Monday, May 7, 2012

Rush: Clockwork Angels full album review track-by-track

Somebody has got to sit Rush down and read them the rules – you know, the ones that state that they have to act their freaking ages and stop jamming around so damn much; that six and seven-minute songs with lots of badass musicianship are out; that there can’t possibly be new sounds to discover; that concept albums are so, like, Hemispheres; that songs are supposed to be verse, chorus, verse – c’mon, call in the pro LA tunesmiths already!

And don’t forget to tell them to get at least five or six backing musicians on stage – that’s what all the really big bands do; that they need to write some tunes about chicks, for chrissake; that the drummer must play to the song – knock it off with all that, you know, “extra stuff.”

And most of all, won’t somebody please tell these guys that groups that have been together for 38 years are supposed to suck? They’re not meant to have breakthroughs and keep getting better and better. Can't anybody send them the memo?

But wait… hold on a second. If Rush decided to buckle down and behave, if they adhered to the standards and practices of Music 101, that would make them sound like practically every other band out there. They would become safe, predictable and oh so un-Rush-like.

Fortunately, the three men (bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart) who power their way through the sprawling, open-hearted and wildly alive Clockwork Angels know that the best way to avoid creative stasis is to simply be themselves, and in doing so they’re growing in sophistication and revealing new depths of feeling at an astonishing rate.

Produced by the band and Nick Raskulinecz (the same team that yielded 2007’s Snakes & Arrows), the album is built around a narrative of a young man’s journey towards his dreams, and fittingly, the music comes at you in a nonrepetitive succession of images, textures and moods, many of them strikingly abrupt – the band never hammers a point for too long; they make a case quickly and move on. It’s propulsive and heady – by turns dizzyingly sensual, gut-rocking, lofty and raw – but there’s a warm, human spirit to the band’s rhythmic volleys, and they have an uncanny gift for imbuing even their most orgiastic musical moments with a unity of feeling and purpose.

What’s most amazing about the general state of Rush in 2012 – and this is played out vividly throughout Clockwork Angels – is how comfortable they are in their own skin. “The best actors don’t let the wheels show,” Henry Fonda once said, and in their own idiosyncratic way, Rush never get bogged down in craft. Their songs, epic in scope, abstract yet achingly personal, rendered here with a commanding sonic radiance, are born out of instinct and impulses, unique as a fingerprint and every bit as fascinating.


A train signal, a dark and descending bassline and some ominous orchestration... Suddenly, blam! - Rush explode into a tough, feisty rocker driven by Alex Lifeson's gritty guitar riff.

As he has done for some time, Geddy Lee sings in the middle register of his voice, and while some might yearn for the days of the banshee wail, the fact is that he has become a far more captivating and intriguing singer with age. When he sings, "In a world where I feel so small, I can't stop thinking big," he's so full of wonder that the words gain a momentum of their own.

The rhythms shift dramatically - it's not just that Peart has superb quirky timing, but that he gets everything imaginable out of his playing. Lifeson veers between gnarly riffing and dreamy top-string textures, and for a while it seems as if he's teasing a solo, biding his time, but when he leans into it he's biting and sassy, tearing off angular phrases before dispatching echo-driven sheets of sound that seem to take flight.


Whereas the single version of BU2B that was released last year kicked down the barn door without warning, now it begins with lightly strummed acoustics. The main riff is just as smashing, however, a growling, grinding earth-mover over which Lee sings, "I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan/ we are only human, it's not ours to understand."

Most bands would stay right there, but Rush keep tossing the ball around - Lee and Peart lock in during the bridge at full gallop, with bass and drums pulsating and bubbling.

A solemn, vaguely religious tone builds - Lee's vocals take on a choir-like cadence - and then Lifeson uncorks a brief zinger of a solo - stabbing, thrusting notes that thrash the listener about before smacking headlong into the final chorus.

A tough, forceful rocker that works its way into the thicket of your senses.

Clockwork Angels

Stephen Colbert once joked with Rush by asking, "Have you ever written a song so epic that by the end of the song you were actually being influenced by yourself in the beginning of the song?" Which could indeed be the case with this mini classic that works as a self-contained rock opera.

It's a lot to take in all at once, but what stays with you are things like Peart's blissful dancing on the hi-hat and Lifeson's bold Townshend-esque revelry. (Can a song have its own overture? It not, it certainly does now.) And then there's Lee's voice, which has never sounded so smooth and unaffected.

When the band is hard charging, Peart pounds on his toms with an almost beastly force. By the 4:30 mark, the spotlight hits Lifeson, performing a solo that plays like an aria.

It all builds to a playful false ending, an audio trompe l'oiel... which proceeds to a shattering finale.

The Anarchist

A sprightly, snaggle-toothed guitar riff leads to a boisterous rocker in which Lee, Lifeson and Peart tumble over one another with calisthenic agility.

It's interesting how few bassists can drive the melodic center of a song without coming off as scenery chewers. Sting is one, and in his own way, Iron Maiden's Steve Harris is another. Geddy Lee fills the room here, particularly in the chorus, and he's supported by Lifeson and Peart, both of whom allow him to reach into himself.

Not that the other guys don't get some, too: Peart punches holes in the mix. His approach is, for the most part, free-wheeling and swinging, but every so often he whacks the snare to such a degree that his hits sound like gunshots. And Lifeson turns in a delirious, elastic solo - during one rather grand phrase he reminds one of Eric Johnson, that sweet, tubey violin tone of his.

