Like a comet on the far fringes of the Milky Way, Rush appear on the great telescope of popular culture only sporadically. They’ve spent the past 40-odd years happily plotting their own course away from the eyes of the mainstream.
Recently, though, the Canadian trio have found themselves engaging with everything they’d previously run away from. The 2009 documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage rightly saluted them as one of rock’s original frontiersmen, with celebrity fanboys such as Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan lining up to ladle on the love. This led to Rush appearing on US comic Stephen Colbert’s top-rated chat show, which pushed them further into uncharted territories.
And so, as Rush return with their first record in five years, and their 20th in total, both their stock and their profile are higher than ever. Whether the wave of goodwill spurred them on while making the album isn’t clear but, if the end result is anything to go by, it certainly hasn’t done them any harm. Clockwork Angels doesn’t sound like the work of men entering their fifth decade as a working band. Where their last few albums have felt like triumphs of intention over execution, this one finds a band not just firing on all cylinders, but also doing a very good job of sounding more relevant than ever before.
The two teasers they handed out last year as part of Record Store Day, Caravan and BU2B, are representative of the album: taut but inventive, intricate yet never flashy. Both appear here, opening the album in a punchy one-two. Of the pair, Caravan edges it thanks to the way it hops between a muscular, circular riff and wide, chiming spaciousness in a heartbeat, though the admirably cynical BU2B – or Brought Up To Believe – is crucial to the album’s concept.
Ah, The Concept. The lyrical spine of Clockwork Angels is apparently a tale written by drummer Neil Peart and inspired by both the steampunk movement and Voltaire’s 18th-century French satire Candide. They’ve roped in sci-fi author Kevin J Anderson to help out with the conceptual heavy lifting via a spin-off novel that will presumably spell out what’s going on. That will be useful, given that it’s not especially clear what Clockwork Angels is actually about. There’s some stuff about watches and anarchists, and a nagging feeling that it’s all about being a tiny cog in some vast celestial machinery.
There’s even an unlikely nod to Daphne Du Maurier in The Wreckers, a freewheeling homage to the 60s rock the trio grew up listening to. Beyond that? Answers on a postcard. Thankfully, Clockwork Angels isn’t a slave to its concept; the songs are the master here. This is never more evident than on the title track, which corrals at least half a dozen different musical ideas into its seven minutes without ever sounding like it’s showing off in front of its mates. The fact that it’s topped off with a spring-heeled chorus shows a band with total and utter confidence in themselves.
Conceptual leanings aside, Clockwork Angels isn’t a prog album. Of course, the musicianship is impeccable, but it’s never showy. They keep a lid on extending songs beyond their natural life; only three songs exceed the seven-minute mark. And Neil Peart has never sounded looser or livelier as he races around his drum kit. It all adds up to a clear-sighted, modern rock record. And it’s a terrific-sounding one, too – copper-bottomed but crystal clear, dense but light of touch. The Eastern-tinged flourishes that weave through the muscular The Anarchist enhance rather than overwhelm it; there’s a tangible warmth to the exuberant Wish Them Well, the album’s most uplifting moment; and the ringing chords of The Garden provide a suitably stately finale to the whole show.
Kudos here to co-producer Nick Rasckulinecz, a man whose motivational skills are clearly matched only by the band’s own willingness to be motivated. There are echoes of Rush’s past – you can catch a sniff of Bastille Day here and an echo of Working Man there, but it looks forward far more than it looks back.
So, is Clockwork Angels the best album of the year? It’s too early to tell. The best album Rush have made? It’s up near the top. The sound of a band who are entering their fifth decade more confident than ever before? Undoubtedly. And that, more than anything else, is the mark of true greatness.
This review was originally published in Classic Rock 172, in July 2012.