Wind Them Up, Watch Them Go! The Legendary Rush Return with 'Clockwork Angels'
With an enduring popularity that shows no sign of waning, Canadian rock pioneers Rush are again embarking on the press treadmill in support of 'Clockwork Angels'; their twentieth studio album and their first for five years. A couple of years previously they'd signed to the well-respected Roadrunner Records for the new album, only for the label's European operation to surprisingly begin winding down on the eve of its release. However, plans were obviously already in place before any of this happened, so a wet Wednesday in May finds yours truly caught in a downpour just minutes away from the Kensington hotel where bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee is doing a day full of interviews, arriving in the plush lobby looking like the proverbial drowned rat. Fortunately things had been running very late so I had the time to dry off before being ushered to a last minute change of room, where Geddy and management representative Meghan are agreeing that the room is too cold. "Leave the door open to let the cold air out," says Lee dryly as he works out how to turn the heating up. Looking relaxed but a little jaded, he apologises for having jet lag, but even at the end of a long day he smiles as though this is his first interview and asks if I would like a drink from room service.
A brace of listens to the album have revealed that the band are again blurring the boundaries of what can and can't be done by a band of just three musicians, with guitarist Alex Lifeson playing some of his most varied (and heaviest!) parts and drummer Neil Peart being even busier than on their last record; 'Snakes And Arrows'. Geddy Lee's bass and vocals are as exuberant and vital as ever and the sheer variety of the songs is both instantly familiar and notably different to what's gone before. Surely after twenty albums it gets harder not to repeat themselves?
"Yes, absolutely!" laughs the softly-spoken Canadian. "Sometimes you can't avoid it, and there's always that glorious excuse that repetition of your own work is just another way of saying you have your own style. It's hard not to repeat yourself but I think you can try to make it as artful as possible along the way. Obviously we keep trying to push into new areas and I think our repetition is usually intentional and slightly tongue-in-cheek, so I think that's okay." When I say that I've noticed a few of those moments on t his album he bursts out laughing and replies: "Yeah, I'm sure you have!"
Many Rush albums over the years have had similar themes running through them but 'Clockwork Angels' is the first for quite some time to have a definite story running through it. There were hints in the 'Time Machine' show of the theme that Neil Peart and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson had been working on for a novel version of the story, with both 'Caravan' and 'BU2B' featuring animated images of a future world powered by steam. Surprisingly Geddy and Alex didn't baulk at the idea of doing a concept album.
"Well, Neil didn't actually say 'I want to do a concept album.' He said, 'I've got this idea, what do you guys think and how do you see it?' It was a feeling out conversation, it was a plan that he already had in his mind," Geddy explains. "We talked about a lot of things at the same time. We talked about how cool this steampunk aesthetic was and how we could use that to make our stage set more interesting, and it was a way to set the scene for a story and the kind of idea that he had. It was just the start of a conversation that led us to realise that we were open to any ideas that could sustain for a period of time, or a number of songs, whether that be one long piece, or half an album, or a full album. We didn't know at that stage, it was just dependent on how it went. So when we had an opportunity to talk about it a few times I think Neil started feeling good about going down that road. That's kind of how 'Clockwork Angels' was born."
So many things about the album are unique for the band, not least releasing two of the songs two years before the album and playing them live, as well as writing several of the other songs in those same sessions a long time before the serious work of putting together a whole album began. Geddy seems unsure if working that way was a good idea.
"I think the only advantage to that really is the confidence you have of recording a song, taking it on the road, seeing how well it's received, and then going back to finish the record," he says. "It's a confidence thing - you feel like you did a good job, you're heading in the right direction and you've got a bit more confidence to carry on and finish the job. Aside from that I don't see any other advantage to it because it's always fun to work fresh and start anew, and breaking things up is a strange way to do things. When we'd written the rest of the music, and recorded and mixed it, we realised that we couldn't keep the same mixes of those first two songs because they're just going to sound so different. We were a bit nervous about what we'd find when we were remixing them but the remixes I think sound even better than the original versions and I'm really happy that we did it. The remixes really bring new life to recordings that are two years old."
With Geddy and Alex working on the music and Neil writing the lyrics separately, I wondered if they write the music differently when they know it has to fit into the concept. Lee doesn't seem to think so.
"Well, the whole thing for me on this record was I was up for doing a story album," he explains, "but I didn't want to get into that trap that we'd started to fall into with 'Hemispheres', with this whole idea of musical themes that keep repeating through all these various songs. I didn't want to go down that road, I wanted each piece to be fresh, to stand on its own both musically and lyrically so that you could pull any song out of the story without it being dependent on the other songs to make it valid. I wanted them to be songs unto themselves. So that was my goal and that was my own mandate as a partner writing this whole musical thing together."
