Wednesday June 19, 2013 | June 2013 Issue
Everyone who knows me knows that I have three bands that tie for the distinction of My Favorite Band In The World. For different reasons, two of them are U2 and Phish. The other is Rush. In fact, while U2 & Phish may inspire me in profound ways, I could say that Rush might have the upper hand in that, unlike the others, Rush can do no wrong, something they more than prove on Clockwork Angels, their 20th album, and their first in five years.
For eons, Rush always seemed to be a sort of punch-line, delivered by the cooler-than-thou, and their fans were often punching bags as well. Still, their following grew, as did their abilities and ambitions, and every few years a new Rush album found the band growing exponentially, as writers, arrangers, and players. Funnily enough, one of the most frequent pieces of criticism they’ve faced over the years was aimed toward their supposed “concept albums”, despite the fact that they’d never once recorded a concept album. Until now.
The story behind this album is one of adventure, and is in fact a sort of “road movie”. The basics: guy is born into an oppressive society where a cosmic Watchmaker controls everyone’s lives with the idea that “all is for the best”. Well, that’s not enough for our hero, so he takes off, first heading to Crown City where he eventually joins a traveling carnival, falls in love, falls out of love, embarks on a personal quest, comes up short and winds up a lonely and bitter old man, before washing his hands and riding out his days in his own contentment.
Or, something like that. Kevin J. Anderson’s upcoming novelization of the album will surely shed more light.
Put like that, it does come across as something to make fun of. The thing is, however, everything boils down to songs, and the songs are brilliant. Combined with stellar production, arrangements, and musicianship, I would not hesitate to say that this is the greatest album that Rush has ever recorded.
Producer Nick Raskulinecz uses his thorough knowledge of the band to really get the best out of them. There are times where this album recalls the band’s earliest work, like the nods to “Bastille Day” and “By-Tor And The Snow Dog” that show up in the epic, “Headlong Flight”, while ‘The Anarchist” is full of riffs and textures that remind me of albums like Permanent Waves and Signals. This is no nostalgia trip, however, and they certainly are not paying homage to themselves. Familiar sounds appear but they contribute to a whole that is unlike anything we’ve heard. The writing and arranging is complex enough that you could listen to this album 100 times and still hear something new, but is also accessible enough that it only takes a couple of spins before joining the familiar ranks of the band’s prior work. That is the mark of a masterpiece.
Now, for a quick rundown:
Caravan – opens the album on a heavy, epic tone, with the refrain “I can’t stop thinking big”. No kidding. Fans of the band’s frantic math-rock will love this.
BU2B – a spacy, bluesy intro gives way to perhaps the heaviest track on the album, a punchy tune with a memorable chorus and a deceptively cynical lyric.
Clockwork Angels – the longest track on the album packs several sorts of punches, from a Middle Eastern intro to a gliding pop rock groove, and even a middle section steeped in the blues.
The Anarchist – classic Rush, upbeat and full of the sort of riffs that made “New World Man” and “Kid Gloves” so great.
Carnies – a heavy, riff-rocker that features some downright nasty guitar by Alex Lifeson and a punchy, abrupt ending that recalls their first album.
Halo Effect – Rush takes a complete u-turn on this mellow ballad, the closest thing Rush has ever come to a “heartbreak” song. Geddy Lee sings in his lower register and is at his most gentle. This could be a smash, if it were a single.
Seven Cities Of Gold –the bluesy-rock-riff styles that recall their earliest work is propelled into the 21st century.
The Wreckers – this track is outstanding. Accessible in the verses, a dark & wicked in the middle, and one of the most soaring choruses of any Rush song ever,
Headlong Flight – this epic is the unequivocal highlight of this album. Those nods to the past are here, as well as some really solid, four-on-the-floor in the verses, and perhaps Geddy Lee’s most frightening bass work. Lifeson rips it up in the solo and Neil Peart proves that he is still an absolute monster behind the kit.
BU2B2 – a continuation of its parent track, featuring Geddy singing along with some very spooky strings. Very brief but it fits and is really cool.
Wish Them Well – musically, this recalls Test For Echo, especially “Carve Away The Stone”, though is a lot more complicated.
The Garden – hands down, the most beautiful song to ever grace a Rush album. Acoustic guitars and strings make this a most fitting exit theme.
Again, a masterpiece, made more amazing by the fact that it’s the work of a band that’s been active, and relevant, for 38 years. No one’s come close to achieving that sort of goal. Sure, the Stones made an album 43 years into their career, but A Bigger Bang wasn’t this impressive. And, sure, The Beach Boys just released a very solid album, 50 years into their career, but they haven’t made an album in decades and they’re not the most stable of units anyway. Rush, on the other hand, has had no lineup changes since Neil Peart joined the band in 1974.
Given their age and longevity, it is always possible that every Rush album could be their last. While I hope this isn’t the last we hear from these guys, if that was, I can’t think of a better way for them to go out. Amazing.
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