Like many progressive rock bands, Rush has a reputation for being cerebral. It’s well earned. Since unleashing its 1976 opus, 2112, the group hasn’t exactly skimped on the philosophizing. Beneath the braininess, though, lurks a streak of intimacy. In classic songs like “Limelight” and “Subdivisions,” drummer-lyricist Neil Peart unveils the most vulnerable corners of his soul—even if he couches them in heady verse, not to mention the lilting tenor of singer-bassist Geddy Lee. That chemistry grew complicated in the late ’90s, after Peart suffered two tragedies: His daughter was killed in a car crash, and his wife died of cancer. Peart retreated. The eventual result was 2002’s distant, diluted Vapor Trails. Rush came roaring back in 2007 with its 18th full-length, Snakes & Arrows. Not only does it rank among the group’s best, it reset Peart’s nervy balance between the conceptual and the confessional. With Snakes’ follow-up, Clockwork Angels, Rush has struck a similar equilibrium. Only this time, the highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the dynamic is even more exhilarating.
Clockwork is a return to Rush’s wheelhouse, the science-fiction concept album. But unlike 2112, it’s written from the perspective of bruised, bewildered survivor. One the surface, it’s the fable of a young man navigating a steampunk dreamscape in search of enlightenment and escape. The epic geekery parallels Peart’s struggle with one of his long-held obsessions: fate vs. free will. On “BU2B,” Lee layers a searing, passionate vocal melody—one reminiscent of the Rush standard “New World Man”—behind Peart’s aching admission that “I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan / We are only human, it’s not ours to understand.” He’s speaking through a character, but the sentiment is vintage Peart. Guitarist Alex Lifeson, whose articulate riffs have been gradually growing in heft since the lean, angular ’80s, lays down a thick mass of muscle.
The overall effect is far heavier and less melodic than Snakes. Not that Clockwork lacks in anthems; “Halo Effect” and “Wish Them Well” ring with triumph, while “BU2B2” reprises its namesake with a wash of urgent strings and tangible sadness. “Life goes from bad to worse / I still choose to live,” sings Lee, giving voice to Peart’s bittersweet resignation. “No philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe.” The album closes with “The Garden,” a mythic, symphonic meditation on death and determinism that soars from hushed acoustic balladry to lush, piano-led majesty. Where Snakes focuses almost exclusively on straightforward hooks, Clockwork revives Rush’s hardcore prog pedigree; the title track, along with songs like “Caravan” and “Seven Cities Of Gold,” are built around tricky signatures and Lee’s heavy, contorted grooves. Those rhythms don’t always carry a seven-minute song, but they provide a steely contrast to the disc’s softer lulls and sighs.
In the end, hearts and smarts strike an elated détente. Clockwork’s simplest and catchiest track, “The Wreckers,” contains some of Lifeson’s most deceptively sculpted playing—and some of Peart’s most poignant lyrics: “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / Of a miracle too good to be true / All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary / To everything in life you thought you knew.” More than 40 years into their career, the members of Rush have stopped taking anything for granted: their success, their talents, themselves. “The future disappears into memory,” Lee sings in “The Garden,” as Peart pulses and Lifeson chimes, “With only a moment between.” Rush has grasped that moment—and if Clockwork Angels is any indication, it’s not letting go of it any time soon.