I’m not entirely sure when it happened but over the past couple of years, the seemingly, eternally unfashionable Rush have become the band that everyone seems to like. There’s certainly something to be said for sticking around for ages and there is little doubt that the Sam Dunn film Beyond the Lighted Stage showed a new light in the group but, seriously: Rush? Cool? When did THAT happen?! It doesn’t bother me (well, not much, apart from the serial gnashing of teeth and a “where were you in the 1980s??” chants) but, seriously, there really is a very special thrill when one of your favourite bands has some new music to share with you and the rest of the world. And so it proves with Clockwork Angels, the band’s latest release and one which is, surely, one of the finest of their illustrious career to date.
Let us begin with getting the headlines out of the way. Clockwork Angels is the finest Rush album in, oh, twenty years. It’s the record that you’ve wanted them to make but were secretly fearful that they wouldn’t or couldn’t. It’s the sort of record that will have fans debating for years over what the best track on the record is, what the critics will doubtless refer to as a “masterpiece” and what you and I will refer to as “the record we keep playing in our cars or our on our iPods”. It’s so effortlessly good, you will be shaking your head: not just at the brilliance of the music but the fecundity of creativity; the ambition so easily achieved. Clockwork Angels is the sound of a band so in command of their art (and, believe me, it is ART) that you can do little but lie back and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride. This is a ride of the imagination par excellence. Clockwork Angels is a steampunk concept album that is so brilliantly realised, so effortlessly delivered that you get a sense that it has been with us for years. You will have all doubtless read about the collaboration between Neil Peart and sci-fi novelist Kevin J Anderson so I won’t bore you further here so: on to the music. We begin with the scene setting brilliance of Caravan (a track aired on the last tour and one that’s been part of the band’s thinking for around two years now). It’s archetypal Rush- enigmatic lyricism, jarring rhythms but flushed through with the unmistakeable vocals of Geddy Lee who once again seems entirely comfortable in his own idiosyncratic skin.
The title track has that sense of upping the ante and setting the new benchmark; Clockwork Angels is the most obviously “Rush” track here- sprawling like architecture, busy like cities and driven by energy and intellect. The Anarchist is the first time that, truly, Alex Lifeson comes front and centre: it’s a focussed and that throws out its melodious refrain like confetti laden guests at a wedding. This brings me to Carnies which, for my (small amount of) money is one of the best songs on the album. It’s packed full of melody, much of it off beam but none of it ever discordant or out of place. There’s some pounding drumming from Peart, some brilliant guitar playing from Lifeson and some genuine singing, as opposed to vocalising, from Lee. It’s by no means a straightforward song but it is an inviting and beguiling one; one that has stuck with me long after the record had finished.
Halo Effect is the natural slowing down part of the album and it’s a languid but never lazy acoustic led track that will have you reaching for your Zippo, even if you don’t smoke. Seven Cities of Gold begins with a Lee bass led wig out before driving through into a blindingly good riff that will have you air guitaring and throwing the proverbial horns in equal measure. The Wreckers had echoes of mid period Beatles ( in their most psychedelic) but those echoes give way to a pop tune that is reminiscent of the band from around their Hold Your Fire period (and yes, you do know how good that was).
If an album was going to have a “single” then it is surely the infectious Wish Them Well. In the excellent accompanying magazine that came with my copy of the record, Neil Peart talks about the song’s origins- the changing nature of one’s lifetime friendships and how people can fade in and out of one’s life, sometimes casually, other times with greater pronouncement. The song is simple but not simplistic, bathetic as opposed to melodramatic and threaded with a chorus that is so hummable it needs a patent.
I suppose I should end with a small confession. Rush have been an important part of my life for over 25 years now so this review, whilst attempting to be objective and fair minded, is probably covered in a fanatical and entirely prejudiced filter of positivity. Please don’t let that put you off. Clockwork Angels is a fantastic, life affirming album that represents (yet) another high watermark for a band so used to watermarks that they could print their own single currency.We have become so used to music as product, as ephemera, even as white noise. It is, therefore, utterly thrilling, utterly brilliant to have a band where the narrative arc still matters, a band who understand that place where art and humanity meet: that place where your heart leaps, your head engages and the hairs on the back of your neck stand, proudly, to attention.