Words by Dan Tull
With the relatively recent announcement that Rush will be ceasing to do any more live tours and seemingly confirmed reports of the band’s overall retirement, the 2012 steampunk concept album of ‘Clockwork Angels‘ will become the final entry in the twenty-album strong discography of the prog-rock powerhouse. This has lead me to approach the album again, four years on, with a significantly different mind-set. In 2012 it seemed as though Rush would continue producing albums and touring until they were being propped up onstage with intravenous drips to provide them with necessary sustenance. Thankfully, this is not the case.
Instead, they have gracefully retired from the monumental live shows they became famed for with an appropriately gargantuan final tour, R40.
So now that ‘Clockwork Angels‘ may well be the last studio record the band will produce, was this always the case? It may well have been. The record presents itself initially as a steampunk concept album, which is probably about as prog as you want to go before devolving into Gabriel-esque nightmares. This is not the first time steampunk has featured prominently in music, with bands such as Abney Park and The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing being heavily dedicated to the movement. This was however the first time that Rush had ever attempted a full-bore concept album from start to finish. ‘2112‘ and ‘Hemispheres‘ certainly contain elements of this, but it took twenty albums for Rush to fully delve into it, and ‘Clockwork Angels‘ definitely delivered.
The album contains 12 songs with a running time of 1hr 6min. Whilst the songs are sequential, weaving a story of a young man who runs away to join an adventuring caravan and that of a dictatorial Watchmaker, they also offer parallel meanings in the bands own life experiences.
The lead single ‘Caravan‘ opens the album, immediately demonstrating a refined approach to the style the band had experimented on their previous album, ‘Snakes and Arrows‘. The song moves through several time signatures, syncopating the choral vocals with bass and drums. It’s a strong opener. This is perhaps the most literal track, describing the world in which we are to inhabit as we listen to the album. However, it does suggest an attitude expressed by the band. “I can’t stop thinking big” forms the simple chorus line. Is this Rush explaining their origins?
From this point the album can be seen as a biographical history of the band, with the ominous Watchmaker representing the inevitability of time, an aspect Rush have touched on before in ‘Time Stand Still‘. The second single, the massive ‘Headlong Flight‘, is a celebration of their time as a band. “I wish I could live it all again!” cried Geddy defiantly. By the time we reach the end of the album, we have what I consider to be the perfect final endevour for a band as huge as Rush. It ticks all the correct boxes. Quality musicianship? Yep. Extravagant songs? Yep. An eight minute single? Yep. The whole thing is as much a celebration of Rush as it is a celebration of prog rock in its entirety. Is this Rush’s greatest album? Quite possibly, but that’s a discussion for another time. In regards to finales though, I find it difficult to point to an album that signs off a forty-year career with this level of grace.