Clockwork Angels

(Roadrunner; 2012)

By David M. Goldstein | 4 July 2012

With all due to respect to your deft brand of R&B pop single craft: fuck you, Usher. Your callous decision to release Looking 4 Myself on June 12th cost Rush their first Number One album. It’s the closest they’ve come since October 1993, in which those cockblockers in Pearl Jam doomed Counterparts (1993) to second-best status by releasing Vs. the same week. As of this writing, Rush currently hold the top slots for “Rock Album,” “Hard Rock Album” (because Rush is HARD), and (natch) “Canadian Album.” But as Geddy Lee once intoned on the Hold Your Fire (1987)-era song “Mission,” “It’s cold comfort, to the ones without it.” Still, a Number Two slot for the 19th studio album from a 38-year old band that’s (almost) never suffered a lineup change? That’s…unusual.

Prog-rock dinosaurs aren’t supposed to age this gracefully. Options are usually left to weathering the years by going through numerous line-up changes to the point of being practically unrecognizable (King Crimson, Yes); masquerading as a band, but really serving as a revolving door for one man’s vision (Jethro Tull, one could say Smashing Pumpkins); or cold-heartedly parting ways with their lead vocalist and carrying on with the name for no apparent reason (Queensryche as of last week, Yes yet again). Rush may have picked up a different drummer one year into their career, but the same three guys responsible for 1975’s Fly By Night are the exact same ones behind Clockwork Angels. Granted, the hairy bro-cult prone to interpretative man-dancing at the live shows never left, but Rush never used to sell out arenas as quickly as they do now or to quite this extent. How the fuck did this happen?

General knowledge points towards two motion picture spectacles of 2009: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, a fine music documentary that one not need have been a rabid fan to enjoy, and I Love You Man, a legitimately funny Paul Rudd movie in which Rush is the bedrock of Rudd’s burgeoning “bro-mance” with Jason Segel. There’s lots of aforementioned man-dancing at the concert scene where Rush are ripping through “Limelight,” while Rudd’s girlfriend, played by Rashida Jones, looks on, more in abject confusion than horror. It’s alarmingly realistic.

From Technically Pristine Nerd-rockers to Everyman Survivors, the ensuing paradigm shift was undeniable. And give Rush credit for milking their newfound vindication for all it was worth: they embarked on the wildly successful “Time Machine” Tour, featuring all the hits, cult nuggets, and their seminal Moving Pictures (1981) album (the “Tom Sawyer” one) in its entirety, and in 2010 they even released a two-song single with no parent album attached (though both eventually ended up on Clockwork Angels), a not entirely rare practice amongst younger bands but bizarre behavior coming from a trio of near 60-year-olds.

But all of this action was merely an appetizer leading up to the recent release of Clockwork MF’ing Angels, a 66-minute, honest-to-God concept album, something they haven’t really attempted since 1978’s poindexter touchstone Hemispheres. Hilariously pushing the outer limits of their newfound fame, their “plot” is a loose narrative about a young man’s journey through a steampunk-ish world lorded over by an evil watchmaker, with sojourns to an even more evil carnival. Don’t forget the really evil “Wreckers” that construct phony lighthouses for the purpose of looting the ships that inevitably crash. Like the storyline in Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life (2011), to which Angels has been oddly compared, don’t think about it too much. Rest assured it’ll all make more sense in the forthcoming illustrated comic book (yup).

Oh, but is it any good? Provided you already own at least seven of Rush’s eighteen prior studio albums, then yes. Clockwork Angels is way less leaden than 2007’s highly questionable Snakes & Arrows, and generally gives fans plenty of what they crave, which is muscular riffage buoyed by constantly shifting time signatures and bright choruses far sturdier than they need to be. Geddy Lee in particular sounds like he hasn’t had this much fun since the late ’70s. The man’s bass lines are now placed high enough in the mix that’s he’s essentially playing it as a co-lead instrument, with a thoroughly heavy, albeit charmingly elastic tone suggesting a semi-automatic weapon firing superballs. Vocal-wise, he’s miraculously still managing to sing in the same mid-range he adopted in the early-‘80s: far higher and more elfin than the average human, but incapable of hitting those ’70s-era dog whistle notes.

