Rush’s Clockwork Angels (It Can Get None More Prog!)

Rush’s 19th Studio Album.  Six years old today.  Art by Hugh Syme.

Today is the sixth anniversary of the release of the final Rush studio album, CLOCKWORK ANGELS.  It can get “nun more” prog.  

[This piece is dedicated to my great and brave friend, Steve Horwitz, fellow Rush-ian]

Rush’s nineteenth studio album, Clockwork Angels, came out on June 12, 2012.  It was the first album to be distributed by heavy-metal label, Roadrunner, and the second to be produced by Nick Raskulinecz.  As mentioned at this beginning of this book, the story of Clockwork Angelsis such an artistic success—as a story, a concert, a novel, a sequel to the novel, a graphic novel, an audio book, and a series of comic books—that it really overshadows not only the actual album but much of Rush’s other art.  It is, of course, the culmination of forty years of care, of love, and of purpose.  However much the Clockwork universe has dwarfed the album itself, it is very much worth considering the original source material.

Clockwork Angelscame out a full six years after Snakes and Arrows, a break between albums even greater than that between Test for Echoand Vapor Trails.  Still, few worried as hints came out frequently about the forthcoming Rush album during that time, and Rush even released versions of the two opening songs as singles, performing them on the Time Machine Tourof 2011.  As few would disagree, the wait for the final product was well worth it.  While Moving Pictures—because of its time and place in history—might always remain the iconic Rush album, Clockwork Angelsis arguably the best, cohesive piece of art the band has ever made. It reveals a maturity in lyrics and music understandably absent in the first few Rush albums, but it also possesses every explosion of energy those albums expressed.

Still, the Clockwork Angelsstory could never have been written by a young man. Tellingly, the novel begins with a grandfather remembering his life.  Rush have become, simply put, the elder statesmen of the rock world, a fact finally confirmed by the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 in its induction ceremony of the band.

Train bells and hydraulic engines establish a Steampunk—a future based on steam and chemicals rather than electronics—atmosphere in the opening moments of the first track, “Caravan.”  This atmosphere quickly dissipates and heavy (I mean, heavy) guitar and bass take over, with Lee’s wailing voice imitating that of a conductor—welcoming us to new vistas, new ideas, and new worlds.  “I can’t stop thinking big,” repeats Lee.  Whatever life has provided in the security of a small, ordered village, the protagonist—who we later learn is Owen Hardy—needs to explore a world beyond that of his family.  “On my way at last, on my way at last,” Hardy thinks as he departs from his ancestral home.

On a road lit only by fire

Going where I want, instead of where I should

I peer out at the passing shadows

Carried through the night into the city

Where a young man has a chance of making good

A chance to break from the past

Though “lit only by fire” probably refers to William Manchester’s controversial story of the same title, Peart’s story deals with an alchemical world, not a specifically medieval one (per Manchester).

Art by Hugh Syme.

With no break in sound, track two, “BU2B,” begins. Like “Free Will” and “Faithless,” this song deals, in a faerie-story like way, with the huge questions of predestination and free will.  Whatever freedom the individual will has, its religious, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic traditions delimit our choices, and we must decide whether to accept the teachings and inheritance of our parents, reject those teachings, or reform them.

I was brought up to believe

The universe has a plan

We are only human

It’s not ours to understand


The universe has a plan

All is for the best

Some will be rewarded

And the devil take the rest


All is for the best

Believe in what we’re told

Blind men in the market

Buying what we’re sold

Believe in what we’re told

Until our final breath

While our loving Watchmaker

Loves us all to death

Should something appear unjust to us in this world, the Watchmaker will fix it in the next.  All balances will come due.

And, the continuity of tracks continues with track three, the title track.  Blistering guitar and walls of sound surround the entire listening experience, building in a way Rush has not built since “Jacob’s Ladder.”  Peart carefully avoids too much description of the actual angels. Instead, we the listeners understand what they do to heighten our desires and shelter our curiosity from too much stimulation.

You promise every treasure, to the foolish and the wise

Goddesses of mystery, spirits in disguise

Every pleasure, we bow and close our eyes

Clockwork angels, promise every prize


Clockwork angels, spread their arms and sing

Synchronized and graceful, they move like living things

Goddesses of Light, of Sea and Sky and Land

Much like Pink Floyd’s Animals, Peart even places the words from actual Proverbs of the Old Testament into the liner notes and lyrics. “Lean not upon your own understanding,” Peart’s translation of Hebrew reads, while the band shifts to a very blues-based sound.  While Peart’s universe is not this actual universe, he is clearly tying his story not just to faerie, but to actual Judeo-Christianity.  So, while the Watchmaker is not God, and the Anarchist is not the devil, each character most likely sees himself as a powerful representative of the Cosmic struggle.

