The album format is rumored to be dead, but don't tell that to Rush, which comes from a generation of bands inspired by the concept albums of the late '60s.
The Canadian prog-rock band was among those who pushed the idea through the '70s with such sci-fi fueled albums as "2112" and "Hemispheres."
More than 30 years later, Rush has taken a conceptual approach once again with this year's "Clockwork Angels," a narrative that involves alchemy, steampunk and encounters with pirates, anarchists and lost cities. It was hinted at with the stage design Rush took on the road during 2010's "Time Machine Tour."
"The look of that tour was inspired by the work we had already done on this album, so we kind of jumped the gun a little bit," singer Geddy Lee says in a phone interview. "Originally, we had this conversation. At the time, Neil [Peart] had been reading a lot about and enjoying different aspects of steampunk artwork. He asked us if were familiar with it. I was, of course, because I'm an amateur film buff, and it's a thing that a lot of art directors use.
"We started talking about doing a piece of music that was more ambitious than we had been doing, in terms of a longer piece. We thought it would be fun to use that steampunk aesthetic as a backdrop. We went away thinking we would do like a 10-minute song. When Neil came back, he had already been thinking of something more, like an entire collection of songs. So, it was just something that lit a fire under us."
The 66-minute "Clockwork Angels," with its elaborate pieces, certainly bucks that trend of the album being dead. It also bucks a trend of classic-rock artists hitting a creative wall and, say, releasing an album of covers. Rush, along with maintaining its ambition and actually getting along, doesn't sound any less muscular in its playing.
"I think we're fortunate that we're still very interested in what we're doing," the singer says. "I think a lot of musicians tire of what they're up to, and for one reason or another, they just kind of lose the spark or are distracted by other things in their lives. We're fortunate that when we sit down to work together we enjoy it, we enjoy the way we interact with each other. There's a benefit to having done this for a long time, because you get a lot of [b.s.] out of the way. For you to maintain a friendship for 30 or 40 years means you've gone through a lot of [stuff] with them and, hopefully, you've learned from it and gotten a lot of the menial, trivial things out of the way. There's a lot of ego that's fallen by the wayside, and now the only reason to get together, aside from making each other laugh, is to try to produce something good."
Ever since the band debuted with a self-titled album in 1974, one of the things that divided people over Rush was the high-pitched sound of Mr. Lee's voice. At 59, it has toned down considerably, giving Rush's sound a richer, more even-handed quality.
"As a singer, and a bass player," he says, "I've tried to evolve and learn and work with people who have something to teach me in using my voice. There's a certain confidence that comes with age, as well. Yeah, I'm pretty pleased with how I use my voice at this age. There are moments which require me to be, uh, rock singer-like, and there are other moments in our music that allow me to sing in a more delicate way."
Speaking of making each other laugh, one thing fans are noticing lately in the historically serious world of Rush is a self-effacing sense of humor. On the last tour, Mr. Lee sported a T-shirt that read "Rash," and the band projected short films of the trio acting out skits like they were the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy.
"That's another thing that comes with time and confidence," Mr. Lee says. "When you're young, you think it's important to put across a face of a musician as a serious thing, because you want to be taken seriously. Then after time, you realize that people are taking you seriously, and, in fact, you don't take yourself seriously, so you just start becoming more of yourself on stage and you start blurring the line between the person guy that is backstage and the guy who climbs on the stage. When you're young, you're posturing a lot, and as you get older, you're more comfortable in your own skin. Who we really are is quite funny, so we're not afraid to exercise the funny muscle right now. I think our fans have come to like that."
Rush is also at an age, perhaps even past it, where bands become concerned with their legacies. Rush was always more a fan band than a critic band, and now nearly 15 years past its eligibility for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band has yet to even been nominated.
"It's something that really we have no control over, so it's hard to get too caught up in it, frankly," the singer says. "Obviously, we're very proud of our careers, and I know it means a lot to our fans that we get recognition, and I appreciate that they care enough about us to petition for us to be in there, but it's nothing I can control, and it will either happen or it won't happen, but it's not going to diminish what my career and bandmates' career has meant to us and our fans."
Perhaps the voters need to take a field trip and see Rush navigate through one of its marathon, three-hour shows. On the last tour, the band performed its 1981 classic "Moving Pictures" straight through, and it was just a fraction of Rush's second set. With all three members at 59 (Mr. Peart turns 60 on Wednesday), why put themselves through such rigorous evenings?
"Because we like to play," the singer says. "We've gone to the trouble and expense of building a show, and we have over 20 albums worth of material that people want to hear, and I think while we can - while we still possess the strength and desire to do it - I think we should do it. We've got a lot of interesting pieces of music to play on this [tour], and we really like the new album. I think we know if we're going to play so much new material, we'd better have a lot of older material, so that everybody walks away happy."