Album Review: Rush’s First Concept Album Is All About the Hard Rock

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Yes, they still matter. They always did.

Rush’s 20th studio album, Clockwork Angels, justifies the recent uptick in hyperbole about their historical relevance. More importantly, it establishes once and for all that they have left most of their contemporaries in the dust by remaining vital. Indeed, with several subtle and not-so-subtle visual and audio nods to their own past, Canada’s kings of prog have capped off two years of fanboy high-fives with a full-length concept album (their first) that is truly “one for the fans.”

But the album has mass appeal as well. Over the course of the last ten years, Rush has nearly perfected an emotional delivery that so many progressive-rock bands have eschewed in favor of the cold, glass-and-steel hallmarks of the genre. In case you hadn’t heard, Rush has “gone through some stuff,” and they are all approaching the big 6-0. So the songs and themes are more universal; the search for one’s place in the world, wanderlust, the quest for re-invention, one’s relationship with a supreme being. And drummer/lyricist Neil Peart wraps these concepts in a loose steampunk-inspired travelogue that is neither over-indulgent or too clever for its own good. It’s a thinking man’s record written with everyman appeal.

Musically, Clockwork Angels may be Rush’s riff-heaviest album in decades. Guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee lock in early in the first song “Caravan” and Peart keeps the tempo up for almost the entire 65 minutes. Lifeson’s solos, which had been sorely missing on previous albums, are of the classic screech-and-dive variety and he is a master of avoiding the well-worn cliché. Lee’s dog-whistle vocals, long a deterrent to many casual observers, are now a little weathered. His approach to vocals, in sync with the maturity of Peart’s lyrics, say more about his ability to adjust on an emotional level than they do about his inability to hit the high notes. Lee’s bass playing remains the stuff of wonder – and he is plowing new roads throughout this album. And what does one say about Peart? His legacy long secure, Peart’s voluntary rebirth as a solid hard rock drummer seems to be complete. His comfort zone is now in the groove, and his bandmates seem to revel there. No longer having to rely on the “wow” factor, Peart is still a master — albeit one whose mastery lies in his ability to dial down the percussive rhetoric.

The dynamics and emotions soar towards the middle of the album. “The Anarchist” and “Carnies” both hark back to Rush songs past. Lee’s vocals practically yank both songs upward, delivering some of Peart’s most superb couplets in years – “A missing part of me that grows around me like a cage” (“The Anarchist”) and “Sometimes the angels punish us by answering our prayers” (“Carnies”). Further on, “Headlong Flight” is a high-speed adventure set to music. Lee, while delivering the albums best vocal, is also challenging his bass to a street-fight for the entire seven minutes, and Lifeson’s all-too-short solo is the stuff of legend. Peart punctuates it all with trademark fills, never losing sight of the prize that is the song’s racing pulse. The penultimate “Wish Them Well” feels much like a late-80s Rush track, with its wide-open chord progressions making way for a beautiful ascending arpeggio and its uncharacteristically personal lyric (“Thank your stars you’re not that way / Turn your back and walk away”).

Clockwork Angels is an almost granite-solid rock record with more than palatable prog overtones. There are no complex time signatures or rubber-burning tempo changes. The longest song is under eight minutes. Some questionable production techniques quite literally clutter up the album’s sound – it’s as if there is a layer of ambient noise under the music for atmosphere – but it’s more disorienting than it is enveloping. But this is Rush re-energized. Having earned the title of “the world’s biggest cult band,” they have long been free to follow their muse. Now, it seems they are quite content to be a seriously muscular hard-rock trio with an emotional backbone. If you’ve avoided them in recent years, or dismissed them beyond “Tom Sawyer,” consider this: Rush is still standing these 40 years on. And it’s because they continue to make exciting, interesting, intelligent rock that you can crank up in the car and drum along to.

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