'Clockwork Angels' features a couple of long multipart songs but also some relatively simple and accessible tunes as well. As I ask Geddy if they're conscious that they should do those kinds of songs to balance it out, he raises one eyebrow at me over his John Lennon spectacles like I've just committed a faux pas.
"Well, I don't know," he laughs. "'Should' is not a word we have much respect for I'm afraid! It's all a question of what we feel like doing and what we feel is good and appropriate. In the case of this album there are only really two shorter songs - one is 'Halo Effect', which is quite a beautiful and unusual piece of music. It's shorter but I don't know if it's what you would term as accessible. I suppose it is to a certain degree, but to me that was just a thing the record needed to give you a break, because there's so much furious stuff happening before that, you need a mental break just to give it some dynamics. 'Wish Them Well' is probably the most accessible song on the record, and that's a song that almost didn't exist. I kept writing it - Alex and I would work on it, and then it kind of sucked so we threw it away and tried again, and that sucked a little less but it still sucked, so we threw it away again. Then at the eleventh hour we had this last jam session and came up with this song, it's a more immediate kind of classic rock song and I really think it's a breath of fresh air when it appears near the end of the album. Everything has to have a purpose in the context of the total thing, but shouldn't be dependent on the other, songs to be valid."
For a band that's noted for their rigid musical structure and precision, they seem to put much emphasis on feel and spontaneity these days. Geddy agrees.
"Yes, but it's hard to be spontaneous in the studio, or at least it is for us. We're very much creatures of structure and the one thing we learned on the last tour was that during the few moments that we'd set aside to improvise, we were getting lost in our own jamming and our own ability to improvise. There was a fun, kind of dangerous .... room service guy!" he trails off as the waiter enters the room with the drinks. There follows a hilarious comedy routine as the 'room service guy' is adamant that he's leaving several more cups and another bowl of sugar on the table despite Geddy's observation that, "we already have a thousand cups and a thousand sugars!" He rolls his eyes, pours us both a coffee and continues. "As I said, there were moments on the last tour where we were pushing each other to be more spontaneous and get lost. I never used to understand that phrase that Chet Baker used to say; "Let's get lost", until you get into that whole improv thing and all of a sudden you lose 'one'. You're jamming with yourself in a way, and some part of you is listening to the band and you're hoping and praying that you'll come out at the right moment. There's something really marvellous, as a player, to have that feeling of being lost but not lost, and that happens with Neil's drum solo and it happens with Alex when he's improvising certain things. It started happening with us as a band primarily in 'Working Man', because 'Working Man' was different every night and that jam in the middle of it was just furious some nights. We were digging it so much and we wanted to get that feeling on a recorded album, and that's really hard, so we set ourselves out some tasks and some moments on this record where we could just jam and see what happens, and I think we got away with it.
"There are some moments on the record, like 'Seven Cities Of Gold' is largely a jam song, parts of 'Headlong Flight' are really a big structured jam, and the solo in 'Wish Them Well' was that kind of jam too. So the attitude we took into there was not only to do it as a band, but also do it in our individual playing. So, for instance Neil, who would normally structure every second of a song, would play it, only to have Nick (Raskulinecz), our producer, ask him to replay things. So he thought 'Fuck It! I'm not going to do all that work just to have it thrown out, so why don't I just wing it and have Nick in there conducting me, reminding me where the verse is and where the chorus is, so I can just play with that dangerous, 'let's get lost' freedom and see what happens. I'll just do a whole bunch of takes like that and just let Nick sort it out!" And that's just what he did. I think his playing is unbridled on this record, it's really free! I think it's because of that attitude, and that inspired us to do the same thing. Nick would say; "Hey Ged, just go for it here, just see what happens, throw something in on this part of the song!" I think it turned out really well - you can't really recreate that magic moment where you're live, but you can get pretty close and I think we've gotten as close as we ever have on this record, or at least for quite some time, aside from maybe the very earliest records."
Listening to the record it's apparent that some of the playing is very technical, Geddy's bass parts particularly so. It's perhaps strange that he doesn't explore the possible difficulties he'll encounter when having to handle bass, vocals and keyboards at the same time until they start rehearsals for the tour.
"I don't want to think about that because it scares the shit out of me!" laughs the frontman. "As soon as I recorded the bass line for The Anarchist', and then put the vocal on it, I looked at Nick and said, This song is going to be a motherfucker to play live!', and he goes, 'What? Really? It's not so complicated.' The thing is, it's not about what's complicated, it's about the direction they're moving in; the bass is moving in one direction and the vocals are moving in another direction. I'm going to have to play that fucker so many times that I can't think about it anymore, and that's why we've left ourselves more rehearsal time before this tour than we have for any other record, because I think we're going to need it - at least I know I will!"
