For the spoiler conscious (to the degree a rock album can have spoilers!) I'll put my comments on the lyrics and "story" below a cut at the bottom.
Before getting into the music, I must mention their use of alchemical symbols on the album cover. They've always catered to their geeky fans with stuff like this, but this goes above and beyond! Each of the 12 songs gets a unique symbol whose alchemical meaning resonates somehow with the lyrics. The full set corresponds to the clock-face in the image above, too. (Notice that the time on the clock is 9:12? If that's PM, then it's 21:12!) I was happy to see a few that I was considering for my April A-Z posts on symbols, so, yeah, I'm the target audience, here. In the liner notes, it gets even more geekily complicated, with a nested inner ring of 8 symbols surrounding an even smaller ring of 4 symbols (the four elements, I think), surrounding a central core that's divided into two halves (day/sun and night/moon). We'll be analyzing that quite a bit, I think!
The band has been lauded for getting back to its prog-rock "concept album" roots with Clockwork Angels, but I'm not sure how much that extends to the actual music. They do some stretching by bringing in some guest instrumentalists (strings and piano) as well as a BIT of flirtation with the synthesizers of old (e.g., some almost psychedelic sound effects on the title track). But, overall, I'd say that 80% to 90% of the music is straight guitar, bass, and drums, and the style wouldn't be a surprise to people familiar with their last two studio albums.
The composition and execution of the music is technically flawless (as far as this non-musician can tell). For dudes who will soon be celebrating their 60th birthdays, they're still in top form. However, there's one thing that prevents me from truly lavishing complete praise on the music. I think many people may recognize that you can split up Rush albums into two distinct time periods:
- Phase One (1974 to approx 1991): The era in which they knew how to write good, singable melodies.
- Phase Two (1991 to present): Um, not so much.
But, for me, the music is secondary. It's really about the mind of this guy:
|Professor Pratt Narpet|
You're here? Awesome! Yes, there's a single story running through all 12 songs. They haven't done that in decades. Also, I was amazed to hear that in September there will be a novel published that fleshes out this story in more detail. Despite my problems with this story (see below), I'll definitely be reading it.
Initially, I was a little worried about the originality of the story. The first song, "Caravan," reminded me a lot of "The Analog Kid." The second song, "BU2B," reminded me a lot of the Temples of Syrinx part of "2112." Even if you're reading without yet hearing the album, you may already figure out the start of the story from that information: An innocent kid yearns to leave home and see the wider world, but oppressive authority figures (here, led by "the Watchmaker") are there to make problems for free-thinking people when they venture out on their own.
But no worries about Neil plagiarizing his own earlier work. The successive songs go off into all sorts of new and interesting directions. We hear of mechanical steampunk wonders, Guy Fawkes-ish anarchists, creepy carnivals a la Dr. Lao, and alternate universe El Dorados. Like many long-running RPG campaigns, it's a picaresque adventure that, in the end, shouts out to Voltaire's Candide when the protagonist settles down to tend his garden of happy memories.
But, at the end, for me there was a gaping hole. When the anonymous pedlar asked "What do you lack," I had one specific answer:
Yes, we in the real world must often swallow our pride, turn the other cheek, and be mindful of the logs in our own eyes. (How's that for a trio of facial-themed metaphors?) It would drive you crazy to get worked up over EVERY injustice or try to right EVERY wrong. But when a villain as insidious as the Watchmaker is set up at the beginning of a story like this, I'm not content to just "wish him well" for the sake of the protagonist's sense of sanity.
Okay, maybe I'm not at that point of inner peace where Neil Peart abides. I still want to see the redeemed Prince By-Tor defeat the Necromancer. I want to see the apotheosis of my namesake Cygnus, the god of balance, who teaches silly Apollo and Dionysus the errors of their extremism. I want to believe (yes, there's Fox Mulder again) that the death of the guitar-discoverer in 2112 wasn't in vain, and that the elder race of man really did return in the end to knock some Syrinxish heads.
So, I'm waiting for that novel. Maybe the songs just skipped over some key events in a more complete and satisfying story. Maybe sci-fi author Kevin Anderson will temper Neil's ahimsa with a little butt-kicking. And hey, maybe the novel will explain more about those alchemical symbols!?! :-)