Perfection of the Fifth Incarnation of Rush
A summary of the five incarnations of Rush.
Over the years I have formed a theory regarding the evolution of Rush. Clockwork Angels makes the 20th studio album of their careers. As most fans will attest to there has been a definite growth, evolution, and/or revolution (whatever you choose to call it) in their musical and lyrical style. Some like it and some don’t. I tend to side with the camp that thinks it is a good thing to have this evolution. Some bands can crank out the same album over and over and be successful. As one example I will cite AC/DC. Straight ahead blues influenced hard rock with scratchy, gritty vocals. For them it works every time. However it boxes them in a corner as being one-dimensional even though it is a pretty cool dimension. Many fans are satisfied with reproduction of the same formula. I see this sentiment in the Rush fan camp. Many are not happy unless there is a recreation of the “Hemispheres” or “Moving Pictures” albums. I don’t agree with this line of thinking. Those two albums are absolute gems and should never be maligned. However they are a result of the unique combination of attitudes, influences, equipment, tastes, motivations and moods of the day. It is physically not possible to recreate the magic that made those albums. A band must reinvent a new strain of magic each and every time they attempt to take on a new project. Some bands have successfully reinvented themselves once or maybe twice. I’ll point to Aerosmith for an example. Aerosmith has successfully transformed from a hard rock barroom band in the 70′s and 80′s to a top 40 semi-soft rock band in the 90′s and 00′s. Kudos to the boys of Aerosmith for achieving that level of success with one reinvention. That is the trick and most bands fail at reinventing themselves even once. In my opinion Rush has reincarnated themselves five times. Some may have been better incarnations than others but they all have had their degrees of success. Proof is that they still are viable and selling albums, downloads and concert tickets at healthy rates. One could even make an argument for showing strong growth in popularity.
One of the fans interviewed in the Sam Dunn documentary “Beyond the Lighted Stage” said it best when asked about the various incarnations of the band when he said “That’s what makes them so interesting.” Allow me to attempt to explain my theory of the incarnations of Rush and why it makes them so interesting to me.
Incarnation #1: 1974 – 1976 RUSH, Fly By Night, Caress of Steel and 2112
The first incarnation of Rush, you can call it the beginning, infancy or awakening or whatever tag you wish to place upon it. For me this was the first incarnation of the band. Changing of the drummer was (and still is) the only line-up change the band has gone through. The band evolved from a more or less straight ahead blues based rock band in the vein of a Deep Purple, Cream or Bad Co. to a more progressive, science fiction themed band like a Led Zeppelin, King Crimson or Pink Floyd. This evolution was mainly due to the influence of Neil Peart’s lyrical concepts and abilities. Musically the band explored more progressive elements and longer form song arrangements. In my opinion a clear upward path of progress can be charted from the début album right on through to the masterwork of 2112. It is the album that placed them on the map as a band that cannot be ignored and will not go away. It cemented them into the fabric of the non-traditional, non-drugs, non- booze and non-sex based rock and roll fan base. A thinking man’s band, a deeper meaning to the art and a lack of fear of experimentation away from mainstream industry rock radio standards became the operating procedures of this “cult” or “geek” band. 2112 is the perfection of the first incarnation of Rush.
Incarnation #2: 1977 – 1981 A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures
The second incarnation of the Rush. Most old school fans of the band consider these four albums to be the “Golden Age” of the band. All other albums must be measured against one of these albums in order to be deemed worthy. Although I do agree that this was the only premier era of the band and sacred and untouchable in its integrity, quality and sheer genius, I do not think that this is the only worthy incarnation of the band. This is the era that Rush found their wings, oiled them and began to soar. The music is inspired and the lyrics are rich with story, meaning and depth. Bolstered by the commercial success of 2112 the band was able to shut the studio doors and create from the heart and soul. The band enjoyed some moderate radio and commercial success with songs like “The Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer”. The concert halls grew larger as album sales gained steam. The songs ballooned in length and complexity to a point of near ridicule. Moving Pictures is the perfection of the second incarnation of Rush. As witnessed by the extreme success of the Time Machine Tour of 2010-2011 which featured the band playing the album cover to cover.
