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

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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.

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Rush’s GRACE UNDER PRESSURE at 34

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Arrival: April 12, 1984

My favorite Rush album has been, at least going back to April 1984, Grace Under Pressure.  I realize that among Rush fans and among prog fans, this might serve as a contentious choice.  My praise of GUP is not in any way meant to denigrate any other Rush albums.  Frankly, I love them all.  Rush has offered us an outrageous wealth of blessings, and I won’t even pretend objectivity.

I love Rush.  I love Grace Under Pressure.

I still remember opening Grace Under Pressure for the first time.  Gently knifing the cellophane so as not to crease the cardboard, slowly pulling out the vinyl wrapped in a paper sleeve, the hues of gray, pink, blue, and granite and that egg caught in a vicegrip, the distinctive smell of a brand new album. . . . the crackle as the needle hit . . . .

I was sixteen.

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SIGNALS (1982): A Song Cycle by Rush

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Rush, SIGNALS, 1982.  A New Wave-Prog Song Cycle.

The last album produced by the then fourth-member of Rush, Terry Brown, Signals (September 9, 1982) marked yet again a major progression in the music of Rush as well as in the lyrics of Neil Peart.  The pressure to produce something similar to the previous year’s Moving Pictures naturally proved immense, as they had never encountered such success.  On the Moving Pictures tour alone, fan attendance doubled at concerts, and almost anyone in the American Midwest could hear one of three tracks from the album almost anytime on FM rock radio.  But the three main members of Rush decided that a second Moving Pictures would be too easy.  They had done that album, accomplished what they had sought to accomplish, and they wanted to take their music in new ways.  In particular, Lee had become more and more interested in keyboards and composing on them.  He never planned to become a “Keith Emerson,” but he loved the challenge the keyboards brought him. [1]  Not surprisingly, especially given Lee’s interest and the learning curve he needed to understand and overcome regarding synthesizers, the keys employed on the album had either 1) a deep, booming bass sound or 2) an airy, soaring feel.  Lee remembers:

I was getting bored writing. I felt like we were falling into a pattern of how we were writing on bass, guitar and drums. Adding the keyboards was fascinating for me and I was learning more about writing music from a different angle.[2]

Further, he claimed, the keyboards allowed Rush to expand beyond the trio without actually adding a new member of the band.[3]  With Signals and the following concerts to support it, Lifeson claimed he felt “almost re-born” with the new sound. [4]

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Rush’s 2112 at 40: The Super Deluxe Edition

Rush, 2112 (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition).  2CDs, 1DVD, 3LPs, 1 vinyl single, starman turntable mat, three collector buttons, June 1976 handbill, June 1976 ticket stuff, starman sticker, LP-sized photos of the three members of Rush, LP-sized liner notes by Rob Bowman, code for digital download, cd-booklet and liner notes, vinyl single adaptor, and starman sketch.  http://www.rush.com/2112-40th/

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So much stuff, I can barely contain my emotions!

***

Is there a greater anthem of individualism and anti-conformity in all rock history than Rush’s 2112?  No folk song of the 1950s or protest song of the 1960s comes close to matching Rush’s power of words and music.  Even more than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” 2112 makes us want to bang our heads and raise our fists.  Sorry, Garth.

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Ending at the Top: RUSH, TIME STAND STILL, Part I

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2016, available now.

A two-part review of Rush, TIME STAND STILL (2016).

Between May and August, 2015, Rush performed to jam-packed audiences in cities across the United States and Canada.  Rush captured this tour with its own 2015 release, R40 LIVE, a three cd/1-bluray set.  This tour attracted an immense and diverse crowd.  Generations of men in the same family (grandfather, father, and sons) sat together, women attended in larger than usual numbers, and my two oldest kids (Nathaniel and Gretchen) drove with me nearly 10 hours to see the band perform R40 in Lincoln.  That magical show will always remain one of the greatest of my life.  Not just because I was seeing Rush for the umpteenth time, but because I got to share the band with my children for the first time.  They’ve grown up with Rush—listening to the music and watching their concerts over and over again; indeed, all six of my kids can readily name the members of the band, the songs, and the albums—but they’d never experienced the joy of an actual concert.  It was, to be sure, a glorious spectacle.

When I looked out the bedroom window the other day to see Nathaniel shoveling snow and head banging, I could tell he was head banging to 2112.  Every few moments the shovel came up and served as an Alex Lifeson air guitar.  Needless to write, it took a bit for him to complete the driveway.  Regardless, I’m deeply proud that my children recognize the greatness of the three Canadian artists, even older than their dad!

Continue reading “Ending at the Top: RUSH, TIME STAND STILL, Part I”

Rush Interviewed on Sound Opinions

Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot put out their Sound Opinions podcast weekly, and the latest episode features an in-depth interview with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. It is one of the best interviews of them I’ve ever heard, primarily because -despite being professional music critics – Jim and Greg are both very big fans of Rush.

You can stream the podcast or download it here. The interview begins at 6:15 minutes in.

