Sunday, 1 July 2012

Rush: Clockwork Angels review

New album Clockwork Angels is Rush's 19th full length studio LP (most sources claim it's their 20th, but 2004's covers EP, Feedback, was little more than an otiose indulgence best forgotten...).

2007s Snakes and Arrows suffered desperately from a lack of pace and passion, it basically sounded like a classic rock album recorded by a bunch of 50-somethings. While there isn't anything drastically wrong with most of those songs (though there are certainly some poor moments, hello Larger Bowl...) it's simply an uninspired record. Clockwork Angels, on the other hand, sounds like a band reinvigorated and with a sense of purpose.

To bring up the dreaded c-word, it's a concept album, inspired by Steampunk and Voltaire's 1759 novella, Candide, which I confess I haven't read but know of. The record achieves a nice balance between marrying the lyrics as a whole albums worth of work but also not sounding out of place as individual songs. 

The album kicks off with the two songs that were digitally released last year, Caravan and BU2B, which both seem to have benefitted from either a re-recording or a remix. Caravan probably wouldn't have been out of place on Snakes and Arrows although the "I can't stop thinking big..." chorus is catchier than anything they wrote on that album. BU2B has a drive and urgency that I didn't really feel on the digital release and rather surprisingly has become an early favourite, there are some wonderful arpeggios from Alex that, when analysed in their own right hark back to some real classic Rush moments.

However, given the relative familiarity with those first two songs, you don't get that new record feeling until the title track kicks in, and is filled with some particularly furious drumming from Neil. There's a great range of light and shade on the album and the title track seems to include all of this in one song, although the band also let loose on occasion and thrash through a few heavy riffs, most notably on Carnies. Alex also seems to have upped his game a little here, his Eastern-twinged solo on The Anarchist is incredibly pleasing. 

While Rush tend to work best with some combination of intricate and (leaning towards) heavy instrumentation, they can sometimes struggle when trying to really tone it down and write a ballad or just a mellow song in general. Halo Effect tries to bridge that gap somewhat, it perhaps falls a little short as it isn't until the bridge that the song seems to demand attention.

For the moment at least, the finest song on the album is The Wreckers, which came about with Alex and Geddy swapping instruments in the writing stage, the intro reminds me of the band Ride (who excelled at that ethereal whilst also crunching guitar sound), while the verses are definitely something that Geddy probably comes up with in his sleep, it wouldn't have been out of place on his solo album, My Favourite Headache. The chorus is Neil at his best lyrically and with or without the context of the Voltaire inspiration, aims a big dig at religion (which he also tackled on S&A's Faithless) and societal norms:

All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true,
All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary of everything in life you thought you knew,
All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true,
All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary, 'cause sometimes the target is you.

Things rev up a gear with Headlong Flight, a song that they would have played about 25% slower on the previous album, If any of the band stand out in particular on this record then I think it's Neil, he mentioned recently about giving it his best while he was still physically able to, and that really comes across in the music. His drumming hasn't been this ferocious in many a year, it will be interesting to see just how physically draining these songs will be to play live. I'm tremendously looking forward to seeing them at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in October (although I am trying to make myself forget just how much the ticket cost).

The album closes with The Garden, which seems to have become a favourite among fans, but I have to confess I'm struggling with it a little bit. I mentioned earlier that ballads are not really in Rush's comfort zone and I think this is evidence of that, it sounds over-sentimental and more in the realm of dodgy AOR bands from the 80s, not a band that has just rattled through one of their best albums in 25 years (which obviously, somewhat ironically, puts us into the 80s...). It's rescued somewhat by some nice arpeggio work from Alex in the chorus and a decent solo (which comes after a somewhat nauseating bridge). If they play this live I hate to imagine all the lighters (or do people just use iphones these days) held aloft in the air, this isn't Bon Jovi...

It's not a perfect record and at times suffers from the cut and paste pro-tools method of songwriting they have had for the last decade, but for the most part the songs are focused and it's a record that is greater than the sum of its parts and one of which the band should be proud.

I am certainly in a minority when it comes to Rush fans, in that I think 2002's Vapour Trails is among the band's finest work. So while Clockwork Angels isn't quite the revelation and return to form that some are saying, it is certainly one of their best efforts from the 2nd-half of their career.

1. Caravan
2. BU2B
3. Clockwork Angels
4. The Anarchist
5. Carnies
6. Halo Effect
7. Seven Cities Of Gold
8. The Wreckers
9. Headlong Flight
10. BU2B2
11. Wish Them Well
12. The Garden

Overall score: 7.5/10