The fourth track introduces the listener to “The Anarchist,” the antagonist of the Watchmaker.  Part devil, part terrorist, part bitterness itself, the Anarchist seeks to destabilize all harmony, preferring the very essence of chaos to the essence of any order. Beyond destruction, however, The Anarchist has few goals.

The lenses inside of me that paint the world black

The pools of poison, the scarlet mist, that spill over into rage

The things I’ve always been denied

An early promise that somehow died

A missing part of me that grows around me like a cage

Whatever his strengths—if any—the Anarchist is and will always remain trapped within the prison of himself.  He is an individualist, but to such an extreme that he knows no community.  He has abstracted himself from everything and from all.

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From the tour book.  Art by Hugh Syme.

Having made it to the city, now alienated from all he knew and without the anchor of family and tradition, Hardy stares at the bewildering aspects of the city.

How I prayed just to get away

To carry me anywhere

Sometimes the angels punish us

By answering our prayers

Perhaps he has earned this chaos, he fears.  With the story, the protagonist has found a Bradbury-esque like carnival, but the lyrics owe as much to the author of Something Wicked This Way Comesas to Jethro Tull and Aqualung.

The first five songs have such a tightness of continuity, that the listener has simply found himself fully immersed in the story of this hauntingly familiar universe.  With the sixth track, “Halo Effect,” the band and the listener finally have time to breathe.  A love song of sorts, “Halo Effect” considers the idealistic images we place upon another, especially with infatuation, which we sometimes incorrectly mistake for love.

What did I care?

Fool that I was

Little by little, I burned

Maybe sometimes

There might be a flaw

But how pretty the picture was back then


What did I do?

Fool that I was

To profit from youthful mistakes?

It’s shameful to tell

How often I fell

In love with illusions again


So shameful to tell

Just how often I fell

In love with illusions again

The breather over, Rush takes us right back into the world of adventures, “Seven Cities of Gold,” and we, along with Hardy, find ourselves following in the footsteps of the greatest explorers of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, Conquistadors looking for the lost bishop, Praeter John, and his Christian companions.

A man can lose himself, in a country like this

Rewrite the story

Recapture the glory

A man could lose his life, in a country like this

Sunblind and friendless

Frozen and endless

In this land, a man might find himself or simply remake himself anew.  The desert, not the ocean, baptizes.

However intense and exciting the adventures, Hardy finds himself alone in “The Wreckers.”  These folks, perhaps simply wanting to make a life for themselves, have in their own protection, become the unwitting allies of the Anarchist, demolishing in the name of building.  Peart uses the story, not unexpectedly, to offer some personal and philosophical reflections.

All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary

Of a miracle too good to be true

All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary

Everything in life you thought you knew

All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary

‘Cause sometimes the target is you

Hardy barely escapes with his life, but he does so at the cost of having seen humanity at its absolute worst.

A rocker of epic proportions, “Headlong Flight,” follows Hardy into the unknown, his escape from fire into fire.  Leaving the parasitic Wreckers, he encounters even greater dangers.  As he does, he reflects on his time, wondering if he should lament his choices, lick his wounds in self pity, or embrace his scars as badges of honor.

All the highlights of that headlong flight

Holding on with all my might

To what I felt back then

I wish that I could live it all again


I have stoked the fire on the big steel wheels

Steered the airships right across the stars

I learned to fight, I learned to love and learned to feel

Oh, I wish that I could live it all again


All the treasures

The gold and glory

It didn’t always feel that way

I don’t regret it

I never forget it

I wouldn’t trade tomorrow for today

Would one live it all again, Peart asks?  The song, of course, is as much a retrospective about Peart’s real life as it is about Hardy’s fictional one.

After a brief return to the tune and themes of fate and free will with “BU2B2,” the album concludes with two songs of charity, mercy, and good will.  The second to last track, “Wish Them Well,” considers all of the people who have betrayed each one of us.  Some of them were malicious, while most were probably simply clueless.

