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: