Author’s Note: This article originally appeared on another website I write for, That Hashtag Show, and was published on April 2nd, 2020.
Rush’s twentieth and final studio album, Clockwork Angels, was started about an hour from where I sit now, at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, Tennessee with the first two singles. They traveled back north, finishing up in Toronto at Revolution Recording. The album heralded their return to roots in a final, true concept album coming 5 years after their last triumph in Snakes and Arrows. Each track was part of a larger chronicle, telling of a young man chasing his dreams in a dystopian steampunk world filled with alchemy, fire and industry. The album would also be turned into a novel by author Kevin J. Anderson in 2012.
Upon release, Clockwork Angels (the album) would reach #2 on the Billboard 200, and really struck a chord at #1 in Canada and climbed high in European markets. I think they knew this would be their last album, based on some risks they took within the project. It’s obvious they didn’t want to leave anything on the cutting room floor.
The first example of their nostalgia is the Clockwork Angels cover, designed by long-time Rush collaborator Hugh Syme. The alchemy symbols replace numbers on the clock, and note the time, 9:12. In military time, that’s 2112. Next, Peart said in May 2011 that “I intend it to be my highest achievement lyrically and drumming-wise.” Finally, they added more strings—in the form of six violins and two cellos. The best part there is they weren’t really back up… they were majorly featured in big parts of the music.
In honor of these new revelations in their music, something different we’ll do in this review is include a written excerpt from the story for each song, giving context within the tale. These words appear in the lyrics section of Rush’s website, but are not part of the recorded track.
Clockwork Angels – Track 1: Caravan
IT SEEMS LIKE A LIFETIME AGO – which of course it was, all that and more. For a boy, life on the farm was idyllic, but for the young man I became, that very peace and predictability were stifling, unbearable. I had big dreams, and needed a big place to explore them: the whole wide world.
Strap your dentures in, because Caravan will shake them out of your head if you aren’t careful. This pounding opener rocks the house and sets the tone to high and heavy. Caravan was available as a single earlier than the rest of the album and played on their Time Machine Tour in 2011. It was billed as a teaser of this great epic album they were working on, and keeping with a long tradition, launches Rush’s final album off with a sonic boom.
Clockwork Angels – Track 2: BU2B
WE WERE ALWAYS TAUGHT that we lived in “the best of all possible worlds.” The Watchmaker ruled from Crown City through the Regulators; the alchemist-priests gave us coldfire for power and light, and everything was well ordered. We accepted our various individual fates as inevitable, for we had also been taught, “Whatever happens to us must be what we deserve, for it could not happen to us if we did not deserve it.”
BU2B introduces us to the antagonist of the tale, The Watchmaker. It also hits us with Lifeson’s brilliant and screaming, layered guitar and Peart wrecking it on drums behind him. Lee’s theremin instrument makes an appearance here, too. (If you’ve never seen this bizarre instrument, Google it. It’s worth checking out). BU2B stands for “Brought Up To Believe”, and tells how our story’s hero learns what he knows from his farmhouse upbringing and what happens out in the real world are two very different things.
Peart went all out on writing this album, especially on BU2B, making some deep psychic cuts. The lyrics dig into the dark corner of your mind closet and pull out the things you know are there but choose to leave buried under the clothes pile.
“The joy and pain that we receive / Each comes with its own cost / The price of what we’re winning / Is the same as what we’ve lost”
Clockwork Angels – Track 3: Clockwork Angels
THE PLACE I HAD MOST WANTED TO SEE – Chronos Square, at the heart of Crown City. I had seen many images of the city before, and Chronos Square, but nothing could convey its immensity – the heaven-reaching towers of the Cathedral of the Timekeepers, or the radiant glory of the Angels – Land, Sea, Sky, and Light – bathed in the brilliant glow of the floating globes... A foggy woodland road, a crowded village square, the busy streets of Crown City – a wandering pedlar travels the land, uttering the ageless call: “What do you lack?”
The odd time signature here makes the song hard to follow, so you have to repeat it a couple times to really immerse yourself into Clockwork Angels. Imagine growing up in a rural setting, then suddenly you’re delving into a massive city center with sights and sounds you never dreamed could exist. That’s the mental image I get from this tune. The sheer racket of the song hammers your senses the same way you would feel in the shoes of our hero visiting Chronos Square for the first time. It’s a lot to take in and a little messy in delivery, but in a good way. Solid track. I like it!
Clockwork Angels – Track 4: The Anarchist
WALKING AMONG THE PEOPLE – who are so content, so blind – the Anarchist hears the pedlar’s call, and sneers derisively. “What do I lack? Ah… vengeance?”
