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Columnist Rob Palladino reviews the new Rush album, Clockwork Angels

By Rob PalladinoJune 1, 2012

THE MUSIC ROOM

Rob Palladino
Rob Palladino is a drummer, editor and writer. He’s been playing drums for 30-odd years, has been part of bands that no one has ever heard of but he is really proud of, has recorded, toured and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

He is currently listening to Alison Krauss, Rush and Slipknot, but not necessarily in that order or at the same time.

Rob has lived in many wonderful places. Most recently in Austin, TX, the self-styled “Live Music Capital of the World” and home to SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the much more relaxing and enjoyable “Austin Kite Fest.”

He is living in a small, pleasant, nondescript town in Essex… at least for now.

 

Having never been to an album play-back at a studio before – apart from bands that I’ve played drums with – I was greatly looking forward to this particular occasion.

Angel Studios - Studio One

Angel Studios in Islington, north London, has a reputation of being one of the finest recording facilities  in the capital, so it seemed only natural to hear the new Rush album “Clockwork Angels” in such a venue.

In studio one – a beautiful room with superb acoustics and a massive set of church organ pipes climbing the back wall –  sat rows of seats for the assembled music press to hear it just one time and come up with a review.  The ever-friendly Ben, from the PR company throwing the bash, explained it to me as simply being down to piracy risks and sheer financial concerns/restraints.

Still, it’s no easy thing to hear a Rush album once and give it the hearing it always deserves, and actually needs, if you’re to truly give a fair and balanced opinion.  Here goes though…

“Clockwork Angels” sees Rush return to the concept album field with a vengeance.  The last release of that nature for the band was 1978’s “Hemispheres,” which was the 18 minute conclusion to the black hole space opera “Cygnus X-1” from the previous “A Farewell to Kings” album.

After the physical and emotional burn-out that recording “Hemispheres” caused the Canadian trio, they made the very conscious decision to drop any future thoughts of concept pieces from a great height.

So, whilst the next 20+ years were full of albums where the band consolidated their writing and arranging into, by Rush standards anyway, more bite-size 5-6 minute chunks, most fans often spoke loudly and often for Rush to record a full blown concept piece one more time.  With “Clockwork Angels” the fans have at last had their collective wishes fulfilled.

This time, however, rather than just 18-20 minute suites (ala “2112”), Rush have produced an album that is not only a distillation of their early and new approaches to their writing and arranging, but is a rip-roaring songwriting success.

There is not only, as you’d expect, the staggering musicianship that Rush have always delivered, but there is also a true ensemble feel to the songs on this album.  Rather than playing seemingly against each other – as untrained ears often hear them – they are serving the songs and simply delivering what  they need.

The story is set sometime in the future using a “steampunk” (you can look that one up!) motif.  It chronicles a young man’s journey across this dark world “lit only by fire.”  Drummer/lyricist Neil Peart drew from “a lifetime of  reading” to complete his story – using works by Voltaire, John Barth, Daphne du Maurier and Cormac McCarthy for inspiration.

The album opens with two songs that were released two or so years ago – “Caravan” and “BU2B” – and  although there are minor changes, in terms of sonic additions to both, they get the album off to a blistering, crunching start.

At this point, since I’m writing this a few weeks after hearing the album, things get a little fuzzy, and from now I’m relying on my hurriedly scrawled notes…

The title track is up next with its subtle, rhythmic verses, and triumphal choruses.  It’s one of those songs that sounds typically familiar Rush, but there’s something different about it as if the band, as always, are entering new territory. 

The next two songs are absolute standouts.  “The Anarchist” is a driving, forceful and rhythmically insistent song.  The wonderful, eastern European melody, including an almost Kansas-like violin line, mixing comfortably with some great riff-play from Alex Lifeson, along with a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Zeppelin album.

The jaw breaking “Carnies” follows, and it has some truly brutal riffing.  Again, however, Rush infuses even it’s heaviest moments with a wonderful melody amongst the drive and force – those last three words, I notice from my notes, keep popping up.

“Halo Effect” is the first really gentle moment on the album.  It features some very pretty acoustic guitar work from Lifeson, with an almost “In The End” type of feel to the opening bars.  It’s a short-lived break, however,  as one of the true highlights of the whole opus is around the corner.

“Seven Cities of Gold” is quite simply superb.  With Geddy Lee issuing a funk bass without mercy, add to a soaring riff, this song is like something from the first album, with a late 70s feel.  It’s a dominating, towering piece, that is the best thus far by some distance.

The mid-nineties indie rock bounce of “The Wreckers” bucks the heavy trend, and is one the poppiest points on the album, whilst recent single “Headlong Flight” is back to heavy feel and is a hybrid mix of “By-Tor& The Snow Dog” and “Bastille Day.”

The brief vignette “BU2B2” is almost reminiscent in feel and effect of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Wish Them Well” would sit quite comfortably on either one of the “Roll The Bones”or “Counterparts” releases, with it’s accessible, gentle pop twist.  Although I have written in my notes that it also has a “Bacchus Plateau” (from the 1975 “Caress of Steel” album) feel to it, which I’ll look out for when I next hear it…

The final song on the album is the masterpiece of the entire thing.  “The Garden” is a 24 carat epic.  The gentle, acoustic opening – which reminded me of “The Sphere” the final part of “Hemispheres” – is only the beginning of a song that builds into a string-driven thing of sumptuous beauty.  A piano echoes a loneliness and maybe hints at a sad end to the journey but, in any case, this is a moving and majestic way to end what is bound to become a Rush classic.

“Clockwork Angels” is an album recorded by a band that is almost into it’s fifth decade together, and by the very fact that it could well be their finest moment, not to mention achievement, is absolutely astonishing and no small tribute.

Put away your preconceptions and go buy it. You’ll not be disappointed.

Rob Palladino
1 June 2012

 

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