REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/24/2012
Rush: the band critics (other than this one) love to hate. I’ve always thought one reason for this is that Canada’s #1 power trio have never—not for five minutes in a career now spanning five decades—tried to be cool. To the contrary, besides being world-class musicians, Geddy Lee (bass/keys/vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Neil Peart (drums) very early on embraced their destiny as the high priests of uncoolness. They are the geeks in the corner who played for the other geeks, who all told a friend, and so on and so on until, in today’s geek-ascendant world, Rush has evolved into a money-making machine the likes of which the rock world has rarely seen.
That said, latter-day Rush has tended to feel a bit tepid. For this listener—this fan—the appeal of the band has always been the drive and hookiness behind their best songs and best albums. The common theme of the core of Rush’s catalog—the Hemispheres-through-Moving Pictures trilogy, with maybe A Farewell To Kings and Signals tacked on either end—is an extraordinarily potent combination of power and melody. In that era the trio achieved a sort of creative balance point between the longer, proggier songs they had favored earlier and the synth-driven group they would become in the 80s. They were also building songs around hooks and riffs and choruses, songs that held focus musically even when the lyrics drifted into philosophy and fantasy.
With Clockwork Angels, Rush returns in some sense to the epic scale of earlier works. This is a 66-minute concept album featuring a single, continuous, semi-coherent narrative, rather trendily set in a steampunk universe. It’s a story that the band—one supposes simply because they can—has also made into a full-length book. (It *would* be nice to be an artist AND have money, right?)
On to the music. Rush has a history of strong album openers, and “Caravan” is another one. The chorus is a bit of a soft spot—consisting principally of the line “I can’t stop thinkin’ big” repeated over and over—but the song itself is a muscular, emphatic overture to the story ahead. With “BU2B,” however, they veer immediately into the philosophical debate that has occupied lyricist/drummer Neil Peart for decades: faith vs. reason. Unfortunately, “BU2B” also brings to the fore a key flaw in the production by Nick Raskulinecz and the band: despite a welcome emphasis on the trio’s terrific musicianship, the mix is surprisingly muddy in places, obscuring the vocals and reducing the impact of individual riffs.
The title track isn’t an especially memorable tune, but does feature a snazzy Lifeson solo around the midpoint of its overlong 7:31 girth. It’s essentially an exploration of the tension between belief and unbelief, predestination (in the form of this particular imaginary universe’s overseer, the Watchmaker) and free will, with an appropriately grand chorus.
That grandness, however, begins to wear by the time you get into the fourth straight track in this vein, “The Anarchist.” The boys simply throw themselves headlong into every song, running at full-tilt more often than not, burning pavement without stopping to savor individual riffs and moments along the way. The instrumental prowess of these three is rightfully legendary but when you’re not halfway through and the songs are already blurring together, it’s not a good sign. “Halo Effect” feints at a change of pace, opening acoustic before almost immediately diving back into the fray. The opening section of “Seven Cities Of Gold” features Lee’s fantastic, frenetic “lead bass” and Lifeson atmospherics before moving into yet another heavy, hammering number free of the sort of hooks that lit up an album like Moving Pictures.
The heart of the album lies in the next three tracks. In “The Wreckers,” a rather open-minded look at skepticism (“All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / Of a miracle too good to be true”) Lifeson delivers a riff that actually sticks in your head and there’s an actual chorus that is somewhat memorable. “Headlong Flight” starts with some fabulous Lee riffing that builds into a dynamic Lifeson-led jam; there might not be that sticky riff, but there’s genuine drive happening. And then the brief (1:28) reprise “BU2B2” sends an arrow to the heart of Peart’s concerns, reflecting his own personal tragedies of the ’90s, the grief that he went through and his decision to keep on living, despite the fact that “No philosophy consoles me.”
Interestingly, the penultimate “Wish Them Well,” after charging in with abundant heaviness, eases off the pedal to deliver a message full of Christian heritage: essentially, turn the other cheek and love thy enemy. Closer “The Garden” is a kind of elegy / summing-up bit that attempts to draw the threads and themes together into some sort of conclusion: “The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect / So hard to earn, so easily burned.”
The core problem seems to be that Lee, Lifeson and Peart appear to have shaped these songs around their narrative concept rather than around riffs and melodies. My lasting impression is of a continuous torrent of music, some of which was pretty cool, but whose individual tracks don’t really have structure—beginnings, middles, ends, choruses—they just kind of go and keep going until it’s time to move on to the next chapter of the story.
If you simply rated this album for musicianship and/or artistic ambition, it would rate an A of some sort. In the end, though, Clockwork Angels falls victim to its own hubris and scale, focusing on the forest while losing track of (groan-worthy Rush pun 100% intended) the trees. High-brow concepts and instrumental virtuosity abound here; what’s missing are memorable songs.
|Very well said. Where are the melodies? Why bury these incredible musicians under this muddy wall of sound where the individual instruments are not even distinguishable? It's been that way for 15+ years for these guys and it's frustrating. One thing we know about Rush, they will do what they want. So this sound is obviously what they 'want'. I just wish I knew why!|