To the extent that Clockwork Angels has issues, they can largely be placed at the feet of producer Nick Raskulinecz, the kind of dude who looks like he’d probably be working overtime at Guitar Center if he wasn’t producing Rush (and Deftones and Slipknot) albums. Despite having been around over four decades, Rush have generally valued loyalty with their choice of producers, the lions’ share lorded over by relative nobodies with names like Terry Brown and Peter Collins, both known for little else aside from producing Rush (and in the case of Collins, Queensryche) albums. Peter Collins was arguably the best guy behind the boards they ever had, valuing separation between instruments and minimizing both overdubs and compression; his production is the reason ’90s Rush efforts like Counterparts (1993) and Test for Echo (1996) have aged as well as they have.

So I propose Rush fans mount a Facebook campaign to hire Collins to remix Clockwork Angels. Raskulinecz can’t help himself, giving Rush the ‘00s brah-metal treatment, and compressing Angels to within an inch of its life. The mastering job doesn’t suffer from the inexplicable clipping and static issues that plagued 2002’s Vapor Trails, but there’s simply no room to breathe in here, especially once the late album string arrangements, courtesy of David Campbell (aka Beck’s dad), come in. Hasn’t Death Magnetic (2009) taught you hesher fools anything? Plus, whatever his value as a “producer,” Raskulinecz could have stood to be more of an “editor,” questioning the cut-and-paste nature of some of the riff progressions and kindly suggesting that six-minute songs needn’t be six minutes long. A better man might have pointed out that “Carnies” uses the exact same riff as “BU2B,” and it’s called “Carnies,” so it does not justify its existence, or that trifles like the thirty second acoustic blues interlude on the otherwise gnarly title track serve no purpose.

But I kid because I love. No amount of production dross can obscure the fact that Clockwork Angels still constitutes the strongest collection of Rush songs since the mid-‘90s. The tempos are brisk, the riffs varied, and it’s pretty damn clear that Rush are proud of, and seriously thought about, this thing. Alex Lifeson’s lowdown riff in “Seven Cities of Gold” nearly approaches Band of Gypsys levels of bad-assery, and most of the majestic title track really does fly as high as the angels it invokes, with Lifeson slyly referencing “Pinball Wizard” while Neil Peart shifts seamlessly between 4/4 and 6/8, as is his wont. “The Wreckers” and “Wish Them Well” are fine pop moves tailor-made for lording over the AOR station on Sirius/XM, even if they don’t benefit from Lifeson busting out the mandola, like he does on “Halo Effect.”

The blatantly obvious filler that’s plagued recent efforts, songs with riffs as lazy as their titles (“Good News First,” “Bravest Face”), is noticeably absent (save “Carnies”). And it’s a pleasant change of pace for Neil Peart’s lyrics to be used in the name of telling a fantastical story as opposed to the “ripped from the headlines” approach he’s taken over the past few years. While the man was always adept at espousing self-reliance and a particularly Rand-ian worldview, his heavy-handed attempts at tackling homeland security, the blowback from modern technology, and OJ Simpson have been far less successful. Simply put, it’s a kick for longtime Rush fans to see their heroes so intent on making relevant albums at an age where most of their peers have long ceased doing same (or should have). Given their advanced age, and now customary five year gap between albums, it would not surprise me if Clockwork Angels was ultimately Rush’s last hurrah. As both a career summation and quality effort, it would be an undoubtedly fine way to—to borrow the title of their best live album—_Exit Stage Left_ (1981). But before they do that, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a bust-out of Signals (1982) track “Countdown” on the forthcoming tour. It’s in keeping with the theme of flight that Clockwork Angels entails, in addition to being the Best.Song.Ever.Written about witnessing a space shuttle launch.