(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)
The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect.
Following the conclusion of their tour in support of Snakes & Arrows, Rush decided to take another extended break, until December 2009. During this break, they released two live albums – the official Snakes & Arrows Tour recording, and a compilation, Working Men, comprising recordings from all three of their live albums since 2002. When the band met again, they discussed their plans for a new endeavour.
While eating and drinking and laughing a lot, as we do so well, we discussed all the possible projects we could launch in 2010. We could start working on a new album, or we could launch a major tour. Fools that we are, we ended up doing both.– Neil Peart
During this meal, Peart brought forth an idea for an album based around a suite of songs that would tell an overarching story. Though previous albums had been built around themes, this would be their first album since 2112 to feature an extended narrative, and the first to exclusively focus on it.
Peart’s initial concept was heavily influenced by his friend Kevin J Anderson, a prolific writer in the genre of steampunk. Peart appreciated the genre’s more idealistic outlook, as opposed to the more pessimistic cyberpunk. Anderson and Peart would later adapt the album into a novel, Clockwork Angels, and a further sequel, Clockwork Lives.
Influences were inevitable, but still unexpected to me – a lifetime of reading distilled into a dozen scenes, and a few hundred words. The plot draws from Voltaire’s Candide, with nods to John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Michael Ondaatje and Joseph Conrad for “The Anarchist,” Robertson Davies and Herbert Gold for “Carnies,” Daphne du Maurier for “The Wreckers,” Cormac McCarthy and early Spanish explorers in the American Southwest for “Seven Cities of Gold.”– Neil Peart
With a course set, the band got to work on writing their next album, Clockwork Angels. While the process was carried out as normal, they decided to try to further build on and utilise the spontaneity found in their live performances. To that end, Lifeson made a conscious decision to avoid multi-tracking his performance.
It’s really about the basic rockiness of the songs, so it was a lot of double-tracking and beefing things up. No six tracks of guitars, no rhythm guitar and solos – simple little changes that made the sound more impactful.– Alex Lifeson
As the writing process went on, it became clear that the record was taking shape as a concept album. Though Lifeson had denied in interviews that the band were working on a concept album (stating that the band had no interest in repeating themselves), a compromise was made – it would indeed be a concept album, but each track would make its own statement.
Progress on the album was halted when the band embarked on their Time Machine Tour, which featured “Caravan” and “BU2B” – released as a single in June 2010 – as part of its setlist. When they returned to work after the first half of the tour the band experienced some difficulties, finding their sessions somewhat unproductive (though they would produce a few ‘furious jams’ which would form the basis of “Carnies” and “Headlong Flight”). Lee and Lifeson also had some trouble matching Peart’s lyrics with their music – though they noted that he never once complained, and always came through with their requested edits.
Recording took place initially in Nashville, Tennessee at Blackbird Studios, before being completed at Revolution Recording in Toronto. For Clockwork Angels, Rush decided to end their partnership with Atlantic Records (who they had worked with since 1989’s Presto), instead opting for hard rock label Roadrunner Records. Nick ‘Booujzhe’ Raskulinecz returned as co-producer, a decision which pleased Peart.
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 durations. No counting, and no endless repetition. What a revelation! What a relief!– Neil Peart
Though the group intended to release Clockwork Angels in 2011, the decision to extend their Time Machine Tour precluded this. It was instead released on June 8, 2012.
The album begins with “Caravan,” a song which evokes imagery found on the band’s previous albums, notably “Middletown Dreams” from Power Windows – the story of a protagonist who, tired of their boring life, wants nothing more than to abscond to the big city. The difference here, the song being steampunk-themed, is that their method of transportation is a ‘steam-liner’ caravan. While the band’s previous two albums were hard-rocking classics, “Caravan” restores some of their lost progressive structures, with complex time signatures and evocative lyrics.