The title of The Anarchist fits this song perfectly. There’s a lot of anarchy in the music, but it’s an orderly anarchy that delivers a thunderous, anthemic case for another villain in the story, The Anarchist. When I first heard this track, I didn’t really like it. However, the more I repeated it to get the feel of what The Anarchist was trying to convey, it finally hit me. The dread, sense of urgency, and the I’ve-got-a-bad-feeling-about-this vibe came through. A cool way of putting it comes from another review of this song by Ultimate Classic Rock back in 2013:
He [Alex Lifeson] has a flair for explosive dungeons-and-dragons, sword-wielding arpeggios bathed in flange. They’re all here; ‘The Anarchist’ is a sonic flip book of Lifeson’s many guitar specialties.Ultimate Classic Rock, 2013
Clockwork Angels – Track 5: Carnies
I FOUND WORK WITH A TRAVELING CARNIVAL, and for the Midsummer Festival in Crown City, our games and rides were set up right in the middle of the Square, beneath the Angels. One night, amid the noise and confusion of the crowded midway, I saw a man working with wires and wooden barrels. He stood and turned – the Anarchist! – holding a clockwork detonator in his hand. I called out to warn the crowd, then suddenly he threw the device at me, and I caught it automatically – just as the people turned to look my way. I escaped, but in disgrace, and fled down the Winding Pinion River to the sea.
Carnies has some really good parts to it. I love the monster-rock chords that Lifeson assaults us with, and Lee gets his voice back up to that high range where it belongs. However, this is the first song on Clockwork Angels that didn’t appeal to me. It’s good, but there are much better tracks here. Peart’s lyrics do accomplish the goal though of dropping us into the chaotic and nomadic world of a carnival worker. This song just doesn’t feel well put together. It still rocks hard though!
Clockwork Angels – Track 6: Halo Effect
I HAD FALLEN HELPLESSLY IN LOVE with one of the performers. She was so different from “the girl I left behind,” and I was beginning to understand I had only pretended she was right for me. I pursued my beautiful acrobat obsessively until she let me be with her – then I suffered her rejection and contempt. Once again, I had created an ideal of the perfect soulmate, and tried to graft it onto her. It didn’t fit. Such illusions have colored my whole life.
This is simply a great track. Halo Effect is about the only cut on Clockwork Angels that qualifies as a “standard” rock song. It takes a breath from the heavier tracks that got us this far into the album. You can really hear the raw string work here with the violins and cellos in the background, giving a greater depth to this beautiful lament about thinking you love something that isn’t really there. Really, really good stuff going on in the lyrics, too:
What did I do? / Fool that I was / To profit from youthful mistakes? / It’s shameful to tell / How often I fell / In love with illusions again / A goddess with wings on her heels . . .
Clockwork Angels – Track 7: Seven Cities of Gold
THE LEGEND HAD PASSED DOWN FOR GENERATIONS. Far across the Western Sea, where the steamliners could not fly, lay a wilderness land hiding seven cities of gold. I dared the crossing on one of the stout ships that followed the trade route to Poseidon, a tough port city. I worked there for a while on the steamliners that served the alchemy mines, then eventually set out into the Redrock Desert. The stones were sculpted into unearthly monuments, and the country grew cold as I traveled north in search of the most famous City of Gold: CÃbola. Its name had sounded in my dreams since childhood.
Gimme more of that bass! I absolutely love the opening riffs on Seven Cities of Gold. It brings me back to the heavy metal sound of the 80s, and will definitely make your head bob. Maybe even thrash a little! Our hero finds himself venturing to another continent in search of lost treasure. The melodic choral arrangement masterfully links together the hard rock parts and keeps with a modern sound for Rush that still sounds like early Rush. Absolutely well done.
Neil Peart gushed about writing this one as a favorite out of his own studies of Southwest American history:
“The Seven Cities of Gold always fascinated me. Southwestern U.S. history especially fascinates me. The whole spur of the Spanish exploration of the Southwestern U.S. was the search for these mythical Seven Cities of Gold. The Spanish ones would go back to Mexico City and say, ‘I saw it! I saw it! I just couldn’t get to it, but I could see this city of gold in the distance!’ They kept believing it and sending expeditions. “Neil Peart to Rolling Stone Magazine
How can anyone not love this nerdy bastard of a song-writer?!?! If I had a spirit animal, I’d want it to be Neil Peart.
Clockwork Angels – Track 8: The Wreckers
NARROWLY ESCAPING A FROZEN DEATH IN THAT DESERT, I made my way back to Poseidon, and found a berth on a homeward ship. Caught in a terrible storm, we seemed to find salvation in an unexpected signal light. Steering toward it, we soon learned it was false – placed by the denizens to lure ships to their doom on the jagged reefs. They plundered the cargoes and abandoned the crews and passengers to the icy waves.
One of the cooler trivia facts on The Wreckers is the result of Lee and Lifeson swapping instruments during a writing session. The result is a solid, rocking track with great harmony, haunting melody, and a kick-ass seafaring tune. I truly feel The Wreckers is the hit song of the album. The triumphant jangle in the verse just screams for adventure and exploration. The Wreckers is my favorite song on Clockwork Angels. If you added in a little synthesizer, this track would fit in on any 80s-era Rush album and be a bright, shining highlight.
Clockwork Angels – Track 9: Headlong Flight
THINKING BACK OVER MY LIFE, AND TELLING STORIES ABOUT MY “GREAT ADVENTURES” – they didn’t always feel that grand at the time. But on balance, I wouldn’t change anything. In the words of one of our great alchemists, Friedrich Gruber, “I wish I could do it all again.”
