By Martin Popoff
The always resolute and steady inventors of progressive metal who comprise Rush return with a splash and a smash of a tour to come with what is the band’s proggiest record since “Moving Pictures,” possibly heaviest since then, and, most surprisingly, its first start-to-finish concept album. “Clockwork Angels” is what the fans have been asking for for years, and it’s what incurable Rush head producer Nick Raskulinecz finally dragged out of the guys, from the drums up. Raskulinecz worked with the band first on the half-measures but happy “Snakes & Arrows.”
Story-wise, Peart has thought this one through nicely, with overriding input from Geddy, who compelled him not to be too, too specific with plot. The result is an abstract, slanted and enchanted overview of a tale that places rueful meditations concerning the march of time in Victorian steampunk environs, one that will spring to life as the band hits the road and dazzles us with another state-of-the-art stage.
So, rather than have to deal with a very linear story, and therefore songs that depend too much on one another, the listener can sit back and watch his own life slip away second by second, hourglass and wineglass in hand(s), while rocking out to the quite bizarre music Rush has nailed and bolted and glued together to support Peart’s very high concept. The back track is fully up to the challenge. “Clockwork Angels” unfurls surprise after surprise, evocative of the most eccentric creases of British prog from the ’70s, namely Riff Raff, The Alan Bown, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and at least “Relayer” from Yes.
In that spirit, the songs on “Clockwork Angels” are long; parts and passages are many and unexpected; and there’s often a dark, rainy vibe that crosses the dateline of the ’70s into post-punk. But both the prog and the post-punk transform (as if through alchemy, one of the album’s themes) into a one-of-a-kind form of Rush heaviness. It’s kind of “Counterparts”/“Test For Echo” in vibe, mostly due to Alex Lifeson, who is perennially too restless to do anything ordinary, but also thanks to the very bassy mix to the rhythm section.
In any event, what we get is a bunch of near heavy metal and still a high level of claustrophobia gauzing up the lighter arrangements, which makes even those baffling passages feel like a weird sort of symbolic metal. “Seven Cities Of Gold,” “Carnies,” “Headlong Flight,” the sprawling title track ... there’s lots of this exotic metal munching going on to tip the album toward pounding, aggressive and rhythmic as its core persona. Clockwork Angels may become the most beloved and giddily accepted Rush album since furtive debate and camp-baiting started back at “Signals.”