Sunday, June 24, 2012

Rush Interviews Add Flavor to Clockwork Angels

While I am on a Rush kick, getting more and more into this Clockwork Angels album, I wanted to post a few clutch quotes from some recent interviews.

There have been a LOT of great interviews and videos of the guys the last few weeks. But the three that caught my eye were two Q&As from Rolling Stone with Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. The Peart one especially, because he never really does interviews, and with Rolling Stone no less, who have always slagged the band until recently. The third interview is a track by track overview slideshow with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who should bear much of the credit for getting the band back its prog roots.

Here are a few quotes I thought Rush fans would dig. For sure check out the original interviews here, here and here.

This album was Rush’s vision. It wasn’t mine. I was there to make sure it was played as brilliantly as they could play it, sung as high as Geddy Lee could sing it, and have the guitar solos bring me to tears.

[On the song The Anarchist] One of my favorites, but I could say that about all the songs. To me, it’s all about the riff, and this riff takes me back to the old days. That was one of the cool things about working on this record, helping Rush to know that it was OK to be like this. ‘You guys can do this. You guys did it a long time ago, you can do it again. You own it!’…Vocally, it was about getting Geddy up in that high register where he belongs.

[On the song The Wreckers] The song didn’t exist until we were in the studio – there was no demo of it. Geddy was in the writing room, playing guitar, and Alex came in and picked up the bass. So the song was written with the two of them playing what aren’t their main instruments… I tried to get the two of them to switch for the tracking – Alex on bass and Geddy on guitar – but they decided to stick to their designated instruments… The guitar part in the verse was probably the hardest thing on the record for us to find. Alex had some difficulty playing the part Geddy had written – it was great, but it didn’t feel right to him. He had to search for the right part, and it took all day with me going, ‘Nope, that’s not it… Nope, that’s not it.’ Finally, he stumbled onto a picking figure, and Geddy and I just stood up and went, ‘That’s it! That’s the part.’ The tune came together real fast after that.

[On the song Headlong Flight] This is the song I was waiting to hear for a long time. The riff, the vocals, the drumming, the guitar solos, the energy – everything that makes Rush Rush is in this song. It’s pretty long, and there’s a lot of parts in it. There were no drums on the demo, it was just a click – a click, riffs and scratch vocals. How do you write drum parts on a drum machine to something like this anyway? You don’t – you just put Neil Peart in the room.

[On the song Wish Them Well] This was the hardest drum track of any of the songs to get. Neil doesn’t really play double-time, so this was taking him out of what he usually does. That wasn’t always the idea; in fact, that was me trying to keep the energy up. The tune wanted to move, and the riff wanted to be big – it didn’t want to be mellow or straight. Neil’s the consummate pro, man. He fucking dug in – sat down on his throne, picked up his sticks and made it happen. He’s the dream for a producer to work with. I was throwing stuff at him that an octopus couldn’t play, but he could.

[On the song The Garden] That’s the demo guitar solo. What you’re hearing is Alex by himself. He’s at Geddy’s house, it’s late at night – I think Geddy was sleeping on the couch – and he’s just playing a guitar solo. When you get something that great, it’s not a demo anymore. There wasn’t even a discussion to try to do it again. It’s up there with the solo to Limelight.

We got together in Los Angeles and started to think about our next year.  One of the projects we discussed was doing a compilation of all of our instrumentals, which Geddy suggested. I said, "Yeah, maybe we could make a new one to go with it. Maybe something a little more extended."

Those words "a little more extended" in the course of this comfortable conversation got me thinking. I said, "Well, I've been thinking lately about this setting ... And I explained this whole steampunk thing to the guys and they seemed kind of intrigued. So I started working, and the story came together organically.

...We had a very successful revivification of some of the material that we thought could be better than it was originally, like the title track to Presto. We just loved playing it last tour, and we played it in a way that we couldn't when we were touring in 1989. I remember discussing it with the guys one night over dinner and just saying, "That song is so much better than it ever was, and it has a feel that it should have had on the record." Geddy said, "Well, we have a different clock now." That's true, and such an important, fundamental observation.

For me as a drummer, being responsible for that pulse . . . that change happened in the mid-Nineties when I studied with Freddie Gruber and worked really hard on my drumming, and it did give me a different clock. It gave me so much more control and understanding of time and pushing it and pulling it and creating anticipation, tension and release. It can all be done within metronomic time, but it's not easy. It takes time and it takes understanding.

...For us to have worked so hard and been successful and respected for it, that goes right smack in the face of cheap panderers. That just occurred to me now, but it's true. They're always saying, "Oh man, I have to do it this way, have to make the song simple and repetitive 'cause that's what people like, 'cause that's my job and if I can just put a smile on the face of those hard-workin' people then my job is done." You know, that attitude has been kind of my enemy all of my life.

Rolling Stone interview with Alex Lifeson:

We read through Neil's lyrics, try to get a sense of where it's going, and then Ged and I will usually start jamming and then see what lyrics will work with whatever piece that we're working on. There's a lot of back and forth between Neil and Ged. Ged has to feel comfortable with the lyrics, that they're clear and understandable and that he's comfortable singing them. That's the thing with lyrics: sometimes the story gets in the way of the vocalization and that can be difficult, so there's a lot of paring that goes on over time. They have a great working relationship. Ged might pull out one phrase from a set of lyrics that Neil has spent a great deal of time on and say, "This really speaks to me. Can we just rebuild it around this one phrase?" And it's amazing how Neil has such an unbounded patience to do that sort of thing.