Incarnation #3: 1982 – 1987 Signals, Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire
Keeping in mind the time frame these albums were produced it is understandable why the band experiment with synthesized keyboards. The “Golden Age” Rush fans began to lose interest because they lamented the weakening hard edge and heavy progressive side of the music. The songs began to shrink down to a more radio friendly length but still to little notice by the FM rock radio powers that be. None the less the staunch fans like myself found many classic Rush songs, sounds and moments on which to latch my musical radar upon within this fine grouping of albums. One cannot deny the all too familiar poignancy of the lyrics of “Subdivisions”, the sharp realism of “Red Sector A”, the historical impact of “Manhattan Project” or the dynamic motivational clarity of “Prime Mover”. Even though the heavier guitars took a back seat to the keys there are still some very fine musical moments contained within the albums of this incarnation of Rush. In my opinion there really is no perfection of this incarnation. These albums are all of moderately equal value and station within the class. All have there strong points and weak points. It was a steady and consistent period for the band but one that seemed to stall the natural growth of the band. This incarnation was more of an exploratory side trip than a continuation of the steady rise as seen before.
Incarnation #4: 1989 – 1996 Presto, Roll The Bones, Counterparts, and Test for Echo
The fourth incarnation of Rush was a transitional period. The band was trying to shake off the synthesizer heavy style and return to the true “Power Trio” of guitar, bass and drums while still retaining the maturity, brevity and impact of the works they had crafted before. Rush began to modernize the sound while fostering their progressive roots. They experimented with influences of grunge music, social issues of the day and even rap music. The band began to reverse transition from pony tails, lasers and Steinbergers to Les Pauls, Fenders and Marshall stacks. A return to the roots, a reinvention of the main purpose led the band through the nineties and towards the turn of the century with a renewed sense of who they are and where they should be going. I feel like the perfection of the fourth incarnation of Rush was interrupted by personal tragedy. In my opinion the next album after “Test for Echo” would have been the perfection of that incarnation. Instead we almost lost the band altogether. Neil’s personal losses are well documented and the impacts on the band are well discussed. I would rather not dwell on that topic but point to the path that those experiences placed the band upon. A five-year hiatus ensued with little to no news. The end of this period was dark.
Incarnation #5: 2002 – 2012 Vapor Trails, Feedback, Snakes and Arrows and Clockwork Angels
The fifth and most current incarnation of Rush began after the long hiatus after the personal tragedies experienced by Neil Peart. The period lasted about five years before the forces began the marshaling process of gathering band members and production people into the studio for purposes of recording a new studio album. Vapor Trails was the result of the return process. The music was very solid, purposeful with heartfelt introspective lyrics. The beginnings of a new chapter in the band’s career. However the production, mixing and mastering issues are well documented and clouded the reintroduction album to some degree. Feedback was a real surprise project for the long-term fans of Rush. It is a collection of cover songs. Classic rock songs that helped form the influences of the band members were recorded by the band and released as a new studio album. The songs themselves are an interesting and unique mix of British blues songs like “The Seeker” by The Who and early psychedelic rock songs like “Shapes of Things” by The Yardbirds. In my opinion this exercise in review was very beneficial to the growth of the band by helping them step back, look back, pay homage to their heroes and refocus their musical priorities going forward. It ushered in a return to the stripped down basics approach that has served them well since the recording of Feedback. Not to mention I think the Rush-ified versions of these classic rock staples are absolutely fabulous and a sincere joy to listen to. Snakes and Arrows is the next album and heralded the arrival of the Nick Raskulinecz era. Nick was brought in to produce the new album and brought along a fresh, young man’s approach that led the band back towards their progressive roots. In my opinion this is where the band was heading anyway and the new producer reinforced the plan and pushed the process farther ahead. A harder progressive edge, less synthesizers, fewer multiple tracked vocal choruses and more dynamic songs were the result. This confluence of events funneled the band, its new producer and the new-found progressive roots approach right into the twentieth studio album. “Clockwork Angels” is the perfection of the fifth incarnation of Rush. Allow me to explain further.
RUSH – CLOCKWORK ANGELS (2012)
A concept album, A concept album?, oh yes let me repeat that a CONCEPT album! When I heard that “Clockwork Angels” was going to be a concept album I felt a small shiver wiggle up spine. I was excited at the good news. Concept albums are right smack in the wheelhouse of this band and its progressive heritage. Neil writes terrific stories and the boys set them to inspiring and demonstrative musical compositions. To be honest all Rush does is concept work. Lately they have been individual concept songs rather than full cohesive concept albums. All Rush songs are based on a particular concept and then endeavors to make that concept come to life. Now we have news of the twentieth Rush studio album being a concept album. The prospects were very promising given the bands new-found progressive roots strategy coupled with the extreme level of musical proficiency they have developed over their forty-year career and now we toss in a classic Neil Peart penned concept. This is one recipe for potential glorious amazement.
