It’s a great factoid to pull out during a night of music trivia: Rush, the preeminent progressive rock band of the 20th and 21st century, only has a single concept album to their name.
That can’t be correct, right? What about some of their most famous albums? 2112 is an epic about freedom of choice and personal identity. There are two, count ’em two, books to the ‘Cygnus X-1’ series. Caress of Steel, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres… surely these are concept albums?
Well readjust those glasses, because no they’re not. It’s true that all of those albums have epic, mostly side-long songs that tell a cohesive and conceptual story – Fly By Night has ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’, Caress of Steel has both ‘The Necromancer’ and ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’, 2112 of course has the title suite, while A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres each have a single book of ‘Cygnus X-1’ between them.
But while those albums either start or end with epic sagas, they also have stand-alone songs filling out the rest the albums’ respective runtimes. Even though they made a conscious effort to ignore their record company’s requests to think more “commercially”, Rush still made sure to include shorter songs that had hit potential on their LPs. Even though ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Closer to the Heart’ didn’t make major splashes on the charts, they were still compact and tuneful like any good rock single of the day was.
It took all the way until the band’s final album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, for the band to fully commit to an album-long concept. At first, no one in the band was initially interested in an full concept album, deeming it too cliched and too indicative of their ’70s prog rock peers. But as Neil Peart continued to flesh out the story, he felt confident that the band could pull it off. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson continued to flesh out more compositions, and before they knew it, the band had over an hour of material for their new LP.
Along with producer Nick Raskulinecz, the trio spent a few months in 2011 completing the recording process. Taking place in a steampunk-inspired future, Clockwork Angels follows its central character on a journey of growth and maturity, encountering wild carnival workers, pirates who tempt him with full cities of gold, and a malicious figure known as The Watchmaker along the way. By the end, our protagonist comes to a realisation during ‘The Garden’: “The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect / So hard to earn so easily burned”. He learns that cultivating experiences, perfecting his own garden of loved ones and skills, is more important than anything else.
As the band’s final statement, Clockwork Angels is a phenomenal, and phenomenally heavy, record. As close as they ever came to returning to their progressive metal heyday in the mid-1970s, Rush brought in detuned guitars and heavy instrumentation which made for a surprisingly aggressive experience. But the tenderness of the journey’s finale was one that not only acted as a perfect summation of the album, but of Peart’s entire career as a musician and lyricist. It might not have been intended as a farewell statement, but it’s been lovingly reinterpreted that way by a large segment of Rush’s reverent fandom.