1985 was the year RUSH broke mega with their pop-prog commercial juggernaut, "Power Windows". The year also represents an apparent point of no return as RUSH broke away from their spellbinding math rock rhapsodies from "Grace Under Pressure" on back through their venerable catalog.
"Roll The Bones", "Presto", "Counterparts" and "Test For Echo" comprise the better releases from what should be labeled the ongoing RUSH Light era. Just forget "2112" except in a live setting. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neal Peart have played their roles as refined elder statesmen to the point it defies logic for them to replicate "The Trees", much as we'd salivate at such a proposition.
You're either copasetic with RUSH's recent down tempo frameworks or you're spinning "Hemispheres", "Farewell To Kings" and "Permanent Waves" with unlimited zealotry. While the deified power trio's newest offering "Clockwork Angels" resumes this present tradition of less frantic and more precise jazz-alt-prog schisms, there's a bit more of the old RUSH coming into play than has been since at least "Test For Echo".
Now don't get too giddy daydreaming about a revisit to "The Temples of Syrinx". On the other hand, RUSH does return to their conceptual writing majesty on "Clockwork Angels" to the point you almost overlook the redundant REM-like soft lofting that has pervaded their music for the past decade-plus, including 2012.
At least there's far more hammer in the mix on "Clockwork Angels", and not just from the palpable fills, triplicates and timpani of the legendary Neal Peart. The capture of Geddy Lee's thrumming bass lines haven't sparkled this noticeably at the front in a few albums, while Alex Lifeson frequently reminds why he is the most underrated rock guitarist on the planet. The swap from his luminous acoustic intro on "BU2B" to thundering electric on the track's banging verses surpasses expectation. The progressive overtures of the song in the later minutes opens channels of complex grandeur we've been desperately seeking out of RUSH for years. Thank you, gentlemen.
The storyline of "Clockwork Angels" is set as a multifaceted purpose: to bedazzle, torment and ultimately inspire a young man chasing after his dreams. In his way are cutthroats, pirates, scum and wonderlands that aren't what they seem, all presided over by the nefarious Watchmaker. Primary lyricist Neal Peart utilizes hyperbole and metaphor as a presumed warning against yeoman artists and musicians who face exploitation due to their naivet?. Hard not to think of "Clockwork Angels" thus as a warning against Big Business, much less Big Brother on "The Anarchist", "Carnies", "Seven Cities Of Gold" and the itinerant and expressive title track.
While much of "Clockwork Angels" resumes the overly patient and methodic songwriting statutes that can wrack on the nerves, the payoffs do come in abundance. The title track is one of the most expansive compositions RUSH has yet dared and yes, you may daydream of "2112" in spots, go for it. The grinding time signatures and off-kilter fusion weaving out of the aerodynamic moodiness of "Clockwork Angels" carries little of the velocity of RUSH's younger days, but it's breathtaking stuff nevertheless. Ditto for "The Anarchist", which retools the tried and true tap-along vibe that's been prevalent in RUSH as of "Hold Your Fire" and elevates the more the song takes its course. There's far more energy and world music textures sprinkled here than in say, "The Mission", exquisite as the latter track was back in 1987.
This album is one of Geddy Lee's finest vocal hours, again flagging the title cut along with "Caravan", "The Anarchist" and the energetic "Headlong Flight". Lee chimes in like the shackles are once again off but without the far flung screeching falsettos. His partners make the most of their opportunities to garnish "Clockwork Angels" inherent restraints with palettes of sonic detail and animated coloring. All three players may be working within the same ol' script for a lot of the album, but this time they make it count for most of the journey. Listen to Alex Lifeson go bonkers in his solo section on "Headlong Flight". You end up feeling happy RUSH found it within themselves to step on the gas here, making the carefree stomp guiding "Wish Them Well" more palatable, much less "The Garden" a dynamic and hummable closer.
With random blasts of heavy metal kicking their adult-oriented prog in the seat of its own pants, RUSH proves they still want it. Not that "Snakes & Arrows" or "Vapor Trails" weren't decent albums, but "Clockwork Angels" at least attempts to bridge the consecrated mania of RUSH's early days to their more reserved latter day body of work. This is a surprise album executed by dignified professionals who obviously decided a little more oomph carries the torch extra miles.