A new album from Rush is invariably one of the most exciting events to grace any rock calendar and, having had my socks suitably blown off by the raucous Headlong Flight, and been tantalised by the prospect of a full-blown concept album in the offing, my anticipation levels soared to even greater heights than usual this time around. I couldn’t resist treating myself to the utterly indulgent Classic Rock fan pack – which I can heartily commend to Rush geeks everywhere – and have since been immensely grateful to have a brave new musical world at my fingertips, to withdraw into at my leisure from the inevitable disappointments of Euro 2012.
I should say right off the bat that this is not to be regarded as a conventional review; Rush albums take years to unfold their secrets, so please think of this merely as a modest sketch of my first impressions. Nor will I dwell overmuch on the conceptual aspect of this opus, save to say that it encompasses the classic Neil Peart themes of self-liberation, the imperative to pursue one’s individual destiny against the forces (hard and soft) that would constrain us, and the ultimate affirmation of the value of life. It is certainly worth sitting down with the lyrics and snippets of narrative that adorn the booklet while listening – a thoroughly absorbing experience – and I await Kevin J. Anderson’s companion novel with interest. At the same time, many of the songs on the album, notably including Headlong Flight and Wish them Well, have universal applications and can stand apart from the storyline with perfect ease.
And so to the music. More than anything, I think that Rush fans will be swept away by the sheer grandiosity of this album – a defining quality that is reflected not just in the creative ambition of the project as a whole, but in the expansiveness of the compositions and what I can only describe as the generosity of the playing, from all protagonists. While opening tracks Caravan and BU2B (brought up to believe), first streamed in 2010, will already be familiar to hardcore Rush fans, they sound fresh and exciting in context on the album, and set the tone for what is to follow, with their confident panache and insistent hooks. The hotly anticipated epics that the guys had promised – Clockwork Angels, The Anarchist, Seven Cities of Gold and The Garden, each weighing in at over six and a half minutes (Headlong Flight is over seven minutes long, but doesn’t feel like an epic: more of a full-frontal aural assault) – are marvellous in the original sense of the word; you can’t quite believe that what you’re experiencing is real. They are sweeping and compelling after the fashion of vintage tracks like 2112 and Xanadu, and also imbued with an emotional sweetness that accords well with a tonal warmth that has seldom been so prevalent on later Rush albums (kudos to producer Nick Raskulinecz). It seems almost superfluous to praise the quality of the musicianship on a Rush album, but I have to observe that Lifeson’s lead playing on this one is quite devastating; the solo he pulls off to take The Garden into its home stretch is surely one of the most sublime of his career. And that song in particular will certainly take pride of place in the Rush pantheon when the dust settles; I love the way Lee’s voice sounds against the simple chord progression, played at first acoustically to take the band right back to their roots, with its Led Zeppelin III overtones. The melodies, at first lazy and laconic, take on an heroic grandeur as the song builds to its emotive climax; along with such grand gestures, I also find myself charmed by so many smaller sparkling accoutrements – the way Lifeson’s guitar shadows the vocal line on the pre-chorus of Wish them Well, and his ringing chords answered by Lee’s bass flourishes on The Wreckers, in a way that strongly recalls Test for Echo (the album), to these ears. The latter, along with the short and sweet Halo Effect, merits special mention simply for being a beautifully written song.
My journey with Clockwork Angels has only just begun, but I feel that I can assert with confidence that it must be reckoned the second great album of this year (along with UFO’s Seven Deadly). Like UFO, it seems that Rush were determined to make a career-defining gesture with this one, and they have proven themselves more than up to the task. It is a measure of their graceful maturity that they succeed in ending on an uplifting note, in a minor key; hope is what remains to be seen.