Co-producer Nick Raskulinecz has worked with the likes of Foo Fighters, Trivium, Alice In Chains, Death Angel and The Deftones, which all seem to be far more heavy and straight-forward than Rush. However, Geddy thinks they've found their perfect collaborator.
"He's a puppy dog," says the bassist. "He's so into it and so enthusiastic, and you can't fool him, because I've tried! I've tested him. I've done bass parts a couple of different ways - very subtly different. I'll say, "Which take did you like the best?" and he'll say, "I like this take!" I'll go, "What about take number two?" and he'll go "Yeah, but you did that thing in take number two and I like the way you didn't do it in take number one!" He doesn't miss a thing, it's very impressive. He wants it to be great. I know every producer says that but he physically looks like he wants it to be great, he's got this enthusiasm and this determination and this ability to keep us smiling and loose, it's just a good combo. For three old farts to be in a studio with this young exuberant guy is a very good thing. He's awesome!"
The Garden' and 'BU2B2' both have a prominent string section that sounds great. It must be tempting for the band to want strings on everything.
"Yes, it is hard," he agrees, "because you start hearing them everywhere, and at first we just wanted strings on 'The Garden'. Then we thought 'Halo Effect' would really be beautiful with strings, and then you listen to other songs - that was Nick's thing, Nick always hears strings on everything. Then you start thinking, 'Well, there's a little bit in The Anarchist' that would sound great with strings', and before you know it they've taken over the whole record if you're not careful. I think it's okay to indulge ourselves at this point and I felt so confident in the strength and the solid bone structure of the songs, that I think they can take the extra enhancements without losing the essential thing."
'Clockwork Angels' also saw Rush going back to Toronto to record the album after being so complementary about Allaire studios in New York State where they recorded most of 'Snakes And Arrows'.
Geddy explains, "It's just a lot easier to live in the city and work in the city, and stay connected to your family. So much of our lives take us away from family, and we would have done it earlier but as strange as it seems there are very few drum rooms that will do Neil's drums justice in Toronto. This studio that we worked in, Revolution Recording, is a brand new studio. In fact we were the first major album recorded there and they've built a beautiful room for drums. So that's why we lucked out and we were able to record at home. Of course that's not Neil's home any longer so we have to hope that he's happy to hang around for a few weeks to a couple of months. We do a trade-off, that's why we mixed the album in LA, so he could be at home - we worked out a deal between us."
One thing that fans will definitely notice is that the album continues the trend they've had since 'Presto' of having less prominent keyboards on each subsequent release.
"Yeah, that's because Alex did most of the keyboard work on this album," laughs Lee. "Well, there's a lot of subtle keyboard work. Alex used to be dead against keyboards until he realised that he can plug his guitar into one and play it with his strings, so now he's singing a little bit of a different tune I might add, he just loves the keyboards now. It cracked me up at certain points during the mix to ask him to turn the keyboards up, but there are a few moments where I do get to play them on the record - they're usually pretty subtle and we try to use them well, but when you've got a string section you don't really need keys. I know it's going to be hard for me to sing and play bass when we play them live, but I've got way less pedal work to do on these songs and Alex has way more."
On the European leg of the Time Machine tour last year there was much online debate about Geddy's voice, and on the UK dates especially it was obvious that he wasn't his usual consistent self.
"I'd just got over strep throat before I came over to Europe and I had to be careful how I used it. It knocked me back quite seriously," he says honestly. "The other problem I had was that the infection had spread from my throat into my ear canal so I had to have my ear canal punctured before I came over to allow the infection to get out. To be honest it wasn't the most fun tour to do for me, but I thought we still pulled it off and played at a high level - there were some nights my voice felt quite fine and other nights I had to work a little harder."
There's no mistaking that his singing voice is deeper these days, so as time goes on there are bound to be some older songs that he wouldn't even attempt.
"We tried to do 'A Farewell To Kings' in rehearsal for the last tour a couple of years ago and it just wasn't working, and we didn't want to have to change the key or anything. There are a few songs we've tried that don't seem to work anymore for us," admits Lee.
The last tours have seen the band playing through the summer, and the recently announced dates are continuing the pattern of not touring in winter.
"We're going to work through the fall this year and then come back out in the spring next year, probably to Europe and other places," Geddy explains. "I seem to be able to stay healthier in the summer tours, playing outside when it's hot helps me, but arena tours are really hard for a singer. There are so many temperature changes that it gets really easy to get waylaid by a cold or something like that. I certainly enjoy the summer tours better."
How much of the new album are they going to play in the live show? The bass player pauses for thought.
