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Music

'Clockwork Angels': Rush and their graceful bow out 10 years later

@TylerGolsen

When legendary Canadian progressive rock trio Rush were staring down what to do as they approached the end of the 2000s, a novel idea came up: why not make a concept album? The band were no stranger to concepts, with some of their most legendary albums from the 1970s containing similar epics. But the group had never done a full-album concept record before – not to mention that the group were eager to embrace, rather than hide from, their association as the biggest prog band in the world.

Neil Peart turned to his love of literature, but not towards the technological world of science fiction. Instead, a steampunk world “lit only by fire” became the setting for Rush’s new album. As Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson began conjuring up new musical arrangements, Peart began tracing the story of a young man’s journey through this dangerous world as a looming villain named the Watchmaker hangs over his every move.

It’s no understatement to say that Clockwork Angels is one of Rush’s heaviest records. With a whole horde of detuned guitars and distortion effects from Lifeson, the band get as close to their progressive-metal heydey as they ever did after the 1970s, with the only difference coming in Geddy Lee’s slightly lower vocal tone. The mix of stylistic shifts and liberal incorporation of strings gives the album a dynamic feel, but the band carries a specific sound that reminds you that all of these songs are meant to be connected.

For all its weighty concepts and head-scratching changes that remain signature Rush hallmarks, Clockwork Angels still has hooks. Take the chorus to ‘The Wreckers’, which remains one of the most impressive melodies from the back half of their career. Songs like ‘Seven Cities of Gold’ and the album’s title track balance the heavier crunch of the band’s metal leanings with lighter and more melodic fare, but the focus on individual songs and ear-catching moments is never far.

This being Rush, there are some playful moments as well. When we devolve into the demonic circus of ‘Carnies’, Lifeson and Lee delight in the angular lines they get to bust out while Peart pounds out his heaviest beat since Vapor Trails‘ ‘One Little Victory’. Lifeson’s soloing feels fresh and off-the-cuff, especially on the track ‘Headlong Flight’, where Lifeson brings a looser and more impromptu feel to the band’s compact and concise punch.

Narratively, Clockwork Angels is both the most ambitious and most wholly satisfying concept that the band ever took on. While ‘2112’ and ‘Cygnus X-1 Books I & II’ are more beloved within the band’s canon, those tracks never had the sheer scale and level of difficulty that Clockwork Angels goes after. Appropriately, Neil Peart never half-asses the major plot ahead of him, keeping the album’s central journey moving into fascinating new settings with each new song. Peart even manages to wrap up the story with a worthwhile and philosophic ending, one that continues to connect with the band’s biggest fans a decade later.

That ending, ‘The Garden’, holds a remarkable legacy within the Rush fandom. As the final song on Rush’s final album, it’s nearly impossible not to look at ‘The Garden’ as the ultimate summation of the band, especially after Peart’s death in 2020. So what is Peart’s message on the way out? That a life is made worthwhile by the connections made and trueness that one stays to themselves.

Clockwork Angels might not seem like an essential listen outside of the Rush faithful, but for anyone curious as to how the trio’s popularity only managed to grow bigger and bigger the longer they stayed together, Clockwork Angels is the ultimate illustration of Rush’s consistency and dedication to evolution over four decades. As a complete summation of their powers, Rush managed to give themselves a powerful, poignant, and occasionally transcendent send-off, staying true to themselves until the very end.

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