Headlong Flight, in my opinion, is a speedy rocking double entendre. The lyrics are meant to portray the story of someone recounting their full and adventurous life and wishing they could do it all again. I think this is Rush saying the same thing as a band. They probably suspected Clockwork Angels was their righteous swan song and they’re wishing they could do it all again, from Caress of Steel onward. Plus, it just rocks. I love the jumping time signature, Peart’s mini-drum solo that falls around 4:30. This song has all the sonic texture of Rush we know and love.
Clockwork Angels – Track 10: BU2B2
THOSE FATEFUL WORDS, “What do you lack?” spark an inner monologue about all that I have lost. No more boundless optimism, no more faith in greater powers, too much pain, too much grief, and too much disillusion. Despite all that, I realize the great irony that although I now believe only in the exchange of love, even that little faith follows the childhood reflex that “I was brought up to believe.”
BU2B2 feels like a misfit on the album. It’s good, but more of a bridge between rockers than a stand-alone song itself. It’s very short at 87 seconds, but gives a reflection of our story’s hero on what’s really important to believe in. This track is definitely a change of pace based on what we’ve heard so far. It’s odd, but I like Lee singing against an orchestral background. Yet another musical experiment!
Clockwork Angels – Track 11: Wish Them Well
VICTIMIZED, BEREAVED, AND DISAPPOINTED, SEEMINGLY AT EVERY TURN, I still resist feeling defeated, or cynical. I have come to believe that anger and grudges are burning embers in the heart not worth carrying through life. The best response to those who wound me is to get away from them – and wish them well.
A rocking modern-day message to cut out toxic people from your life and don’t hold a grudge. Wish Them Well is a drumming double-timer that Peart had to come out of his shell to do.
“This was the hardest drum track of any of the songs to get. Neil doesn’t really play double-time, so this was taking him out of what he usually does… He dug in—sat down on his throne, picked up his sticks and made it happen… I was throwing stuff at him that an octopus couldn’t play, but he could.”Nick Raskulinecz to Music Radar.com
While I can appreciate the effort, and appreciate the lyrical message, the song is a little bland for me. Peart would later say this track was his attempt to angrily write about appalling and despicable human behaviors that he had to learn how to just let it go.
“With people too, you constantly think, ‘If I’m nice to people and treat them well, they’ll appreciate it and behave better.’ They won’t, but it’s still not a bad way to live.”Neil Peart
No, Neil, it’s not a bad way at all.
Clockwork Angels – Track 12: The Garden
LONG AGO I READ A STORY FROM ANOTHER TIMELINE about a character named Candide. He also survived a harrowing series of misadventures and tragedies, then settled on a farm near Constantinople. Listening to a philosophical rant, Candide replied, “That is all very well, but now we must tend our garden.”
This is it! The final Rush studio song ever recorded, called The Garden. What a way to send off a brilliant rock and roll career: with a blended melody of beautiful proportions. This song is the perfect outro for a brilliant 40-plus year rock and roll career. I chose this live performance as the example just because seeing it performed adds to the wonderful mystique of just simply hearing it.
Rush has always sent fans out on a high note with closing songs. They blew the lid off of it with The Garden, reminding us that even after a full and prosperous life, there comes a time for the journey to end. Lifeson’s guitar solo and piano piece, and those backing strings make this the first Rush tear-jerker. An absolutely brilliant track to cap off one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best)…
I give Clockwork Angels a 9 out of 10. Rush’s final album is epic and fires on almost all cylinders. There was so much right with this album it’s sad it will be their last studio cut. This whole effort is a glorious steampunk geek-fest that I wish would never end. Neil Peart was right when he predicted this would be his finest hour both in lyrics and drumming. Lifeson and Lee didn’t leave anything on the table either. I can’t help but wonder what their next album would have sounded like, but I can’t imagine adding more on top of this modern Rush masterpiece.
As much as this album belongs to our triumphant trio from Toronto, not enough can be said about the influence of producer Nick Raskulinecz on Clockwork Angels, as well as Snakes and Arrows. The amazing job of bringing out this amazing new and raw sound from three of the greatest rock musicians in modern history cannot be understated. His effect on Neil Peart, most of all, is astonishing:
“I played through each song just a few times on my own, checking out patterns and fills that might work, then called in Booujzhe (Rush’s nickname for Nick). He stood in the room with me, facing my drums, with a music stand and a single drumstick—he was my conductor, and I was his orchestra… I would attack the drums, responding to his enthusiasm, and his suggestions between takes, and together we would hammer out the basic architecture of the part. His baton would conduct me into choruses, half-time bridges, and double-time outros and so on—so I didn’t have to worry about their duration. No counting, and no endless repetition.”Neil Peart
Clockwork Angels is a fitting end to the band that defied all norms to produce 20 studio albums, 11 live albums and gather a legion of fans that never quit. With a resume like that, it’s a perfect time to tend The Garden.