"We're not sure exactly yet, but it's going to be quite a bit of it. We'll do a long show, probably over three hours again, so we'll have a lot of time to do a good chunk of this as well as a lot of other songs."
On the subject of playing their new music live, Rush are in the enviable position of having fans who still crave new music and don't leave the arena every time they play a new song, which must help the band maintain their boundless creativity and enthusiasm.
"Absolutely!" he exclaims. "The support of our fans gives us the confidence to move forward, the confidence to keep experimenting, and it's a huge vote of confidence to know that your fans want you to progress, and I can't begin to tell you the value of that to the band, whether it's overt or subconscious. We know it's there and we're really grateful for that."
Having planned the next two legs of touring, the band are taking things one step at a time these days.
"Long term plans don't work for us anymore so we don't have them. Project one was "Let's do an album." Now the album's done and we're very proud of it so we'll move to the tour now. We're not thinking beyond that."
After over thirty years of being ignored by the influential US magazine Rolling Stone, the magazine are now writing frequent Rush articles, something that has really surprised the band.
"Yes, it has," says Lee with obvious sincerity. "Times change, and the people that work at these places change too, and I think that has more do with it than anything else. But I'll accept it, whatever happens," he grins.
With the interview coming to the end of my memorised topics, I had a couple of minutes left and wanted to ask something that won't have cropped up in all the other interviews he's been doing. So with Derek Oliver's Rock Candy label about to reissue two albums by fellow Anthem Records artists Wireless, I asked Geddy for his memories of their 'No Static' album, which he produced and sang backing vocals on. A huge smile breaks out across his face.
"I remember a lot about it really," he replies. "I loved those guys, they were sweethearts - it's hard not to like an Aussie, they're really 'game' guys, as they would say. I had a great time, it was a really good experience, I worked really hard and I wanted them to be happy with their record. It was tough, it was a low budget record and I had to beg, borrow and steal Paul Northfield's time to help me with it, and I found out right in the middle of it that my wife was pregnant with our first child, so I have a lot of memories from that time. I remember those sessions really clearly. I hear from one of them every once in a while. A couple of them moved back to Australia, but I have nothing but good, fond thoughts about those guys. I'm happy the record's getting released, and that somebody likes it somewhere...so thank you very much for letting me know."
Although it's been five long years since Rush released a full studio album - 2007's 'Snakes & Arrows' - 'Clockwork Angels' was preceded by the digital release of the opening two songs 'Caravan' and 'BU2B' in 2010, and their subsequent airing live on the 'Time Machine' tour and ensuing DVD. For long term Rush fans there was perhaps a worry that Messrs Lee, Lifeson & Peart were heading too far in a heavier direction and further away from the complex but accessible melodies they were known for, but thankfully the direct style of those two songs has proven to be but a small part of a varied whole.
Produced again by the band with whizz-kid Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains) the album kicks off with the two already available songs, the dark and upbeat duo benefitting greatly from a remix that brings a more organic live feel, but the biggest difference is in the clarity of the vocals. It's been a while since Rush did long multi-part songs and here we get two; the sublime title track which begins atmospherically and has some heavy and tuneful parts, several changes of pace, a superb Lifeson guitar solo and a simply monstrous Neil Peart drum barrage. Later on the album the single 'Headlong Flight' has some real throwback moments to 'Bastille Day', 'By-Tor...' and beyond, but still comes across as powerful, contemporary rock with phenomenal instrumentation an energetic live power-trio feel. Some of the songs run into each other to fit with the storyline concept and most are upbeat, like the simpler 'The Anarchist' with its vocal effects and amazing bass, or 'Carnies'; a real throwback with a 'Working Man'-style dirty riff and other snatches of ages past.
The first really prominent orchestral part is on the beautiful 'Halo Effect', a song with a light, tuneful verse and punchy chorus, whilst the ensuing 'Seven Cities Of Gold' and 'The Wreckers' are as immediate as it gets with the former's catchy vocal lines and the latter's almost power-pop feel, light guitar parts and orchestral ending. The album ends in a most unexpected but very welcome way, with 'BU2B2' reprising the track with stirring orchestra and vocal, the old-school riffs and simple structure of 'Wish Them Well', and the simply incredible 'The Garden'. The latter is a magical closing track that's unlike anything Rush have done before, with acoustic guitar, orchestra and one of Geddy Lee's greatest heartfelt vocals, it's perhaps their own 'Silent Lucidity' and closes the album in fine style.
It's already been said by many journalists that 'Clockwork Angels' is the finest Rush album for a long, long time, and I can't disagree. It's brave, it's powerful, it has great depth and a lot of light and shade. I haven't even got into the lyrics and the concept behind it yet, but loving the music is a great start and it's an album I'll be playing loud and often. It really is that special!