The song ends abruptly, and you'll probably do a double take as you hear shards of metal clanging and falling, the journey powering forward.


Sweet and soul, rude and inviting - this phantasmagoric pounder is fascinating in how everything seems effortlessly, inexplicably right. It also features probably the meanest riff that Alex Lifeson has ever played - on record at least - one which dovetails seamlessly into a brutal mass of a verse.

Throughout Carnies, Lifeson keeps upping his game and reaching new heights. His solo is a spiral of patterns both raging and tender. He possesses an extravagant gift for making the perfect sound at the perfect time - bell-like flourishes, scooped-out phased chords, spitfire trills - and his intuition adds to their ceaseless and bewildering beauty.

Halo Effect

Can you possibly tell that a song is destined to become a classic the first time you hear it? Possibly - and if, for some reason, Halo Effect doesn't make it into the pantheon of all-time Rush greats, it'll come damn close.

Over a gorgeous, double-tracked acoustic guitar figure, Geddy Lee sings richly, even-tempered and marvelously expressive. The track surges into a section of stomping power trio goodness, but the overall framework is acoustic, soon laced with elegant strings.

"What did I do before there were words?" Lee asks, bathed in a breathtaking glow of cellos that carry him - and us - away.

Seven Citied Of Gold

Lifeson's guitar breathes fire straight off - his first riff is Hendrixian in spirit - with Lee and Peart catching up for this devilish workout, underpinned by urgent keyboards and Lee's dark-toned vocals.

Seven Cities Of Gold contains nods to Rush's past, but the whole thing feels incredibly alive and vital, with a dazzling assortment of riffs that dodge and weave, rise and fall. The middle section is a sea of psychedelia - it's not outwardly trippy or retro, but it's disorienting, the aural equivalent of the light show in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A mind-blower, and by the end, all three members are kicking up major dirt.

The Wreckers

A big, brash British power chord opening, evoking so many things Who and Kinks, lights up this one-of-a-kind winner.

There's so much that's good about The Wreckers that it's hard to know where to begin: the way Lifeson flamenco strums his guitar and how Peart catches and accents his every move; how Lee sings huskily and wistfully, revealing previously untapped emotions; and the gleeful way the band bodysurfs giant waves of sound, crashing against one another and stirring up their own kind of current.

This is the kind of song that engages you on so many levels - you like it because it sounds great, because it's being played by Rush and you're thrilled that they can push all the right buttons, but mostly because it renews your faith in the idea that rock music still has crazy and beautiful places to go.

Headlong Flight

Calling any one song a tour de force on an album this bountiful is difficult, but this seven-minute monster oozes with virtuosic zeal and stirring lyricism. Lee kicks it all off with a spacey bass figure, which morphs into a full-throttle, all-hands-on-deck assault that builds in intensity.

"I learned to fight, I learned to love, I learned to feel/ oh! I wish that I could live it all again," Lee sings in the chorus, and it's here that he becomes a bravura vocalist, no longer an acquired taste or an artful stylist, but a true conveyer of poetic heat.

A roller-coaster ride of unison guitar and bass almost runs off the tracks, but Peart is guiding it, battering and rolling. He breaks free for a brief, razzmatazz solo, but the pleasure in the gesture is that it really matters.

By now, one expects big climatic solos from Lifeson, and the kicker is how he taps the mother lode time after time. His wah set piece is all over the place, a huge and gleaming star turn, reckless and daring, as chaotic as surreal comedy and as outrageous as a man chasing a roomful of cats. Bask in the divine madness.


Not an actual song per se, but a haunting segue built on cellos and acoustic guitars, with Lee's minimalist vocal evoking a moonlit gospel meeting.

Wish Them Well

A blissed-out romp that starts with a fake-out: Are those white-hot guitars or a cranked-up Hammond organ over Peart's ramrod drums? Hard to tell, but it's a magical combo.

One of the consistent pleasures of any terrific Rush song - just pick one - is taking in the sheer spectacle of their efficiency, the almost freakish way in which the team always pulls together but everybody gets to be a starter. Here it's Peart, whose feverish and inventive playing creates its own kind of orbit. But even when the other players are spinning into the far reaches of space (Lifeson's solo is particularly cosmic), he never leaves them stranded.

Lifeson's guitar takes on a shimmering quality for the ride-out, an unforced jam that moves with the ease of a victory lap.

The Garden

A pastoral delight that comes over you like a daydream. Graceful and buoyant acoustics, tasteful orchestration, and Lee singing in a simple, unaffected style make up the bedrock of The Garden.

Peart joins in on a second verse, laying down a soft shuffle, and even when he appears to be doing very little, his sense of composition and movement has a profound impact. His patterns are so natural that it's almost as if the sticks breezed into his hands and started playing him.

After a spellbindingly romantic piano interlude, Lifeson reaches in and pulls out a multi-dimensional guitar solo, one which recalls the mysterious epiphanies from Limelight. There's a certain melancholy quality to his phrasing, as is he's pausing briefly to look behind his shoulder.

By the end, he's rejoined his bandmates and the three march off intrepidly together. They don't dwell in the moment - there's no needlessly showy flourishes or building the crescendo up as "epic" - but the further away they get the more it becomes apparent that the spell they've cast and the resonance of Clockwork Angels will linger on.

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