Music Review: “Clockwork Angels” – RUSH Turns Back the ‘Clock’

2012 is shaping up to be the year of the dinosaur. First we had a reconstituted Van Halen successfully conjuring the magic of the past. Then the Beach Boys put aside their family squabbles and delivered a 60’s sounding album that proved Brian Wilson’s genius is still intact. Later this year Aerosmith promises a “ROCKS”-esque throwback album of their own. And this week we get the 19th studio album (20th if you count a 2004 covers disc) from Canadian power trio RUSH.

The difference, of course, is that RUSH never really went away, consistently releasing albums for the past 38(!) years. Nevertheless, everything about “Clockwork Angels” is a deliberate attempt to remind long time fans why they loved this band in the first place. Producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Paramore) is clearly one such fan and pushed them to make a full blown “concept album” in true 70’s prog-rock fashion. Even the cover art reflects this turning back of the clock, literally with a clock face reading twelve minutes after nine pm (or in military time, 21:12).

Musical nods to past glories abound in ‘Headlong Flight’, one of 3 songs to exceed 7 minutes in length, while the title track has shifting time signatures and their trademark briskly syncopated rhythms. Guitarist Alex Lifeson has emerged from the textured shadows with his heaviest, most straightforward guitar sound in decades, reminding listeners on ‘Wish them Well’ and ‘Seven Cities of Gold’ that he can still nail an extended solo spot if needed. And while Geddy Lee’s vocals are in a lower range than his ‘Mickey Mouse on helium’ heyday, it is still an acquired taste. His bass playing on the other hand is as fluid and muscular as ever and provides the backbone of most of the tracks here.

Drummer Neil Peart seems to be playing with more warmth and feel as opposed to the cold precision of the past yet is still a technical marvel that continues to stymie and inspire wanna-be’s the world over. Lyrically, the concept is some sort of steam punk travelogue set in a dystopian future controlled by an evil watchmaker (Or Something. We’ll know more when the accompanying sci-fi novel comes out this fall!). But rather than just a walk down memory lane, RUSH still finds time to carve out some new territory.

‘Halo Effect’ is as close to a 3 minute pop song they will ever attempt and ‘The Garden’ ends the disc with a piano ballad that would make Coldplay proud, complete with strings and “What does life mean?” lyrics. The overly layered murkiness that doomed 2007’s ‘Snakes and Arrows’ has been replaced by a loud and clear mix that captures an urgency missing from their recent work. At 66 minutes, this is their longest opus to date but has no weak spots. A variety of moods, textures, and tempos along with a stream-lined musical approach keeps the proceedings from falling into prog-rock wonkiness.

As with all RUSH discs, repeated listening reveal deeper charms but even after one listen, the verdict is immediate: They have accomplished their stated goal and released the best album of their career. When Geddy sings “I can’t stop thinking big” on the opening track, ‘Caravan’, he is speaking for the entire band who have channeled the best of their past four decades and dropped an all-time prog classic. Long live the dinosaur!

by Michael Raleigh