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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rush Returns Like "Clockwork"

Most of us have used or at least heard the phrase "just like clockwork" before, usually in reference to an event with such a timely recurrence as though it's run by a clock.

In the music world, timing can play a huge part in an album's success, based on when the artist or label chooses to release it.  For months now, a certain album has been at the very top of my list of anticipatory releases.  That album, that first album of all new material from Aerosmith in more than a decade, "Music From Another Dimension", has just been pushed from it's original release date of August 28th to November 6th.  Frontman Steven Tyler explained the reason for the delay immediately after the news arrived, "Too many people are releasing in those weeks.  We don't wanna step on their release dates. So we just said, 'You know what?! We've got the goods... ain't no doubt about it. We'll wait another couple of months.'"  This may be disappointing to many fans, but I think it's a classy gesture on their part because in this digital age it's harder than ever to achieve impressive album sales, especially like the figures generated during the pre-iTunes and digital download era.  It's nice to see these guys, who most likely are not desperate for some payout tied to sales, give other artists their chance.  I will be at the store on November 6th to pick up the new Aerosmith album, right after I go vote.

Moving on, another release I had been looking forward to hearing from start to finish after hearing one track is the new album from Rush titled "Clockwork Angels".  As I've mentioned before, I really didn't catch on to Rush until hearing their album "Roll The Bones" on a road trip, but of course I knew many of their classic songs, especially "Tom Sawyer".  When "Counterparts" came out in 1994, Pearl Jam had its claws in me, but I grabbed that album and loved it, and saw Rush for the first time when they came to Fresno on that tour.  Being an admirer of the drums, and hoping to one day play myself, there really is no loftier role model to follow than Neil Peart, known as "The Professor", and he is a beast on the new album.  The first track I heard from "Clockwork Angels" is called "Headlong Flight", and I have to say the intro, particularly from :32 to :48, is so much more aggressive than Rush's typical sound that it could have been part of a new song from Tool, which is not a bad thing considering their drummer Danny Carey is also an idol.  I've told a number of people that if I got into drumming, I would strive to be recognized as a perfect combination of those two.

The album kicks off nicely with "Caravan", and hardly lets up, at an almost frantic pace, through the first 5 tracks.  The fifth track "Carnies" opens with some metal-inspired axework by Alex Lifeson that makes you hungry for more of that sound.  Things slow down a little with some nice acoustic work on "Halo Effect" before picking back up with "Seven Cities of Gold" and "The Wreckers", leading to my favorite track, the aforementioned "Headlong Flight".  The album closes out after a few more tracks with "The Garden", a nice acoustic finish.

I've used the term "grimy" before for music that just really has a hard edge to its sound, such as Korn's entire catalog, and I have to say after hearing the guitar on "Carnies" and some of the music on the album, including the section mentioned from "Headlong Flight", these guys got a bit grimy on this album and it's nice to hear them showing that if they feel like getting dirty they're fully capable of it.  That's not to say that Rush doesn't have its share of songs that really have some muscle to them, but for me their music has always been more about the balance between storytelling and music, due mostly to the lyrical content provided by Peart (which led to the "Professor" moniker).

What's most impressive to me about a band like Rush and others like them, known as a "power trio", is the amount of sound generated by only three guys.  The term refers to a band format with only drums, bass and guitar, comprised of only 3 members.  Some of the most popular power trios in music have been The Police, ZZ Top, Rush, Cream, and in more recent times, Nirvana, Green Day and Chevelle.  These trios are capable of rocking as hard or harder than bands with nearly twice as many members, and it's not done through layers of music added in the studio because they can perform the songs live with just as much power and sounding just as full as you hear on the album.  However, while many of todays younger listeners judge a band by how "hard" they sound or how aggressive they are, I say that experience wins out because when you listen to a Rush album, especially this new one, and compare just how tight these guys play, the musicianship comes through louder even if the other bands have a heavier sound.

Speaking specifically of drums, a
perfect example comes from listening to a recent favorite track from the band Chevelle called "Face To The Floor" from their latest album "Hats off to the Bull".  That song starts off rocking hard and never lets up, and is a great hard rock track and the perfect way to start off their album.  Put that song up against Rush's "Headlong Flight" or "Driven" (off the "Test for Echo" album) and while Chevelle is considered a heavier band than Rush, and their drummer is certainly solid and capable of creating some big sounds, Peart's playing provides a fuller sound overall.  Slipknot bassist Paul Gray was interviewed before his tragic and untimely passing and credited their drummer Joey Jordison as the best Rock drummer "hands down", obviously attributing that to his being not only an extremely loud and aggressive player, but of course a close friend and bandmate.  Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's late frontman, lauded drummer Dave Grohl for his playing, even saying "he blows away John Bonham", of course referring to the late Led Zeppelin drummer who is widely regarded one of the absolute best Rock drummers of all time.  Most likely again his comments are attributed to how hard and loud Dave can play while retaining impeccable timing and precision.  Undoubtedly there are many drummers in Rock music who deserve recognition for their playing, but any time a poll shows up asking "Who's the best Rock drummer?" Neil Peart is always at or near the top. 

Of course, being that Rush is a trio, Neil is among three including the previously mentioned Alex Lifeson, who is rarely mentioned or seen on the cover of Guitar World, but whose catalog of riffs are among some of Rock's most recognizable and classic, on songs like "Spirit of Radio" and "Limelight".  Singer/bassist Geddy Lee has no problem performing double duty and in fact triple duty as he also helms the keyboard on tracks like "Tom Sawyer" and "Subdivisions".  His vocals are mostly in the higher range and create a more clearly drawn line between love and hate (meaning you either love his voice or can't stand listening to them because of it) than most other vocalists.  I know people who do not listen to Rush because of the "squeal" in his voice, but I can't imagine anyone else singing "Tom Sawyer", or many of their songs, and Geddy has explained his relationship with the lyrics as such that he has to explore them first and believe in them, or else the fans won't.  I can appreciate that approach because in that regard he's taking some rather complex lyrics and projecting them in a way that tells a story rather than just blindly singing them out over their music.  Geddy's bass playing is most prominent on the band's instrumental pieces like "Leave That Thing Alone" from "Counterparts" and their classic "Yyz" and it almost borders on eerie on many tracks for the spacial effect he creates on them.

To summarize this album review gone wild, "Clockwork Angels" is, in my opinion, their best album since Counterparts for a number of reasons but I have to say mostly because I like the more aggressive tone and the prominence of each member's playing scattered throughout the album.  For those familiar with the band's history, take notice of the album cover and the positioning of the hands on the clock for a clever nod to their past.  I would highly recommend this album for anyone, not just a fan of Rush's music, as a strong statement among today's Rock albums from three guys who have been together for nearly 40 years yet still manage to sound fresh on every album.