2012-08-23

Album Review: Rush's "Clockwork Angels"

Rush stands alone in today's music world. They are, perhaps the one and only "dinosaur rock band" that not only still releases new material consistently, but continues to release new material that their fans actually look forward to.

Consider what that means for a moment. While other artists as old as Rush have either long since disbanded, refuse to write new material in favor of touring on their laurels (Rolling Stones),  or release material that pretty much no one looks forward to (Aerosmith), Rush continues to put out extremely strong material that their fans happily devour as if it were still Rush's "heyday." In that case, what is a heyday, anyway? It may very well still be Rush's heyday by fan standards.

The buzz around Clockwork Angels has been that it is the band's best-ever release. With press like that, it is hard to enter the critical listening process without any expectations. But Rush has a way of jarring the listener every time he/she presses "play" on a new Rush album for the first time. Clockwork Angels is no different in this regard. From the first notes of the lead-in track, "Caravan," the album hits hard and informs the listener that this will be another characteristically different Rush album. How a band this old can continue to grow and develop as musical artists is beyond me.

A few things stand out to me as being important developments for the band.

First, many of the songs are down-tuned. Whether this is for the sake of Geddy's aging voice or a deliberate decision to give things a more modern heaviness, the impact is major. This deepening of tone is further amplified by what to me are some of Geddy's best-ever bass tones. Over the course of Rush's career, they have not always been the heaviest of bands. The kind of hard-hitting heaviness familiar to fans of the Caress of Steel or 2112 era have not heard true heaviness from Rush in decades. Those old Rush fans may not find the heaviness they're looking for on this album, but there is no denying that this is the heaviest Rush effort in a long time.

Second, the many interacting sonic textures on this album are above and beyond even the best of what Rush has recorded before. The booming heaviness is there, but interspersed with all that grind, there are delicate guitar and keyboard tracks, acoustic guitars, clean-toned guitars... All of these textures interweave themselves through each of the album's twelve songs. The term to employ here is ear candy. For my money, this album contains the most pure ear candy of any Rush album to date.

Third, the band is flexing their songwriting chops on this album above and beyond many of their previous efforts. Each song contains multiple song sections, often very different from each other, that manage to fuse tightly together into some extremely strong songwriting. It takes years of experience to be able to put together songs like this. Rush has the skill and experience to pull it off. It is almost as if they can succeed in any songwriting direction they want to go, at any point in any song.

Well, enough of the love-fest. The album does contain weak points. One major weak point is Geddy's aging voice. At times, it simply isn't strong enough to pull off the vocal lines he attempts. It never reaches the point where he sounds bad, but there is a fatigue in the voice that makes the listener a little wistful for the kind of performance that make their mid-70s albums so awesome.

Another weakness - and admittedly, this one is personal preference - is that the album's story/concept at times interferes with the appeal of the lyrics. At times it is difficult to understand whether the lyrics are advancing the album's plot or delivering an important metaphor (or both). Rush has always been a band that placed a strong emphasis on lyrical content. In this case, I feel that the songs are serving double-duty as stand-alone rock songs and concept album story-pieces. While I can't say that the lyrics ever really turn south, I can say that many lines simply leave me confused as a listener.

For me, the high point of the album is the song "Carnies," which amply demonstrates all of the band's greatest strengths, from brilliant songwriting and composition to instrumental virtuosity. A close second is "Halo Effect," which sits in the tradition of prior Rush songs like "Half the World," but still manages to raise the bar in terms of writing.

Overall, this is another great album from one of rock's most enduring bands.