Make That A Combo, Please

There have been quite a few CD/DVD/Blu-Ray combos released in the prog world recently, so here’s a rundown of the best of the bunch.

Gazpacho: Night of the Demon

Night Of DemonAn outstanding performance by the boys from Norway. Even through tricky time signatures that require lockstep coordination of playing, Gazpacho delivers an emotional and beautiful show. Jan Henrik Ohme’s vocals are spellbinding – delicate and tremulous one minute, powerful and commanding the next. While he’s caressing the microphone, his bandmates play their hearts out. Songs I thought I knew take on new meaning and accessibility. This set is a perfect introduction to someone curious about this somewhat enigmatic and definitely magical group.

Glass Hammer: Double Live

glass-hammer-double-live-deluxeAs light as Gazpacho is dark, Glass Hammer has been riding a high for the past few years – Ode To Echo and The Breaking Of The World are both instant classics. Double Live features the best cuts from those albums, as well as a terrific rendition of the epic “The Knight Of The North”. Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have been together so long they are telepathic onstage. Aaron Raulston is excellent on drums while Kamran Alan Shikoh has matured into an astonishingly inventive guitarist. Carl Groves is the best male vocalist GH has ever had, and Susie Bogdanowicz steals the show with her performance. No fancy camera work here – the music and performance are strong enough to speak for themselves.

Spock’s Beard: The First Twenty Years

Spocks Beard 20 yrsThis is a fine collection of Spock’s Beard tracks. The first disc features the best of the “Neal Morse Years”, while disc two has six tracks from Beard versions 2 and 3 (featuring Nick D’Virgilio and Ted Leonard) and a new epic featuring a big reunion of everyone. You might think that losing your lead vocalist and sole songwriter would mean the end of a band, but the Beard is nothing if not resilient. The songs from the post-Morse era certainly hold their own against anything from the first six albums. I wish they had included “The Great Nothing”, but there’s only so much space on a compact disc! Of course, long-time Beard fans want to know how the new epic, “Falling Forever” stacks up. To my ears, it’s a pleasant listen, but not particularly memorable. It’s clear that Neal’s path has diverged from the Beard’s, and each camp has its own strengths that don’t necessarily mesh into a powerful whole anymore. The DVD features performances from 1997’s Progfest interspersed with contemporary interviews of the band. It’s illuminating for the hardcore fan, but not essential.

Flying Colors: Second Flight: Live at The Z7

Flying Colors Z7Phenomenal growth from this band. As mentioned in the interviews included in the Blu-ray, the first album had the members somewhat tentative about critiquing each other, while during the recording of Second Flight they were much more collaborative. This is set is a terrific performance that showcases the talents of each member. Casey McPherson is a very confident frontman, and an amazing vocalist. Steve Morse’s guitar work is jaw-dropping good, and Dave LaRue almost steals the show with his bass solos. Mike Portnoy is, as usual, controlled chaos on the drums. Neal Morse plays more of a supporting role in this group, keeping in the background for the most part. “Cosmic Symphony” and “Mask Machine” are highlights, while the segue from “Colder Months” into “Peaceful Harbor” is one of the most beautiful musical moments I’ve ever heard. The quality of the Blu-ray is top-notch, both in sound and video. An excellent choice for the prog fan who enjoys the likes of Boston, or even classic Journey.

Rush: R40 Live

1035x1511-R40.Tour.Cover7.FNL-copyWhich brings us to the big release of the year: Rush’s R40 Live. I have every live DVD Rush has released, and this isn’t the best performance. But there is something so special about this show that it will probably be the one I return to most often. There were times I caught myself thinking, “Gosh. they are looking old!”, but then I had to remind myself they’ve given of themselves so generously for 40 years. 40 years! How many bands have kept the same lineup for that long, and are still talking to each other? ZZ Top is the only one that comes to mind. The fact that this show is from Toronto makes it even more moving.

This is a top of the line production, with every possible camera angle a fan could ask for. The sound on the Blu-ray edition is outstanding; there are two surround mixes to choose from: front of stage or center of hall. The show itself is masterful – it is a trip back in time from Clockwork Angels all the way to “Working Man”.

The animated intro is hilarious – I had to go through it practically frame-by-frame to catch all of the visual puns. Every album and tour is name-checked somewhere in it. The initial stage set is very elaborate, but as the band goes back into their history, you can see workers slowly dismantle it. At the start of the second set, Alex is front of a huge stack of Marshall amps, and we’re transported to the 1970’s. By the time of the encores, Alex and Geddy are down to single amps on chairs in a high school auditorium.

My only quibbles are selfish – I wish there was at least one track from Power Windows/Hold Your Fire, and I don’t know why the bonus tracks at the end couldn’t have been inserted into their proper places in the concert video. Other than that, it’s a very good setlist.

What comes through most clearly as the concert progresses is the love and respect Alex, Geddy, and Neil have for each other. They look like they’re having the time of their lives, and they’re so glad to have several thousand fans along with them. Thanks for the ride, boys. It’s been a great one.