. Following his assault, Geddy and Neil join in and permanently seal upon you the memory of why you started listening to Rush in the first place. If ever there was a moment where you forgot who these guys used to be, or where their roots are, this song will smack you back to remembrance with all the love and force that you deserve.

 

The lyrics to this are as tight and as Neil-esque as it gets. Here is an excerpt from “Clockwork Angels”:

 

“High above the city square
Globes of light float in mid-air
Higher still, against the night
Clockwork angels bathed in light

 

You promise every treasure, to the foolish and the wise
Goddesses of mystery, spirits in disguise
Every pleasure, we bow and close our eyes
Clockwork angels, promise every prize”

 

When I saw “Carnies” on the track list a few weeks ago, I will admit that I had my reservations. I’m glad I kept those in check. “How I prayed just to get away. To carry me anywhere. Sometimes the angels punish us by answering our prayers.” I love the punch to the song. It has this very “Working Man” vibe to it in the beginning. You’ll read this in the liner notes, but the story behind the song really caught me off guard. I won’t spoil it for you, cuz that’s the fun of reading the liner notes, right?

 

Which is one of the greatest things about this CD. Each track’s lyrics are prefaced by a little back story. It really helps to tie the whole saga together, and it really whets your appetite for the book (again … September, but seriously … this CD will keep you plenty entertained until then).

 

The last track, “The Garden,” is one of the most introspective and philosophically deep songs that the band has ever written. I’m ripping this right out of the liner notes, so please don’t confuse this with anything I’ve written. I could never deign to write as such. Anyway,

 

“LONG AGO I READ A STORY FROM ANOTHER TIMELINE about a character named Candide. He also survived a harrowing series of misadventures and tragedies, then settled on a farm near Constantinople. Listening to a philosophical rant, Candide replied, “That is all very well, but now we must tend our garden.”

 

I have now arrived at that point in my own story. There is a metaphorical garden in the acts and attitudes of a person’s life, and the treasures of that garden are love and respect. I have come to realize that the gathering of love and respect – from others and for myself – has been the real quest of my life.

 

“Now we must tend our garden.”

 

Chills, right? How can you not read that and just weep with hope and aspirations of filling everyone’s lives with joy and love? “The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect. The way you live, the gifts that you give. In the fullness of time, it’s the only return that you expect.” If this is the last song on the last CD that Rush ever releases, they go out on the highest note possible. There are so many things about this song that is good–from the lyrics, to Alex’s solo that is rife with emotion, to the sheer beauty of the song … if you don’t well up and shed at least a single tear, you don’t have soul. Period. I said it, so you know it’s true.

 

Answer me this: how is it that a band that’s been around almost 40 years, and has gone through as many metamorphoses as these guys have, can come back to their roots and completely dominate? Clockwork Angels is their masterpiece, in my opinion. Their classics will always be their classics and their building blocks that got them to this precise stage, where they *can* write this kind of music. This is them at their pinnacle best–the culmination of EVERYTHING they’ve ever been.  This was the CD they were destined to write.

 

In the end, this CD is for every Rush fan that’s ever existed. It’s for every *music* fan that’s ever existed. Clockwork Angels is their definitive work, and if your music collection is without, then your collection isn’t complete.

 

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