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Music Review: Rush: Clockwork Angels (Anthem/Roadrunner, CD)

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Rush Clockwork Angels CD

Critics and fans alike have made a big deal out of the fact that Clockwork Angels is a concept album—the first “rock opera” Rush has made since the first side of 1976’s 2112 (even if subsequent albums such as Power Windows and Hold Your Fire had loose themes linking the songs). But the big story about Clockwork Angels is that on its 20th (!) studio album, the legendary Canadian rock trio is firing on all thrusters, roaring back into action with power and substance not heard since the band’s early days.

Clockwork Angels finds Rush focusing on its core strengths: the bass of Geddy Lee, the guitar of Alex Lifeson and the incredible drumming of Neal Peart. Gone for the most part are the layered acoustic guitars that were all over Rush’s previous studio albums Test for Echo (1996), Vapor Trails (2002) and Snakes & Arrows (2007). Also minimized are the multiple synthesizers that overwhelmed the band’s 1980s output.

Instead, we get the deeper, heavier sound with little overdubbing. Lifeson’s guitars are thicker and stronger; Lee’s bass is punchy and acrobatic; and Peart plays with his usual precision but with less emphasis on the flashy fills of the past, opting for a more basic approach recalling Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham at times. Lee’s vocals—always an acquired taste—are at their most restrained and tonally pleasing, and the well-used harmonies enhance every track they appear in.

The more direct, back-to-basics approach the band takes on Clockwork Angels puts the emphasis on the songs and story, which tell of a young man making his way through a steampunk world filled with magic, pirates, lost cities, and the Watchmaker—a rigid ruler who imposes precision on society. The Orwell-meets-Ayn Rand story is nicely presented in the gorgeous booklet (designed by Hugh Syme) that accompanies the CD—plus, it’s going to be fleshed out in an upcoming full novel by Kevin Anderson written with input from lyricist Peart.

This is the kind of album that will take some getting used to before you can fully appreciate the individual pieces, but standouts include the diverse, multi-part title track, and kickass rockers like “Caravan” and “Headlong Flight.” The band also finds nice melodies in tracks like the orchestrally tinged “The Anarchist” and the softer but still powerful “Halo Effect” and “The Garden.” Self-producing with mixer Nick Raskulinecz, Rush gets a sound on Clockwork Angels that thrusts out of the speakers or headphones, emphasizing the band’s every strength.

Going from great song to great song, with blistering sound, impeccable conception and flawless musicianship at every step, Clockwork Angels is a modern rock masterpiece, an incredibly consistent and powerful late-stage effort from true masters.

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