The ones who’ve done you wrong

The ones who pretended to be so strong

The grudges you’ve held for so long

It’s not worth singing that same sad song


Even though you’re going through hell

Just keep on going

Let the demons dwell


Just wish them well

In its intent, it is a song of ultimate Stoic virtue.

Playing upon Judeo-Christian theology as well as small-r republican theory—directly referencing the greatest writer of the European Enlightenment, Voltaire—“The Garden” concludes the album on a breathtakingly beautiful note.

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect

The way you live, the gifts that you give

In the fullness of time

It’s the only return that you expect


The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen

Even has the Watchmaker devours our lives in time, events, and his own vision of order, we persist, we live, and we make our own decisions. Just as Stoics have called the slave Epictetus the freest of men and Nero, the Emperor, the most enslaved of men, so Peart calls us to understand that we always have the freedom of soul and of conscience.  The evil of others never justifies our own, and, in each moment, we can choose to make our own souls commensurate with what is good, true, and beautiful.

Classic Rockmagazine gave Clockwork Angelsa 9/10 and proclaimed it one of the single best albums in the long career of Rush.[i]  Grant Moon of Progcould not praise it highly enough.

Marvel at Clockwork Angels for one or all of its many levels: its literary depth and steampunk cool; its creators’ unity of purpose and preternatural musical sense; its lip-curling rock grooves and girthy production. Whatever Raskulinescz is doing, it’s working. In the blue sky of this creative Indian summer and with that cultural tailwind behind them, Rush channel the impulse that made them so special all along on a modern progressive album right up there in their canon. After 40 years in a world lit only by lighters, there’s no sign they’re headed for that garden any time soon.[ii]

Metal Hammergave it as 9/10:

Graced with a clear, powerful and imaginative production from Nick Raskulinecz of Foo Fighters, AIC and Velvet Revolver fame, Clockwork Angels offers a better set of songs than 2007’s Snakes & Arrows (also helmed by Nick), and is a far more satisfying vehicle for the guitar expertise of Alex Lifeson than 2002’s mostly solo-free Vapor Trails. It might even be their best and hardest-rocking record since the celebrated Moving Pictures, performed in its entirety on their last tour but recorded in 1981. With the keys stripped right back and Alex serving up some down’n’dirty riffing, hearing Rush as a power-trio once again is a beautiful thing.[iii]

A beautiful thing, indeed.

Wordfire Press, 2015.

The above is excerpted from Bradley J. Birzer, Neil Peart: Cultural (Re)Percussions (Wordfire Press, 2015).


[i]Dave Everley, “Rush’s 20thRelease is Their First Concept Album.  It’s Also One of the Best Albums of their Career,” Classic Rock(July 2012).

[ii]Grant Moon, “Clockwork Angels Review,” Prog(July 2012).

[iii]Dave Ling, “Seminal Prog Rockers Hit a High Note,” Metal Hammer(July 2012).


If you like what Progarchy has to say about Rush, check out these articles, too!

If you’d like a more in-depth progarchy look at Rush, here’s a handy guide:

Rush – ABC 1974 – Live – 1974 (released 2015) – Review by Craig Breaden

Rush – A Farewell to Kings – 1977 – Review by Kevin McCormick

Rush – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live) – 2013 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Grace Under Pressure – 1984 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Power Windows – 1985 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – R40 “Completist” live concerts box set – 2014 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – R40 Live – 2015 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Rush – 1974 – Reviewed by Craig Breaden

Rush – Test For Echo – 1996 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Vapor Trails Remixed – 2013 – Review by Brad Birzer

Clockwork Angels – Concert review by Brad Birzer (2012)

Kevin J. Anderson – Clockwork Angels – The Comic Scripts – 2014 – Review by Brad Birzer

The Art of Rush – Hugh Syme, written by Stephen Humphries – 2015 – Book Review by Brad Birzer

Neil Peart: The Most Endangered Species – Essay by Brad Birzer (discussion of “Natural Science”)

The Saving Grace of Neil Peart – Essay by Brad Birzer

Brad Birzer’s Top 10 Rush Albums

Signals: A Prog New Wave Song Cycle

Grace Under Pressure at 34

Neil Peart’s Painful Victory: Vapor Trails

4 thoughts on “Rush’s Clockwork Angels (It Can Get None More Prog!)

  1. Pingback: Clockwork Angels by Rush. Age 6. Pure Prog Bliss. | Stormfields


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