Clockwork Angels
Listening Review

by Michael Channing

Michael Channing listening to Clockwork Angels by Rush

Rush's Clockwork Angels came out in June of 2012, half a decade after the disappointment of their ho-hum Snakes and Arrows album. When I finally held Clockwork Angels in my hand, it was with some trepidation that I slipped it into the CD player. As much as I needed more material from Rush, I needed even more for it not to suck, and the guys had already proven their fallibility.

My fears quickly fell away. It's a monster of a record. For the first year, it lived in my car, rarely leaving the CD player. This is one of the heaviest albums I've ever heard, right up there with Tool and Pantera. I'm not kidding. There are some mosh-worthy songs here. Geddy's bass is ultra amplified to reach right out of the speakers and punch you in the gut. Is this the same band that once half apologized for their jazz-synth fusion style of the 80s? The intensity gives way to ballads for the last couple tracks, but even those have their searing moments. The two best songs are "BU2B" and "The Anarchist." They slam hard and do not let up from the second they start.

I keep reading reviews that dismiss the steam-punk aspect of the lyrics as hokey or juvenile. I will admit that fleshing out a science fiction or fantasy world in song is not a simple thing to do. It would be easy to focus on laser battles or sword fights and end up with a plate of cheese, but there is no cheese in this album.

Take the first song as example. "Caravan." In it, the protagonist tells how he dreams of one day traveling to the big city. He steals aboard a steamliner and leaves his home to meet the unknown. What's a steamliner? Doesn't matter. The song is about reaching beyond the safety and predictability of your hometown, about traveling headlong into the exotic and aligning your dreams with reality. This easily could have been a Springsteen song about a restless youth hitchhiking to California. There's a line--"going where I want instead of where I should"--that I want tattooed on my heart. The steampunk trappings don't stand in the way of the emotional depth of the songs. They just give us different images to illustrate our feelings.

The weakest song, at least lyrically, is "Carnies." The protagonist arrives at the city and watches a carnival, takes in the sights and sounds of this vibrant, exciting new place. Then the Anarchist frames him for a crime, and the crowd turns to a mob and advances on our innocent hero. In a movie or book, this would be an important, necessary turning point in the story. But on an album, where the plot is painted with broad strokes, focusing on a particular single incident seems weird. It's out of place, but the music is awesome, and it does have one great line: "Sometimes the angels punish us by answering our prayers."

While the actual story is vague--as it should be--the emotional arc is nearly perfect. From the first uncertain steps of a frightful journey through a city of wonderment, we have heartbreak, adventure, joy and pain, betrayal and forgiveness, and at the journey's end, our hero rests and tends his garden while measuring his life not by the amount of treasure he's gained, but the amount of love and respect he's earned. The sweet drumming, evil guitar solos, and absolutely brutal bass lines make the trip a blast almost all the way through. Every journey contains a few missteps, but Clockwork Angels strides true for most of its length, and the sonic scenery is gorgeous.

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