Sound — 7
Rush return with their millionth studio album, "Clockwork Angels", the follow-up to 2007 smash hit, "Snakes And Arrows". "Clockwork Angels", on paper, seems like the album Rush fans have been waiting for since the early 80s: guitar-centric progressive rock concept album and a return to the sound of their 70s albums. Okay. It is very guitar-oriented, and I'll even give it "prog", but it sounds nothing like "2112"'s classic metal groove, or "Hemispheres"' chordal madness. There's pretty much no synth on the record. For the most part, the songs stick to one time signature (exceptions being "Caravan" and "Headlong Flight"). Other than that, it's pretty much "Snakes And Arrows Part 2". The guitar grooves are slow, atmospheric, the bass carries more of the melody, the drums are pretty decent but not bombastic like classic Rush. Geddy's vocals are still low like they have been for the last couple decades. The album opens with two tracks you're already familiar with. "Caravan" doesn't get much of a facelift for "Clockwork Angels", presented pretty much exactly the same way as it was released two years ago. "BU2B" (which stands for "Brought Up To Believe") has a new intro simply tacked onto it. When we get to the third track, it finally feels like we're listening to a new Rush album. And it's a great track, with a ton of instrumental layers and interesting chords. There's a brief "blues" section in the track which is just really cool, and I wish it had lasted longer. "The Anarchist" brings us back to the late 70s a bit with a riff that sounds like it could have been lifted from "Permanent Waves". The end of Alex's solo is really cool with its Arabic scale. Alex has always been an influence on me as a guitarist, but if this were the only Rush album I had discovered, I would change that, because his playing is kind of mundane on this record. He just doesn't crank out many riffs or solos we haven't already heard a thousand times from him. "Carnies" continues from the pace of "BU2B", a hard rocker with low E5 chords. The chorus is deliciously atmospheric. The bridge/solo section sounds like every other Rush song of the past decade, though. "Halo Effect" is the first track where things get a little different. Here, we're treated to an acoustic ballad that would not sound out of place on just about any album by any alt-rock band of the last thirty years. The chorus is, well, remember "Armor And Sword" from "Snakes And Arrows"? Sounds like the same progression/style. Like, a direct ripoff. And then Alex busts out the mandolin for the solo... Which sounds exactly like another mandolin solo on their previous record. "Seven Cities Of Gold" redeems itself a bit by opening with one of the most funky bass riffs I've heard from Geddy in a long time. The rest of the song suffers from the same plodding self-plagiarism that the rest of the album faces, but that intro bass riff was nice. "The Wreckers" is actually so poppy that it's one of the most lovable tracks here. The chorus is just wonderful. I know, I've been talking crap up to this point, but there are still great moments like this on "Clockwork Angels". But that chorus melody is so Rush-like, yet so... Un-Rush. We follow this nice diversion up with "Far C-"... I mean "Headlong Flight". When I first heard this song, I hated it. They pretty much aped the "Bastille Day" riff, tacked on "Far Cry"'s E5 chords, and made a pastiche of a "Permanent Waves" guitar riff, let Alex wank mindlessly for a minute, and called it a day. Three riffs. Seven and a half minutes. Nothing new or original. Next. "BU2B2" is a string-driven interlude with the melody (sort of) from "BU2B". Another one of those "cool diversion" tracks that is ultimately way too short. "Wish Them Well" continues the style of pretty much every other song on the album, which if you've heard any Rush album since "Roll The Bones", needs no explanation. Finally, we made it to "The Garden". This song deserves its own paragraph. Hell, it rightfully deserves its own review. While up to this point, we've only had "meh, boring" material and "this is kind of nice but still meh", this track is a good song. A legitimately good song, and something different for Rush. There's not much precedent for this song in Rush's discography, except maybe "Resist" from "Test For Echo", but even that song isn't very close. This one is a dark acoustic ballad. The only sad song on the record. The whole song is just beautiful. Even though the verses sound pretty generic, they blend with the rest of the song well and don't drag the quality of the song down with it. The piano adds a lovely touch. Even Alex's solo takes on a somewhat more anthemic quality than his other solos on this record, which all just feel like he had an uncreative day at the studio and decided to just play "anything". It's the perfect closing track for a concept album by Rush. Production-wise, there's little to complain about here. Everything sounds clean and clear, though the guitar is quite hard to make out sometimes, but that's just due to the fact that Alex keeps his high B and E strings open for about 97 percent of it. The bass is quite upfront on this record, and Geddy wastes no time in playing the crap out of it. Neil's drumming sounds great after all these years, but it seems like he's no longer interested in being the "best drummer in the world". Which is fine by me, he's already proven himself a million times over. Sound gets a 6.5 or 7 out of 10 for me.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrics tend to be one of Rush's strong suits, naturally. What may intrigue listeners is that this is the first FULL concept album from Rush. Yes, yes, I know, they flirted with story concepts on all their 70s albums. But those were single tracks on albums with other songs that had no conceptual connection. This one is a full narrative story. I think. Reading the lyrics gives a sense of theme, but doesn't really feel like the band is shoving a narrative down our throats. The closest we get to that is in tracks like "Caravan": "In a world lit only by fire Long train of flares Under piercing stars I stand watching the steam-liners roll by The caravan thunders onward To the distant dream of the city The caravan carries me onward On my way at last, on my way at last" I mean, honestly, why else would one sing about steampunk blimps? The concept of the album has to do with a person who just wants to live his life free, to the fullest, while some dictatorial guy known as "The Watchmaker" imposes precision and order on this steampunk world. But some of the lyrics, like a lot of Rush's work, can be taken out of context and mean something completely different to someone else, like "BU2B", which introduces the lifestyle in this world of Victorian invention: "All is for the best Believe in what we're told Blind men in the market Buying what we're sold Believe in what we're told Until our final breath While our loving Watchmaker Loves us all to death" But the song also makes a pretty strong case for anti-religious sentiment. There really are no bad lyrics here. But like the music, you do get the feeling that it's all been done before, by Rush, in the past. I almost would have preferred a character-driven narrative to this, as it would have been different. Geddy's singing is decent. His lower register gets used almost exclusively here, but he does try to reach high notes again, like in "Headlong Flight". But again, it all sounds like recent Rush. Lyrics get an 8/10. Creative as usual, but a bit too "usual".
Overall Impression — 7
Honestly, my overall opinion of this record is lower than I hoped it to be. When I heard things about "epic, multi-parted pieces" and "concept album", I honestly expected Rush were reinventing themselves once again, and not only did they fail on that regard, they gave us "Snakes And Arrows Part 2", complete with no fewer than probably 20 riffs that could have been directly lifted from that album, "Vapor Trails" or "Test For Echo". While there are definitely good tracks on the record, like the genius "The Garden" or the epic title track, for the most part, "Clockwork Angels" is the same old stuff from Rush. For a band that made a point of complete reinvention every few albums or so, it's disappointing to see how Rush has stagnated over the past 15 years. Once one of my favourite bands ever, Rush has become one of those bands I no longer care about. I'm not looking forward to their next album unless it promises to be completely different, with the formula of Rush stripped down to bare essentials and rebuilt completely differently. So the standout tracks here are definitely "Caravan", "Clockwork Angels", "The Wreckers", and the wonderful "The Garden". Other than that, Rush are the best King's X tribute band out there right now! Overall impression of the album is 7/10. Good effort, but nowhere near the epic scale of past Rush albums. I even put up with "Snakes And Arrows", because I believed that "Clockwork Angels" would put it in its place. Rush may not have lost a fan because of it, but I'm certainly no fanboy anymore. Rush, you guys had better absolutely wow me next time.