There’s something incredibly refreshing about Rush’s continued popularity. Despite only briefly flirting with chart success and being perennially labelled weirdo outsiders with “helium vocals” and “endless solos”, Rush’s popularity has endured through shaky LPs and critical scorn. If anything, their legion of fans is larger now than at any point in the last 20 years. Prog is back en vogue, guitar solos are no longer frowned upon, and a new generation has been given the chance to watch the band’s barmy but brilliant live show.
This renewed infatuation appears to be spurring the band on. The group’s late-80s and early-90s album felt lost. Rush bent toward the transient trends of the day: crunching alternative chords punctuated Counterparts (1993) and awkward synthetic slabs sat uneasily on Power Windows (1985). Thankfully there are no contrived noughties concessions on Clockwork Angels. This isn’t to say Rush have abandoned modernism. Instead they’ve got back to doing what they do best, expanding on the tentative footsteps of Snakes & Arrows (2007) and writing a proper prog record.
A proper Rush record might be more accurate. Clockwork Angels is concept album, loosely based around the story of a man sucked into a bizarre steam punk world of ruined cities and incredible colour. The protagonist is tormented by the nominal villain, The Watchmaker, before discovering the purpose of existence on album closer “The Garden” (think Lord Of The Rings, some beautiful and poignant ideas, dragged out to an excessive extent). Rush are so committed to the concept that drummer and songwriter Neil Peart will be novelising Clockwork Angels with sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson.
More impressive than any over-elaborate concept is the freedom of Rush’s playing. Lee, Lifeson and Peart sound loose, and each track has a truly organic feel. “BU2B” builds brilliantly, skipping along and threatening a soaring explosion but holding off until the last. Lee’s bass weaves and grinds in the foreground as he attempts to match the remarkable precision and show stealing flair of Peart’s crashing flurries. Lee appears to be taking notes from Bruce Dickenson as his strained vocals possess a more grandiose and wistful tone. He may be forcing out plot exposition and lavish description but he imbues these densely packed tales with a genuine sense of fear and exhilaration.
Rush have a tendency to drag things out. Certain tracks overstay their welcome (“Clock Work Angels”) while brief genre fusing power ballad “Halo Effect” shines in large part because it is so focused and concise. “Seven Cities Of Gold” certainly feels stuck in the 70s, but when Lee, Lifeson and Peart combine they create a powerful marching rhythm that paves the way for Lee’s best vocal performance in decades.
Clockwork Angels is a bizarre proposition in 2012. A concept album that slowly unfurls over the course of an hour – continued attention is required. This is not an album that can be chopped, cropped and dissected via iTunes or be whacked on briefly during a work out at the gym. It’s an old fashioned LP, made by a funny little band who exist in their own world, and bizarrely, it’s the freshest and most immediate record Rush have released in 20 years – hell if it made sense, it wouldn’t be Rush.
Buy If: You’re willing to commit to a sci-fi enthused concept albums for 60 dramatic minutes.
Sell If: Rush were too weird for you before they decided to novelise their LPs.
Best Track: “BU2B”
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