The trick to a concept album is to make your concept real and visible throughout all the songs but not to the point where the individual songs can not stand on their own. “Clockwork Angels” is the closest to perfection on this point I have ever heard. Each one of the songs on this album is a self-contained chapter but still contributes to the larger story in a structured way. We follow our protagonist from the point he leaves the family farm on his adventure through carnivals, quests for lost cities, run ins with pirates and shadowy Anarchists figures all the way to the point in his life where he reflects back over his life’s trials and tribulations. We learn about the protagonists point of view, thoughts, fears and feelings about life, himself and how to treat others. The concept story is rich and full of adventure, wonder and personal revelations. There are just enough facts and key phrases to form a framework of a story within your head but then there is enough room to let your imagination run free to fill in the gaps to make your own personal adventure, setting and characters. This is exactly what a good novel does however Rush accomplish this feat with a very few select words and phrases and then adds the musical elements which help to spur the imagery within your own imagination.
Neil draws on a number of literary and personal influences to help shape his story. “The Wreckers” is based on a story by Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite author Daphne Du Maurier. The overall concept plot and more directly the song “The Garden” is influenced by Candide, a novel by Voltaire, where a Garden is used as an analogy for life. Freddie Gruber, the famed jazz drummer and teacher who recently passed inspired the lines and themes in “Headlong Flight”, “I wish I could do it all again.” These are just but a few of the literary influences woven into the fabric of this concept. Neil fits these famous and well storied works of literature into the world of the modern science fiction genre of “Steampunk”. The best way for me to help you visualize what Steampunk is all about is to have you watch the recent Sherlock Holmes movies. The ones with Robert Downey Jr. playing Holmes. The world is Victorian in style but with modern twists. Brass, leather and glass coupled with complex yet archaic gears power the Rube Goldberg style contraptions. It’s an interesting genre and one that Rush have chosen to use as a backdrop for this story. Neil expertly melds the future world driven by the rigid Watchmaker along with these literary tales set to the dystopian world of Steampunk and still reveals useful life lessons along the way. Coupled with uber-virtuoso musical performances and you now have a 2012 version of a Rush concept album that is mature, provocative and weighty.
The stories, the concepts, the life lessons and the literature inspired the lyrics are all just gravy on the cupcakes. It’s that signature music of Rush that makes a Rush album a RUSH album. After a healthy forty-year career these boys are masters of their individual instruments, that is a given, but to still be inspired to create like its your first album is what amazes me. Fresh melodies, interesting compositions, cool tones and some flat-out jaw dropping technical fireworks litter this album from start to finish. One characteristic of a Rush song or album is that it takes more than one listen to fully understand and appreciate the song. The music needs to breathe and age like a fine wine. It gets better with time. The more often you listen to a song the more you discover within that song. Subtle variations in rhythm, melody and/or arrangements of song sections continues to amaze and inspire. I enjoy focusing on one instrument during a particular listen of a song and try to follow that instruments journey from start to finish. Then compare that to the other instruments. It is a lot like three (or four counting synths and keys) instruments telling their own individual stories through variations in melody and rhythm but then all coming together in one intertwined amalgamation of sound that fits together in perfect lock step to achieve a singular purpose.
I am not really that keen on ranking songs. I can never get the list right with a Rush album because songs shift in levels of enjoyment based my own perspectives, moods or the particular outlook of the day. I have however been able to group the songs on “Clockwork Angels” into four groups. My individual groupings as of now are as follows: (Songs in no particular order)
The music of Rush is complex yet simple, deep yet accessible. It can be dark and it can be light. Emotions, feelings, scenarios, tastes, sights and smells are all present in the works. It is a modern symphony of three. In my opinion this album has all the elements I have described previously. It is a complete package of lyrics, music and concept spanning a variety of highs, lows, darks and lights. It is a complete story with a beginning, character development, an adventurous middle, a climax and a reflective ending. All told with amazing musical performances. In my opinion this is the best Rush album yet to be produced. Is it “Moving Pictures” or “Hemispheres”? No it is not. Those are similarly fantastic works of art but “Clockwork Angels” has something one step farther. The maturity of band members who have 55 plus years of life and 40 plus years of musical maturity under their collective belts. To me those experiences and maturities are crucial elements in the depth and fabric of this album. I felt those elements were present and growing in the past few albums but it has now come together with full force. The progressive roots music, the high quality concept and the knowledgeable direction of a true fan as a producer has elevated the overall atmosphere of this album.
“Clockwork Angels” is the perfection (as in “highest degree of excellence”) of the fifth and most complete incarnation (as in “being or form”) of Rush.
By: Carter Biel
Copywrite 2012. The Lofty Oaks
Special thanks to CygnusX-1.net for providing the album artwork, links and background historical database.