Clockwork Angels really got me thinking. What IS it that makes a band ‘prog’? You see, the Canadian legends definitely used to be a prog band, with all the musical trappings and worst excesses of the genre, but at least since the 90s they’ve seemed to me to be ‘just’ a quality hard rock band – a hard rock band with some of the world’s greatest living musicians in their ranks, doubtless, but sometimes I wonder if their kimono-ed past unfairly colours peoples’ perception of what it is they ACTUALLY do these days. That said, prog is a broad church by definition, despite what some prog fanatics would have you believe, and Rush are very much elder statesmen of whichever branch of guitar music you prefer to label them under.
That experience manifests itself throughout this latest album – Geddy Lee’s vocals are of particular note in that regard. Always idiosyncratic and frequently maligned by many, Lee sounds truly confident and settled in a way that he hasn’t in a couple of decades. Songs like ‘The Anarchist’, ‘Carnies’ and the title track display a man comfortable in his ability to carry challenging melodies over some of the heaviest, most assured backing this band have wrought to date. Speaking of that backing…
Nick Raskulinecz’s production on Clockwork Angels is a masterstroke. Pushing Lee’s bass guitar to the fore and Neil Peart’s drums into the red pays vast dividends for the sheer drive of these songs, which enables Alex Lifeson’s guitar to inhabit a more rounded, less-brittle area of the soundscape and lends the whole album more of the breathtaking power of a Rush live show – for a band regularly touted as ‘the ultimate power trio’, their albums have sometimes lacked a real sense of just how visceral their music is in a live environment. Not so here – Clockwork Angels is HUGE, with much more of a dense modern rock sound than long-time Rush fans may be initially comfortable with. I hope this is how all Rush records will sound from now on – put simply, it’s weighty and beautiful, and lacks not a bit of the all-important detail.
The individual performances on this record are spellbinding – I singled out Lee’s vocals earlier, but they’re by no means the only thing that sets this apart from a huge swathe of their other material (and indeed, most other rock bands). Everything here is glorious – Peart’s drumming is the most natural, unforced and loose-limbed it’s ever been, Lee’s bass is thunderously lithe and precise, and Lifeson’s guitar is a tour-de-force of textural mastery, hard-edged riffing, delicate acoustic work and transcendent, spontaneous soloing. The usual selection of Taurus pedals, orchestration and synths underpin and accentuate, rather than dominating as they have done on other records, and there’s even a sneaky theremin on ‘BU2B’. All of this instrumentation is nothing without songs, of course, and Clockwork Angels contains some of the best ones the band have written in over twenty years – ‘The Wreckers’ genuinely brought a lump to my throat on first listen and still chokes me up if it catches me unawares, ‘Headlong Flight’, ‘The Anarchist’ and ‘Carnies’ are the kind of hard-charging rockers that nobody approaching 60 should still be able to write, whilst ‘Halo Effect’ is the most affecting piece of balladry Rush have penned since ‘Closer To The Heart’.
Is it prog? I don’t really know. It’s certainly progressive in the truest sense of the word – pushing the boundaries of what you’re supposed to sound like way into your fourth decade as a band, exhibiting a rare restraint and taste in playing for the song rather than simply jizzing technique all over the place (which has long been a feature of their work, to be fair), and not being afraid to try new things is surely the very definition of what ‘prog’ is meant to stand for. Doing that whilst sounding this modern, this self-assured, this relevant? The jury’s out. What I do know is this: Clockwork Angels is my favourite of their albums since 1985′s Power Windows and objectively their best work since 1981′s Moving Pictures – welcome back Rush!