In the beginning of Beyond the Lighted Stage, the 2010 film that documents the rise of progressive rock legends Rush, KISS’ Gene Simmons succinctly describes the band’s sound by saying, “What kind of a band is Rush? They are Rush.”
Simmons was talking about Rush’s music, but he was also explaining why the band has been able to endure changing trends in the music industry.
Rush has always been exactly who they are, from their self-titled debut in 1974 to Clockwork Angels, released last week. The new album displays Rush’s unique chemistry; bassist/singer Geddy Lee, drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson have never sounded better. The songs are layered but infinitely listenable, even for a casual listener; gone are the days of the band releasing long-form pieces like “2112” and “Cygnus X-1 Book II.”
But the new record does tell a story. Clockwork Angels is a concept album about a young man caught between the forces of order and chaos in the world. While traveling across worlds of steampunk and alchemy, the young man encounters lost cities, pirates, anarchists, and a Watchmaker who controls it all. Sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson and Peart have announced that they will be releasing a novelization of the new album, which begs the question: How many drummers write novels in their spare time? Not many.
On Clockwork Angels, Rush goes for the jugular immediately. “Caravan” plays off an aggressive, descending guitar riff from Lifeson. Lee’s bass playing is thick and high in the mix, and Peart drives the song, as usual. The chorus showcases the poetry of Peart, who wrote the apt lyric, “In a world where I seem so small, I can’t stop thinking big.” Rush thinks big on Clockwork Angels.
“BU2B” is next, and like “Caravan,” was released as a single in 2010 and debuted in concert during the band’s Time Machine tour. Starting with 2002’s Vapor Trails, Rush has moved to a more aggressive sound, and “BU2B” is no exception. It is fast moving and powerful, and Lee’s vocal delivery is as urgent as ever.
As a lyricist, Peart has always been smart and thought-provoking. “A Passage to Bangkok” from 2112 described his nomadic lifestyle at the time, and “Subdivisions” from the Signals album describes the boredom and loneliness that comes with being a teenager.
The title track from Clockwork Angels, as well as “Headlong Flight,” provoke thoughts, too. Most notably “How is this 59-year-old man still able to play drums like that?” Time signature changes, lightning quick fills, Peart can still do it all; however, he doesn’t overdo it. Peart’s playing always serves the song.
But Rush knows when to slow it down, as well. “Halo Effect” begins with Lee singing over an acoustic guitar; the song then turns into mid-tempo pop, complete with a string section and what sounds like a mandolin solo. “The Wreckers” is an epic song complete with lush orchestration. It lends itself to cinematic treatment in a summer blockbuster, but Rush would never do that. “The Garden” is the perfect track to close the album. A melodic ballad with a signature Lifeson guitar solo in the middle, “The Garden” would be a great note for the band to go out on.
Of course, only the band knows how much longer they will continue to make music. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Peart said he doesn’t see himself having the stamina to play at his current level in ten years.
If this is it for Rush, they’re truly going out at the top of their game. They are writing powerful, relevant music; Lifeson himself recently told Rolling Stone the band is planning to play most of Clockwork Angels on the next tour. They are the only band of their generation who can get away with that.
The way the band has endured all these years goes beyond the three band members, though. Rush can play a lot of new material live because of their fans. Rush fans are passionate and accepting of different kinds of music (they are also patient; the band’s albums after Signals and up to Counterparts were spotty, and smothered in electronic drums and keyboards). In many ways, Rush fans are just as unique as the band itself.
Rush fans believe in the band, even if institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame don’t. For some reason known only to the voters, Rush still hasn’t been inducted into the Hall. Maybe it’s the lack of bona fide hit singles. Maybe it’s Geddy Lee’s voice. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame Rush isn’t in the hall alongside great rock bands who influenced them, like the Who, the Beatles, Cream, and, of course, Madonna.
But, really, who cares? Rush has just made one of the finest albums of their forty-year-career; that’s something the Rolling Stones can’t say. Clockwork Angels is a stellar album, and hopefully there’s more to come. And if the band decides to call it quits after this tour, they’ve left a legacy that shows it’s possible to do things your own way and succeed.