On some days, when I'm really brutally honest with myself, I can safely admit that all of my favourite old rock bands from the 1970s have gone completely past the point of no return; they'll never release an album of the same calibre as those from their heyday, they'll never sell out huge stadiums and get the attention they used to, they'll never write another song that will be included amongst their 'canon' of tracks in constant rotation on classic rock radio.
Every band, except for one, that is.
Canadian prog rockers Rush have somehow defied the norm, managing not only to remain one of the strongest touring bands on the planet to date, but somehow also to remain relevant as one mainstays in the modern progressive music scene, holding their own against modern giants like Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, and Opeth. What's more, they're still releasing incredibly strong material time and time again, though admittedly none of their recent releases had been on par with their all-time classics, 2112 and Moving Pictures.
So when I say to you that 2012's Clockwork Angels is not just a good album, but an album equal to, if not better than everything Rush has released before, understand the importance of that statement. I am telling you that this band, a good thirty years past their expiration date, is still releasing material strong enough to challenge their own career highs, and these are high points that the majority of their peers could never hope to achieve in the first place.
Just a bit of background: though they've always been categorized as a "progressive rock" band, though you wouldn't know it at first blush, given what the bulk of their releases sound like. All of their albums since the 1980s have been more or less standard rock albums, consisting of a handful of unrelated four-to-six minute songs. In fact, Rush are pretty much a hard rock band through and through--admittedly, one that just happened to write a few ten minute songs during the 70s, or write the occasional passage in 7/4. That's not meant to be taken as a dig at the quality of their music, mind you--it's just a general observation about the style of music they've played.
I take pains to mention this because, when I first listened to Clockwork Angels, it surprised me in that it exhibits many of the tropes common in progressive music that Rush have traditionally shied away from for almost three decades now. Most glaringly, Clockwork Angels is the band's first true concept album (anyone who says 2112 is a concept album doesn't know the meaning of the phrase). It's an album-length story following the travels of a young man through a world of clockpunk and alchemy, complete with a novelization by sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson, and if that doesn't sound awesome to you, then you seriously need to reevaluate your tastes in music, because it doesn't get much cooler than that. In addition, Rush have also integrated several smaller progressive rock techniques so common and overused that it's hard to believe they have never been utilized by the band until now, including such basic tricks as a theme reprisal, smooth track segues, and acoustic interludes and introductions. It's almost as if they're just doing these things just to draw attention to the fact that they've never had to rely on them in the first place in order to write thoughtful music.
Accordingly, the songs are also much longer for the band's later material, containing their three longest individual studio recordings since their engorged song length days. The title track in particular stands out as a perfectly executed multi-part epic, much in the same style as "Natural Science" or "By-Tor and the Snow Dog". The band also references their hard/blues rock days from Rush and Fly By Night on a few tracks, calling back to their roots on "Wish Them Well" and "Seven Cities of Gold". And, of course, they haven't abandoned their good old fashioned heavy metal influences. Songs like "Caravan" and "Headlong Flight" are bound to become live concert staples, and other tracks like "BU2B" are absolutely drooling with the unrestrained metal that produced tracks like "One Little Victory" and "Far Cry".
And on top of that, Rush have finally written some truly melodic pieces--this album has some of their softest and sweetest songs they have ever written. "Halo Effect" is three minutes of pure melancholic tear-jerking bliss, "The Wreckers" has some absolutely stunning moments of string-backed beauty, and, of course, the closer "The Garden" is an absolutely perfect power ballad, a genre the band has traditionally shied away from writing. Lifeson's solo in the middle of the song is one of the finest, and undoubtedly the most moving, of his entire career. The addition of orchestral backing only makes them all the more emotionally moving.
But what makes Clockwork Angels not just a good album, but a great album, is that the songwriting is absolutely perfect. Rush have seemingly gotten used to turning out albums with one or two hits mixed in with five or six tracks of fluff, but on Clockwork Angels, almost every single track is a winner, with turning out more surefire hits on a single album than most bands get in a career. Naturally, some songs are stronger than others, but there isn't a single song on here that could be described as chaff or filler (except maybe the one minute interlude "BU2B2"); every single full song on this album is strong outside of the context of the whole, and coming from a band this late in their career, that's an unheard of accomplishment.
And, of course, the instrumental prowess of Lifeson, Lee and Peart is, as always, top-notch. You can tell these guys have been playing for forty years now--all of the songs are seeping with such subtle detail and learned finesse that you can listen to this album a dozen times over and still be discovering something new. Rush long ago set the standard for virtuosity in rock bands; now they're just shattering it themselves over and over again.
Let me put it this way: some bands Rush's age are releasing songs that are pale imitations of their former sound. Rush are rewriting their own 'best of' collections with every release.