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As preposterous as it sounds, in the mid-1970s, a power trio of white kids from Canada could think that pretending to have the blues was the fast track to stardom. The prevailing notion back then held that The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix were important; that they saved the world from something. (From Mel Tormé, one presumes.)
Out of either boredom or the (correct) realization that this idea was ludicrous, Rush abandoned that route, hired an Objectivist drummer/lyricist, and started penning multi-part suites about trees and the saving power of rock and roll as allegories for the encroaching nanny state. Thank God for that.
What often gets lost, though, is that these humble epics of Far East tourism and tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge somehow linger in the head because of their tunefulness. “The Necromancer” may be 12 minutes long, but it manages to interpolate “Sweet Jane.” Geddy Lee has a keening wail, but it’s distinctive. The next logical step was to make pop records like Power Windows and Moving Pictures; even those crushed under the weight of 2112‘s sweeping adolescent ridiculousness had to give credit to Rush’s thoughtful position within hard rock’s pop triumph.
Still, “Jacob’s Ladder” and “The Camera Eye” sound turgid to most outside the target audience. Rush in the ’80s was never so stuffily progressive as all that. In fact, the band was very strictly formalist: impeccable musicians used their powers to write very precise pop tunes. “Subdivisions” is middle-school nihilism to a banging drone offset by springy jazz bass; “Distant Early Warning” bends white-boy reggae to the breaking point, wresting a lilting, ominous lullaby out of Cold War dread; the insistent, ringing power pop of “Time Stand Still” features a young (and not altogether out of place) Aimee Mann. The three continued to know exactly what they were doing, and there were tasty hooks and plenty of “holy FUCK, did you just hear that!?” snippets of virtuosity to make sure you followed right along.
In the ’90s, the band became prematurely saddled with the “classic rock” tag, meaning it had to be sold to a consumer culture lapping up a mutated punk credo that disingenuously rejected both pop and canon. A steady stream of confusingly, continually repackaged greatest hits and live collections kept the band on the radar; “Roll the Bones” found them embarrassingly trying to figure out what that hip hop stuff was all about; Test for Echo was as subtle and crystalline-beautiful an album as Rush could make, and quickly forgotten; personal problems mounted.
Finally—perhaps emboldened by the fact that Tool and System of a Down (on the radio) and Botch and the Dismemberment Plan (on Pitchfork) were convincing kids to care about weird time signatures and alternate guitar tunings again—the band tried to go back to basics, inasmuch as the jazz fusion space opera “Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage” could be considered basic.
I remember “One Little Victory” causing me to buy Vapor Trails with excitement—Rush was writing riffs again! But before researching this piece, I couldn’t remember how any of the record went. Listening to it now brings to mind the Lulu kerfuffle of last year: expecting more of the full-bore, arcane perversity of “The View,” the listener was instead greeted with two hours of Metallica noodling. There were about as many people interested in listening to an hour of Rush noodling in 2002; a blessed few.
So how’s that new album, then? Is the Canadian commuter press right in breathlessly embracing Clockwork Angels as their favorite sons’ very own Tommy, only set in “a fictional steam-punk sci-fi world”?
There’s an ersatz metallic crunch to its songs, which—while seeming concerned with being the heaviest-sounding thing on the radio right now—are self-consciously melodic. (Ironic that “Spirit of the Radio,” which excoriated the “endless compromises” of the airwaves, would become one of the band’s enduring radio hits, and that they’d be one of the last bands clinging to the format for a livelihood.) Blue Öyster Cult tried a similar tack on 1998’s Heaven Forbid—”See You in Black” was more justifiably thrash metal than any Metallica of the period. When Pantera did this, they made anthems for hardcore and metal kids alike. Megadeth, on the best of it (“Trust,” “Train of Consequences”), made the case that Dave Mustaine could have been a speed-metal Keith Richards if not for the crack and the Born Again antics. When Rush goes in this direction, though, it sounds like they’re trying to overcompensate for the fact that Geddy can’t hit the high notes anymore.
Still: tunefulness persists. “Headlong Flight” is all bubbly bass, muscular guitar, and busy drumming, but by the time they lock into a surging groove on the triumphant chorus, it brings to mind how every “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” had a “Fly by Night,” every “Xanadu” a “Closer to the Heart.” The title track is pure Joshua Tree ebullience shot through with King Crimson courtliness, right down to the trebly reverb and chugging cymbal drive. Rush really wants you to believe in this album, and by the time Alex Lifeson takes his solo, you just might. (You’ll have to overlook that the next three songs work along very similar lines and that the album clocks in at 1:06:07, but still.)
One of Rush’s greatest failings, Neil Peart’s Ayn Rand problem, turns out to be its greatest strength. 1978’s “The Trees” is a song so delicately constructed and gorgeous (people constantly talk about Peart’s drums, probably because there are so many of them, but the interplay between Lee and Lifeson has always been Rush’s greatest weapon; listen to “Seven Cities of Gold” for funkier evidence) that you forgive its ugly anti-union message. Clockwork Angels can come off like a midlife-crisis Porsche buy at times, but Rush never lost that sense of patient, rendered wonder—remarkable for a band that released its first LP in 1974.