When Canadian rock trio Rush's self-titled debut was released in 1974, liking the band as a teenager was a risky proposition.
On one level, there's nothing about the band's essential makeup that should render them off limits to the cool kids. Rush was a progressive, hard-rocking band influenced by Cream and Led Zeppelin as much as by Deep Purple, and thusly accepted by my Blue Oyster Cult- and Black Sabbath-loving friends.
But on another level, Rush was something else: a thinking man's band, with cerebral lyrics steeped in fantasy, Ayn Rand Objectivism, and science fiction. The band was all about complex, shifting rhythmic changes, multi-movement song structures (considered by your average teen as classical music-oriented and, thus, less cool), and a nasally singer, à la Yes — in other words, nerd territory for the The Hobbit-reading and Dungeons & Dragons-playing set ostracized to a far corner of the schoolyard.
It was a fine line to walk for the awkward teen, and 2112, with its epic 20-minute title track, or Hemispheres, complete with the gripping "La Villa Strangiato" instrumental, were more likely heard (on 11, naturally) on the home hi-fi, the one in your room, than on nights out cruising with friends.
But the breakthrough — and Rush's biggest commercial success — came with Moving Pictures, in 1981. The album offered the quintessential car fantasy of "Red Barchetta" and the free-spirited rebel in "Tom Sawyer." Suddenly, Rush wasn't simply for the geeks. Rush was for everyone.
Like Ayn Rand protagonist Howard Roark, guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, and drummer/primary lyricist Neil Peart weren't content to let the spotlight shift their focus away from doing whatever they felt like, a singular dedication to their own artistic direction. Thirty-plus years later (and 44 years since the band formed), the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling band has spent time erroneously dabbling in reggae, was synthesizer-heavy for a spell, and frequently indulged in lengthy, album-filling instrumentals (and they've mostly moved away from those Objectivist ideologies). Through it all, they blazed their own path. Rock radio quit playing the new singles, but it didn't matter. Rush's fans, like the band itself, remain fiercely dedicated to high-energy, challenging music for blue-collar rockers and analytical music lovers alike.
Clockwork Angels, Rush's first album of new material in five years, follows in the band's signature mood-swing style, opening with the driving, near-metal force of "Caravan" and "BU2B," staples on the recent Time Machine tour. Both songs sport stinging guitars, pounding drums, and forceful rhythms among alternating time signatures. Along with the similarly styled "Carnies" (about the dark side of carnivals), the tracks are throwbacks to the band's earliest output from the self-titled debut (before Peart joined, making the "Holy Triumvirate" complete).
But there's trickier fare, too: "The Anarchist" pushes the prog intensity with searing guitar licks, thunderous bass, eerie strings, and haunting vocal interludes, while "Halo Effect" takes the edge off with acoustic guitar rhythms and leads, perfectly complementing Lee's high vocal reach. "The Garden," bolstered by acoustic tones, is backed by strings pushing the intensity, but the strings never overpower the vocals or Lee's insistent bass. The title track opens with a call-to-prayer-like wail and warbling guitar before rumbling with earthquake force.
Though the band is known for its conceptual single-song storytelling, Clockwork Angels captures Peart's lyrical vision over a 12-song cycle that explores the protagonist's dreams though a vivid landscape steeped in steampunk and alchemy. The main character also encounters a mysterious carnival, hidden cities, pirates, anarchists, and "a rigid watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life," claims a press release. Given the storyline for Angels, there certainly is a weighted feel from beginning to end.
Clockwork Angels also was novelized (and released in September) by science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson. But for Rush fans, it's the music that matters. With Clockwork Angels, the band proves more than up to the task of challenging listeners on all levels. At this stage, one no longer has to choose rocking or thinking about the music. Instead, it's easy and acceptable — no matter the age or awkwardness — to do both.
What more could a music fan ask for?