Rush’s ‘Clockwork Angels’ is a glorious adventure of evil, intrigue, and mystery

I wouldn’t want to be a veteran band in today’s world. I’ve been to far too many shows by bands that have deep, well-loved catalogs who try to introduce new material to their live sets only to be met with tepid applause and general disinterest from the throng in front of them that just wants them to play the hits. For as artistic an endeavor as music can be, its fans can be awfully closed minded to new things.

There’s also the argument as to whether an older band’s new work measures up to the songs people have loved for years, and yeah, a lot of times the glory days cannot be equaled or even somewhat mirrored. A peak is called a peak for a reason, and sometimes seeing a group with many albums under their collective belts make relevant new sounds is like watching an old-time ballplayer trying and failing to swing for the fences one more time. It can be a little bit sad to witness, and that’s what leads so many of us to spark those “remember when” conversations so we all can go back and relive those good times.

But there are some exceptions. Iron Maiden have put out some really good material since Bruce Dickinson returned to the fold for 2000’s excellent “Brave New World,” and their live show is a thing to behold. I’d still put it up against any young band’s performances any day of the week, and my guess is Maiden always will come out on top. Another band like this is Rush, who remain a vital, blood-pumping band more than 30 years after their formation, and they remain steady and hungry on the stage and in the studio. I saw them two years ago in Pittsburgh on their “Time Machine” tour, and it was probably my 10th time or so seeing the prog rock power trio. They blew the doors off the place, and in the process, they converted my wife to be a fan of their music. On that night, they played two new songs they promised would be a part of their next full-length album “Clockwork Angels,” and now, we finally have that new platter in our hands. It was hard to process what I was hearing that night because you need to filter everything through the noise of the crowd, the distance from the speakers, and the unfamiliar nature of the songs at the time, but they sounded promising. I had no idea just how positive they would wind of being.

“Clockwork Angels,” the band’s 20th studio album, is a force to behold. It’s their best work since the 1980s, and it easily blows away anything they’ve released since “Roll the Bones.” And there were some good things the band put out in that time, but none match the intensity, passion, and magic of this record, which I’ve been playing regularly since I got my hands on the thing. I admit Rush is one of my favorite bands of all time, and that’s always made me equally protective and critical of them, but this fantastic new album is like a promised great gift that winds up totally exceeding expectations.

Drummer Neil Peart, never one to sit on his laurels when it comes to concepts and lyrics (not to mention his god-like, influential drumming), really goes for broke on “Angels” with a concept piece about a young man who goes on a life journey, encountering elements of a steampunk world, alchemy, cities of gold, carnival folk, and just about every bizarre element you can imagine, while all is overseen by the deity-like Watchmaker, the one who makes everything tick. The story, to be adapted into a book by Kevin J. Anderson, is not very abstract, so you’ll be able to understand what’s going on, and the plotline does not take away from the musical presentation, which so often happens when bands try this type of thing.

Peart does and doesn’t string all these songs together. It’s clear you’re on a single journey, but each song is more like a snapshot of what’s going on, and while the album works better when taken as a whole, you can pull out individual pieces and enjoy them on their own. Also, in a move that is classic Peart, the themes and lessons learned on the album are easily applicable to one’s own life, so there’s a piece of yourself in these songs. Who can’t identify with a line like, “I believe that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true,” on excellent “The Wreckers,” a song so ready for radio, it had better be there by now? There’s plenty more where that came from.

Bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson also are on top of their game. Lee’s bass pops and grooves in spots and remains a steady hand along with Peart’s drumming, while Lifeson dabbles with textures, atmosphere, psychedelic rock, and straight-up gut-punch riffing that’s as meaty as anything in the band’s catalog. It’s so much fun to hear these guys playing both precisely and loosely, and I thoroughly enjoy both of their performances on “Angels.”

The albums opens with the two cuts concert-goers heard on their last tour, the riveting “Caravan” and “BU2B,” a track that’s rocks pretty damn hard and has Lee bellowing our of antagonist, “The Watchmaker loves us all to death.” The title track follows, bearing some strains of classic Rush, and while it takes some time to develop, the payoff is totally worth it. “The Anarchist” is one of the best tracks on the album, and it, too, swims in atmosphere and murk a bit but shines through with a killer hook that also should make this radio fodder for the foreseeable future. “Carnies” and “Halo Effect” are polar opposites, the former an edgy cut that visits the world of trickery and illusion, while the latter is a ballad that feels a little syrupy but ultimately works. “Seven Cities of Gold” is fun and full of exploratory imagination, even if the goal is a mirage, and “Headlong Flight” kicks back into fun, full-on rock that should ignite audiences live. “Wish Them Well” is a decent cut, one that hasn’t really resonated with me yet, though I plan to keep trying, and closer “The Garden” is a slower, life-lesson infused song that wraps up the tale with the proper emotion and weight. It, too, is a slower song, and Lee turns in some of his most unique, impassioned vocals on the entire record.

“Clockwork Angels” isn’t just an incredible late-career album for Rush. It’s one of their best front-to-back records that deserves the adulation saved for brainy opuses such as “2112” and breakthrough powerhouses like “Moving Pictures.” It’s the best of every Rush world mixed into one, and it’s an album I see myself sticking beside well into the future. I also can’t wait until the band touches down in my hometown on Sept. 11 to play live again, and I imagine these songs will take on new lives when interpreted on stage. I also imagine there won’t be any catcalls for the band to dig into their treasure chest, because what’s contained on this wonderful 66-minute journey is way too good to not want to experience in full.

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