Clockwork Angels, while musically strong, isn't anything revelatory given the high bar Rush set for themselves in the prog pantheon. Conceptually, however, it's the strongest progressive rock concept album since Dream Theater's Scenes from a Memory.
I think it'd be uncontroversial to suggest that we'll never see the likes of 2112, Moving Pictures, or Hemispheres ever again. As talented as Rush may be, it's hard to climb back up the pinnacles that have come to form the landscape from which modern progressive rock's biggest outfits have sprung. Dream Theater's popularity would be severely diminished if the proficiency of Neil Peart's drumming hadn't been the progenitor of Mike Portnoy's. And while the complex, suite-structured tracks Rush are famous for have been done by earlier greats like Pink Floyd and King Crimson, classic cuts like "La Villa Strangiato" remain integral to prog's history. That song's subtitle, "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence," has for better or worse become the MO of many prog rock bands. The high importance Rush has had for for this genre, while placing the group in a position of high regard, has also cast a dark shadow over its post-eighties releases. After peaking as marvelously as these Canadians did, where can they go? They could try to improve on their central formula, but that risks repetition. They could throw out the playbook and do something crazy, but that risks alienating longtime fans as well as ignoring what made them successful in the first place.
Fortunately, Rush have stuck to the fundamentals for the majority of its later recordings. They've chugged along admirably, never being forgettable nor enthralling. Their last studio outing, 2007's Snakes & Arrows, was good but not great. One thing it did, however, was signify an important fact of this aging band's career. Given the heavy adoration from their fans and the prog community as a whole, no matter what they put out people would continue listening. We may not expect another 2112, but the mind-blowing virtuosity of Lifeson, Lee, and Peart never ceases to impress, and for many as long as the trio kept doing what it did best, there'd be no complaints. As a result, when I heard about this new album, I expected my reaction to be the same as it was for the majority of Rush's recent work: I'd give it a listen, be impressed by a couple of tracks or so, but ultimately go back to the classics. Even though the group may have had a post-gold-era career far better than Lynyrd Skynyrd, they get the calls for "Free Bird" at shows just the same.
But with Clockwork Angels, Rush have escaped these trappings of late-career complacency. For this twentieth LP, the trio has opted for the timeless prog convention: the concept album. They're no stranger to this format, having mastered it many times before. But while Hemispheres this isn't, it's an engrossing story; Peart's lyrics are the best they've been in a long time. The proliferation of prog bands worldwide has made concept records a dime a dozen, but these old dogs have breathed fresh air into this well-worn format. Clockwork Angels, while musically strong, isn't anything revelatory given the high bar Rush set for themselves in the prog pantheon. Conceptually, however, it's the strongest progressive rock concept album since Dream Theater's Scenes from a Memory.
The story of Clockwork Angels centers around an existential crisis of sorts. The setting is a futuristic, steampunk-esque world, the center of which is the majestic Crown City, where the Watchmaker presides over his creation. The character of the Watchmaker, a reference to Christian apologist William Paley's teleological argument for the existence of God, is the site of Peart's biggest lyrical exploration here, namely the battle between human will and determinism. As the unnamed protagonist journeys from his humble village to Crown City in search for greater meaning, he finds himself crushed under the weight of society's prolonged quest for understanding divinity. This is a society rife with conflict, here embodied by the titular contrarian of "The Anarchist". Throughout the story, a recurring character called "The Pedlar" stops by to ask the central question underlying the protagonist's quest: "What do you lack?" To this, the Anarchist responds: "Vengeance." The domineering force of fate is met by the unquenchable thirst of boundless rage, reaching its climax during a nearly devastating encounter at a carnival on "Carnies". This tumult, along with a long voyage overseas that culminated in a ferocious storm on the return home, are the impetus for the collapse of faith the protagonist comes to on Clockwork Angel's shortest work, the string-backed "BU2B2":
Belief has failed me now
Life goes from bad to worse
No philosophy consoles me
In a clockwork universe
The same question that has been posed by struggling religious believers for millennia repeats itself here: what point is there in living, if all one has done and ever will do is predetermined? This potentially crushing conflict is captured by the heavier first half of the record, the driving riffs of "BU2B" and "Carnies" being two key examples. However, rather than go the way of the Anarchist and living life apophatically, by the things one is against, the protagonist instead opts for hope. A clear shift happens in the final four tracks of Clockwork Angels, wherein Rush opts to focus on the introspective and the optimistic. "All that you can do is wish them well," the protagonist realizes on "Wish Them Well". Humanity ought not be defined by its excesses; we shouldn't strive for a world of complete control or chaos. Instead, as shown in the gorgeous closer "The Garden", we should focus on "the way we live and the way we give." With these conclusions, the narrator's journey comes full circle, as instead of arriving at highfalutin theological declarations, he discovers the truth is something meant to humble. The lessons brought to him by Crown City are no more valuable than the important truths he had from his modest beginnings.
This story is what makes Clockwork Angels such an important release for Rush. The strong themes and narrative arcs reveal a freshness in the band's songwriting I haven't heard in a long time. If you focus solely on the music, you won't find much that distinguishes Clockwork Angels from Rush's greatest feats. Sure, Lee's ability to hit those high notes while managing to run his fingers up and down the fretboard is impressive, and Lifeson's guitar solos are ever-difficult, but you know that about Rush. But through taking their requisite musical skills and channeling them into a story with real depth, they've produced the best LP they've made in over twenty years; I can easily see this attaining a cult following amongst devoted fans. This record is one that doesn't merely rely on flashy displays of musicanship and portentous song structures; there is a depth to Clockwork Angels that demands attention beyond a casual listen. Reading the liner notes and analyzing the story are an absolute must to appreciate what's going on here. Best of all, in doing so you're likely to discover a real vitality in Rush, one I think fans new and old will find to be a real breath of fresh air. We're two years away from Rush having existed for forty years, and it's with great pleasure I can say they haven't lost their stride yet. It may be hard to recapture the glory days, but for musicians as talented as these three, it isn't difficult to keep putting out quality material.