How many rock bands can one name off the top of their head that have released over 20 studio albums in their career? Other than some of the obvious answers like Elvis Presley, Yes, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa, etc., you likely won't have much to go by. Well, it seems another band might just pass that mark, at the rate they are going with their 19th studio release. Rush, the Canadian rock legends, have returned once again, to show us why they're still a major force to be reckoned with.
Upon first glance, one will immediately notice the album cover; an interesting picture of a clock, with alchemical symbols instead of regular numbers. Even more interesting is the time that the clock is displaying. On the first look, you may think it's simply pointing at a random time (9:12 in this case), but a second peek will quickly reveal that it is actually saying 21:12 in military time. This is of course a reference to their breakthrough album, 2112; a fan-favorite and for good reason. That release combined wonderful musicianship with some creative narrative to drive the whole thing together. At first I didn't think there was going to be much meaning behind it all, but opening the booklet put that thought to rest. Similar to the original LP jacket for the 2112 album, Clockwork Angels also contains written narrations for each song on the release. Drummer Neil Peart has gone back to work as a lyricist in ways we haven't seen in decades.
Though the band originally denied this being a "concept album," that's obviously just what we received here. The premise involves a young man's travels across a land of steampunk and alchemy, filled with pirates, a carnival, an encounter with an anarchist/terrorist, and a Watchmaker forcing beliefs and precision down the throats of others, all while searching for lost cities. This is the type of sci-fi/fantasy epic many fans have wanted to hear again since the 70's. Personally, I had given up on that notion. I never thought we'd get a project like this from Rush again, after so many years of changing direction.
The musical diversity of this album is also going to come as quite a surprise to many. The best concept albums out there can make songs that flow well together, but more importantly, can stand on their own just fine too. This is one of those feats. The first two tracks, "Caravan" and "BU2B," were previously released before, but have new mixes that leave them sounding fresh. The intro to "BU2B" is perfect, and adds a whole new layer of emotion to the song going in. Those hoping for a new "epic" track will be thrilled to hear the actual title track, "Clockwork Angels," as this one truly shows the bands creativity at top form. There are many twists in the song, as well as changes in tempo and time signature to keep you on your toes. This one actually gets more exciting with each listen instead of less. The following tracks are all of amazing variety, between the classic-Rush tone of "The Anarchist," to the beautiful finish in "The Garden," which caught me completely off guard and ended the album on a very heartfelt note. Geddy's voice has mellowed over time, but in a way that leaves him sounding more pleasant as he utters each lyric. Alex is still as good a guitarist as he ever was, and picks up the pace with Neil's complex drumming and Geddy's heavy bass playing just fine.
I never thought I'd be saying this about any band so far into their career, but after over 30 years, Rush have once again moved forward in ways I never thought I'd see. All three members are still at the top of their game and don't appear to be stopping anytime soon. Imagination has returned to rock music. I just hope the generations of today will look at projects like this, and feel encouraged themselves to start "thinking big."
10 alchemical conjurations out of 10