Monday, June 18, 2012

Review: Rush's Clockwork Angels

I'm not sure if there's much of an audience here for music reviews, but this one called out to me.  Each new album by Canadian prog trio Rush has been a big event in my life since 1984's Grace Under Pressure.  Clockwork Angels is their first studio album in about 5 years, and I'm still mulling a lot over after just one listen to it all the way through. Still, I thought it worthwhile to get my thoughts down on virtual paper...

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:
  1. Phase One (1974 to approx 1991): The era in which they knew how to write good, singable melodies.
  2. Phase Two (1991 to present): Um, not so much.
I'm using 1991 as a stand-in for the time period running from Presto (1989) to Counterparts (1993), during which the melodies seemed to gradually fade away.  Does anyone else see this?  To me, it's a major seismic fault running through their career.  For some reason, the recent songs are plagued by lyrics that (though the ideas and poetry are brilliant) aren't just that suited to be melodic lyrics at all.  It almost seems like there are too many syllables in each "line" for Geddy to sing. The end result is that he can't do anything other than just modulate up and down, up and down, by little half-steps of pitch, without the melody actually going anywhere.  Certainly makes it hard to have a memorable hook to sing in the shower!  :-)

But, for me, the music is secondary.  It's really about the mind of this guy:

Professor Pratt Narpet
and please click down past the cut to hear more about what words and ideas come pouring out of that mind...

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!?!  :-)


  1. I'm not terribly familiar with Rush's catalog, so I don't have a lot of memories to draw from, but you've done a great job of explaining their personal significance for you, especially the symbols that you went on at length about during A-to-Z. I'm on the fence as to how effective Kevin J. Anderson is about conveying the literary merits of other people's creations, but yeah, you made all of this sound pretty fascinating.

    1. Thanks, Tony! I didn't know much about Kevin Anderson (why did I think he was Poul's son?), but I admit that I'm not filled with tons of hope after learning a bit more... Fingers crossed! :-)

  2. Aw, Cyg! What a fantastic post! Thank you so much for going into some detail, here. True confessions, my first exposure to Rush was when I bought 'Roll the Bones' in the early nineties. AFTER that, I began to sift through Phase One and became a solid, sold-out fan, with bumper stickers on the Prog Rock mobile (the car I've driven for the last eleven years) and at least one of Peart's memoirs on my bookshelf.

    I wonder how long it would have taken me to realize the alchemical symbol clock was dialed up to 21:12 without being clued in. :) :)

    Ah! I just looked over and saw you're reading Harlan Ellison! Far as I can tell from that thumbprint, great cover and title.

    1. I can't take credit for recognizing 21:12 on the clock... that came from somewhere out in the wild net yonder!

      I'll have to do a post on Harlan one of these days. Cranky he may be, but I think he's a national treasure. America's answer to Borges and Eco, at least. The book over on the right is one I finally found & bought used, though I'd read a library copy years ago. I think I'm up to roughly 20 volumes of Ellisoneana on my shelves.