“BU2B,” (standing for “Brought Up To Believe”), characteristic of Peart’s writing, takes a shot at blind belief. While “Caravan” painted a picture of the protagonist’s world, “BU2B” brings things to a more personal level, showing his own perspective of the world and disdain for authority figures pressuring people into conformity. More importantly, the song introduces the concept of the Watchmaker – a god-like figure who rules from Crown City. Where “Caravan” focused on a groove-influenced sound, “BU2B” is a heavier beast, with a driving guitar riff and chant-like chorus.
It’s huge in the old Zep way—it’s got that big, blues-oriented riff. The chorus is very energetic, and the sentiment of the lyrics really sets it up for what’s coming.– Alex Lifeson
In the title track, “Clockwork Angels,” the protagonist finally reaches Crown City and witnesses the titular Angels, idols created to reassure and mystify the populace, reinforcing their propagandised vision of a world protected by higher beings. The song features a driving yet nuanced drum beat backed up by Lee’s smooth vocals, and also features an unexpected bar band-like blues section representing the Angels’ message.
Lean not upon your own understanding
Ignorance is well and truly blessed
Trust in perfect love, and perfect planning
Everything will turn out for the best
“The Anarchist” switches up the narrative, this time sung from the perspective of the titular Anarchist. The Anarchist represents pure evil and chaos, the antithesis of the Watchmaker and Angels. Peart was inspired partially by the works of Joseph Conrad, who explored man’s capacity for evil in his novel Heart of Darkness. “The Anarchist” is a boisterous, in-your-face track primarily driven by Lee’s bassline, which he acknowledged was extremely challenging to play while singing.
When I wrote the vocal melody it really had more to do with how those lyrics needed to be expressed… It’s the syncopation—or the lack of syncopation. Rhythmically, the way the bass drives and the way the vocal sits on it are really quite different.– Geddy Lee
With “Carnies,” we return to the protagonist, who has found work with a travelling carnival. Unfortunately, the Anarchist appears and tosses a clockwork detonator into a crowd of civilians. Without thinking, the protagonist catches it just as the crowd turns to look at him. They mistake him for an anarchist himself, and he flees. This song features an incredibly mean riff by Lifeson, conveying both a fun carnival atmosphere and the Anarchist’s evil intent.
“Halo Effect” takes a gentler approach, with an acoustic guitar-based ballad. The protagonist reveals that he had fallen deeply in love with one of the carnival performers, but was rebuffed, The titular halo effect is a real-life phrase referring to a judgement discrepancy – we may see someone who is well-groomed and attractive and assume their personality will match, but this often turns out not to be the case. The protagonist’s pain and frustration are quite evident in Lee’s vocals, echoed by Lifeson’s forlorn guitar work.
What did I care?
Fool that I was
Little by little, I burned
There might be a flaw
But how pretty the picture was back then
“Seven Cities of Gold” follows, detailing the in-universe legend of the Seven Cities of Gold. Our protagonist decides to attempt to reach the Cities, passing through a tough port town named Poseidon. The song’s composition reflects both the protagonist’s ambition and the danger of Poseidon, with a swaggering rhythm driven by Lee’s bass and Lifeson’s growling guitar.
The next track, “The Wreckers,” has a very different feeling than “Seven Cities of Gold,” with a much more sombre composition. This change may also have been influenced by the members’ performances – for this track, Lee and Lifeson swapped instruments during the writing process, leading to an unfamiliar style that lends itself well to the song itself. In “The Wreckers,” our protagonist is shipwrecked by the titular Wreckers, in a story inspired by true events.