...We want to play the new material. We sort of go back and forth. "Should we play the whole thing? Or should we play most of it, or some of it, and mix it up?" It's always very difficult, and having come off a tour where we featured an album in its entirety, it makes the idea of featuring the whole of Clockwork Angels that much more appealing.

I think for the first leg of the tour, at the very least, we'll do most of the record – not all of it, but we'll do most of it. The material that's coming up amongst the three of us in the e-mails that we're sharing is the older material. There's a lot of stuff in there that we haven't played before, and we haven't played in a long time so it's got a freshness to it this time around. We'll always have to play that handful of songs that we've had the most commercial success with, but mixing it up with some other material that we haven't played in a long time is really great. It's shaping up to be a pretty good set.

...Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn did a very great job with the documentary, and they told a story that maybe we didn't realize existed. Because when you're living, it's just sort of your normal day-to-day stuff and it's not really that big of a deal. But they managed to tell a story about friendship and brotherhood and perseverance and having dreams, and they mixed in a good dose of humor and made it a very fun film to watch.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

CD Review - Rush Clockwork Angels

I enjoy turning some of my musician friends on to 'new Rush' every time the band puts out something fresh, because I am one of those loyal fans that buys everything they put out and it’s nice to share. But my buddies? Sometimes I am met with malaise.

Last year when Rush put out Caravan and BU2B as a sneak from the new album just released, Clockwork Angels, the tunes went over very well with my friends.

It was much more like the ‘classic Rush’ we grew up on, meaning loads of bitchin riffs played in unison, complex arrangements, and well, kick ass musicianship!

Rush seemed to set that all aside for a long time to focus on ‘songwriting.’ And they succeeded at writing some super catchy tunes but we all longed for a return to prog insanity. We got that a little bit on Vapor Trails (along with a very muddy mix) and even more so with Snakes and Arrows, an album I still love. I also see it as a stepping stone album back to full on prog.

Which brings me to Clockwork Angels. All I can say about this new Rush album is that they are not bullshitting around. This is a full on prog-fest concept album with everything you loved about 70s era-Rush. Long, complex songs, lyrical narrative, screeching vocals, bitchin drumming, wicked guitar, pummeling bass and even Taurus pedals.  Yeah baby!

And I just read that the album has has entered the SoundScan/Billboard 200 at #2 with sales in excess of 104,000 units, matching the highest chart debut of their illustrious 38-year career. Fuck Yeah!

The album starts out with two songs most Rush fans already know because as I mentioned, they came out last year as a digital single, and the band played them on its last two live stretches: Caravan and BU2B. But they have both been remixed to fit the overall sound of the album and I have to say that I like these mixes much, much better. The sound is separated better and is less complex. The drums in particular sound fantastic.

Next up is the title track which took a bit of time to grow on me but is now a keeper. The fourth track, The Anarchist, is a great combo of newer heavier Rush a la Vapor Trails or Snakes and Arrows meets the most Hemispheres riff since Hemispheres (complete with chorus effect on the guitar and Taurus pedals underneath). I actually could call that riff “Jacob’s Brother’s Ladder.”

Not to slam everyone over the head with heavy prog for an hour, there are a couple of breathers on Clockwork Angels too. The songs Halo Effect and The Garden are gorgeous numbers laden with acoustic guitar, nice vocal melody and even strings. In fact there are strings on a lot of the album – not keyboard samples but a real string section recorded at the tail end of the project, according to articles.

I also saw that the tour, which kicks off in September, may actually employ a ten-person string section to augment the many songs from this album they anticipate playing. And since they are paying for ten more people to go on tour, Rush is talking about adding strings to some older stuff too. I can certainly see them bringing back a song like Marathon, which had strings on it in the first place. Maybe we get an acoustic Tears (from 2112)? Well, a guy can dream…

But back to the review here. So I am saving the best for last. For me the sweet spot of Clockwork Angels is found in track 7, 8 and 9. Track 7, Seven Cities of Gold, is hands down a new Rush classic. It has a recurring 70s-era riff, a catchy-assed chorus that at one point skips ONE BEAT just to make sure you are paying the hell attention, and a great lyrical theme – the Spanish who first came to the Americas thinking there were cities of gold. They would return home saying, we could just barely see it in the distance but never made it there – so we have to go back. Great fuckin Peart handling on that theme. But this is the song that gets stuck in my head.

Track 8, The Wreckers, ought to be the next single. This song is pretty accessible. Meaning, it’s very straight forward and doesn’t flip beats and time signatures all over the place. Also, it has one of my favorite Rush choruses in the last 20 years, when it repeats "all I know is that sometimes you have to be wary..." backed by what I am sure are good old Taurus pedals.

Track 9 is a much longer piece called Headlong Flight, and all I will say here is that the solo section sounds like a Cyngus freak out. This one is a real return to the prog form, but with the knowledge, skill and balls that the band possesses after playing together for 35 years.

The thing about Rush is that they keep getting better. I went back and listened to A Show of Hands (late 80s live album) and compared to today, they sound pretty scrappy. I know that is a shocking thing to say but when Neil Peart re-learned his drumming technique a few years back, it really did push the band into a whole new, more feel-driven era. I think that is also why it is so fun for them to bring back older songs and perform them the way the play TODAY. Big, big difference.

So anyway, I love this album more with every listen. I’d say if you want to Spotify before you buy (and do please buy), dig tracks 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 and see what you think. There is a theme and story that runs across this whole album making it their first album-long concept piece. I have not made time to figure out what the story is but I have to say, the songs all stand on their own anyway. It’s killer and is going to be PUMMELING live.

Here is the official video for Headlong Flight: