Few bands have strived to achieve so much with one album as Rush has with Clockwork Angels. It percolated for several years beginning in 2010 when two of the tracks, “Caravan” and “BU2B,” were released before the trio embarked on an extended international tour. After production work was completed in late 2011, noted science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson announced he was writing a novelization of the album based on Neil Peart’s lyrics. That book is set for publication this September.
When the album appeared in June of 2012, British magazine Classic Rock released a “fanpack” including the 66 minute CD as well as a 132-page magazine described as the “ultimate sleevenotes” to the album. Most fans didn’t have access to that deluxe edition, but in short order they propelled Rush’s 19th album to number one in Canada and number 2 on the American Billboard Top 200.
Two months later, this reviewer finally got his belated copy and had one question in mind. By August 2012, virtually every critic had proclaimed Clockwork Angels as one of the finest, if not the finest, albums by Rush. It has been crowned by many as the likely best album of the year. Is there anything left to add to the parade of accolades cascading over Clockwork Angels?
Clearly, Rush devotees no longer need any persuading—they’ve embraced Clockwork Angels as a major achievement from Geddy Lee (bass, bass pedals, vocals, synthesizers), Alex Lifeson (guitars, keyboards), and Peart (drums, percussion). Sales to date demonstrate Clockwork Angels appeals to an even wider audience, ostensibly of prog rock fans, or even hard rockers who like Rush, but not necessarily each and every release. I believe, going even further, anyone who has any interest in rock at all should check out what is not only a serious contender for best album of 2012, but it might end up on “best of” lists going far beyond one year.
For me, listening to Clockwork Angels was akin to experiencing Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. Sure, you can pull out singles and favorite cuts from both albums, but each collection can only be fully appreciated by absorbing the full sequence of material from first to last. In fact, Clockwork Angels is even more challenging because of its hour-plus length, its musical denseness, and the relentless pace of the set. It’s exhausting. It’s like an audio movie where sonic possibilities bring together every strength Rush has. They offer hook-filled melodies with intriguing lyrical imagery that requires more than one listen to get at the heart of what’s going on.
For but one example, “The Wreckers” is magisterial, triumphant, and affirming with lines like “All I know is sometimes you have to be wary/Of a miracle too good to be true.” Such adjectives fit nearly every track on the album. Such dramatics perfectly support Peart’s concept about a young man exploring a world of both order and chaos, of carnivals and anarchists, with many allusions to illusions and the ultimate clockmaker who’s apparently in control of everything. For those who haven’t liked Lee’s voice in the past, such stories put the emphasis on what’s being sung rather than the singer who is more than suited to deliver the narratives.
For those who want it all, the literary dimensions of Clockwork Angels will presumably open even further when the Anderson book arrives in September. Still, Clockwork Angels can be appreciated for the listening experience it provides on its own terms without reliance on the supplementary material. After all, Thick as a Brick is classic listening with or without The St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser.
In the end, Clockwork Angels is another demonstration that old bands like Rush, Asia, Van Halen, and Metallica not only still have high-octane gas in their tanks, they’re still capable of work that moves beyond what they’ve done before. Whether you want to take the time to dive into the storyline and analyze Peart’s poetic visions or not, the material on the album is absorbing, often intense (in the best sense of the term), and hits you physically, mentally, and perhaps emotionally. If it’s not the best album of the year, I really want to hear the other contenders for the throne. Further, I wonder if Clockwork Angels will ultimately be measured against other concept albums from the ‘60s to the present and be found one of a very august company.