This Daphne Du Maurier novel Jamaica Inn describes these people called ‘The Wreckers’ on the coast of the Cornwall in Britain. They would not only plunder shipwrecks, but they would actually put up a fake light and attract the ships in a storm to crash on their shores so they could loot them. It’s just a shocking example of inhumanity, and it happens to be a true story. I wove it, all of that, into the story of this album.– Neil Peart
“Headlong Flight,” a bombastic rocker, finds our protagonist reflecting on his life’s adventures, stating that despite his hardships, he would do it all again. The liner notes of this song feature a cheeky reference to ‘Friedrich Gruber’ – a nod to Peart’s drumming mentor Freddie Gruber, whose perspective on life is reflected in the protagonist’s. Interestingly, Peart has stated that he does not share his protagonist’s zeal for his past life.
I remain glad that I don’t have to do it all again. While working on the lyrics for “Headlong Flight,” the last song written for Clockwork Angels, I tried to summarize my character’s life and adventures. My own ambivalence colored the verses, while Freddie’s words inspired the chorus ‘I wish that I could live it all again.’– Neil Peart
“BU2B2” provides a minimalist interlude before launching into “Wish Them Well,” a song that celebrates moving past one’s problems – forgiving and forgetting those who wound us. “Wish Them Well” strides onward with a genuine sense of warmth and optimism, though it was apparently one of the most difficult songs on the album to compose.
We felt the lyrics were strong and were important for the story. The music just was not happening, so we developed a completely different thing and lived with that for a little while, and that was still not getting us off…– Alex Lifeson
The approach we settled on is a very classic, traditional sounding rock song. The drums are really strident and marching along and the nature of the chords and the chord progressions makes for a classic rock sound.
The album concludes with “The Garden,” a heartfelt ballad, driven by Lifeson’s acoustic guitar, delicate bass playing and singing by Lee, and a subdued drum beat from Peart, before exploding into a heart-wrenching electric guitar solo. Peart references Voltaire in the liner notes, using a quotation from Candide – ‘Now we must tend to our garden’ – to summarise the protagonist’s journey of self-realisation. The song also features a string and piano arrangement by David Campbell, lending a sense of moving majesty and finality to the track – and ultimately, Rush’s album career.
We put down keyboard, sample strings, and we really liked the piece. But we thought, rather than use sampled strings we’d bring in a real orchestra and Geddy and I were the catalysts for that. He’s a real sucker for those sorts of things. We decided to bring the strings in and David Campbell did a great job on the arrangement. That really tugs at your heart. I think there’s something that’s really classic about that arrangement and really heartfelt. The song works really well as a closer, the final chapter of the story. That single cello note at the very end is very poignant.– Alex Lifeson
Clockwork Angels was released in June 2012, its accompanying tour beginning in September. Following the tour, the band agreed to take at least a full year off from music.
Behind the scenes, Peart had expressed his desire to make the Clockwork Angels Tour Rush’s last large-scale tour, as he had been suffering for some time from chronic tendinitis. However, Lifeson came to Peart asking him to commit to one more tour – R40 – as he feared he would be unable to effectively perform in the future due to his own psoriatic arthritis. Reluctantly, Peart agreed.
On August 1, 2015, at the end of their final concert at The Forum, Los Angeles, Neil Peart stepped out from behind his drum kit for the very first time. After sneaking up behind Lifeson and Lee, the three shared an embrace before exiting the stage for the final time.
In an December 2015 interview, Peart stated he was officially retiring from music. Though Lifeson and Lee maintained he was taken out of context, by January 2018 it became clear that he was, indeed, finished – and thus, so was the band.
We have no plans to tour or record anymore. We’re basically done. After 41 years, we felt it was enough.– Alex Lifeson
In many ways, Clockwork Angels, and especially “The Garden”, marks the perfect ending to the band’s legacy. After forty years of emotional and physical exertion dedicated to entertaining their millions of fans, it was time for Lee, Lifeson and Peart to tend to their own gardens.
As an album, Clockwork Angels is an exceptional experience, pairing a richly textured story with an eclectic blend of musical genres and inspirations to create a tremendous concept album. As Rush’s final album, it stands as one of their most emotional, well-realised tales – and one that will surely be remembered for years to come.
By Tom Irvine