October 5, 2012

Friday Review: Clockwork Angels

Over the years, Rush hasn’t shied away from the epic. Back in the 1970s they cranked out three album side-long suites. A little later they spread a four-piece collection of songs over four albums released 21 years apart! But for all that, the band had never done a full-on concept album, giving the whole project over to a single idea.* I suppose they were waiting until they had enough experience under their belts to make it work.

And, boy, did the waiting ever pay off.

I was pleasantly surprised when the band came back with Snakes & Arrows in 2007, their best album in decades. Clockwork Angels takes the basic blueprint of those tunes, stretches them out a bit more, and wraps them around the story Neal Peart wanted to tell. It’s their proggiest work in a long time, sublime riffage and epic arrangements carrying a tale of wonder through the world that Peart conjured in his head.

I’ll admit that Clockwork Angels didn’t immediately grab me like Snakes & Arrows did, which is partly down to the lyrical content of a lot of that album. But the new one’s grown on me, hard, over the past few weeks. Is it Rush’s best album, as I’ve read in places? Probably not, but when you consider the scope of the band’s career and just how long they’ve been at it, the ability to crank out something this good at this time is really special. In a year of kick ass new albums, Clockwork Angels will be near the top of the heap.

But, as Ron Popeil might say – wait, that’s not all!

Author Kevin J. Anderson, a long time Rush fan, collaborated with Peart on a novel for Clockwork Angels, taking the basic story from the album and fleshing it out. The result isn’t all that great and is a good data point in the argument for leaving musical stories alone in that form (see also, Ken Russell’s version of Tommy or the film version of The Wall).

As a book, Clockwork Angels is essentially Candide, with an overlay of Rush’s own “Hemispheres” suite, or maybe the Shadow War portion of Babylon 5. Our young, naïve, dumb as a box of rocks protagonist Owen Hardy travels through his world, pulled between the autocratic Watchmaker and the “freedom extremist” known only as the Anarchist. It’s order versus chaos, Apollo versus Dionysous, Vorlons versus Shadows.

Unfortunately, neither Anderson nor Peart are Voltaire. Where Candide was a scathing satire on the world in which Voltaire lived, Clockwork Angels is just a story, set somewhere other than here without any connection to the real world. I’ve got no problem with that – I write other world fantasies, after all – but you lose something in the relocation. The end product is a fairly routine coming of age story, even if it does involve airships and alchemy.

Nor is Owen a Candide. Voltaire’s hero was sheltered and naïve, but I don’t remember him being stupid. Owen really takes his time to figure certain things out, clinging desperately to the propaganda phrases the Watchmaker has fed him all his life. It’s like you can hear the clockwork mechanisms grinding away in his brain. His need to ponder everything he experiences leads to Anderson essentially going through most incidents twice, without really gaining anything in the retelling. Also, to be blunt, Owen’s trevails are much more of an “adventure” in the positive sense, compared to Candide’s experiences of war, death, natural disaster and religious persecution.

The world into which Owen is dumped has some interesting steampunky features, but some of the more tantalizing ones are left hanging. There’s apparently some kind of parallel universe structure at work, but it’s not deeply examined. The Watchmaker runs Owen’s home country, Albion, through the use of alchemy and precision clockwork. Yet the other places Owen goes seem to have the same technology. Why? Does the Watchmaker trade the tech to other nations for resources? Does he play favorites? Albion is basically a superpower – what does the rest of the world think of that? It’s simply not discussed.

Two other things seriously impeded my enjoyment of the book. For one, Anderson decided at some point to pepper the book with phrases from Rush lyrics, not just from this album but from lots of others. I found that really distracting, both because Peart’s words don’t always sit easily next to Anderson’s and because it just seemed like too much of an in joke. The other problem, which played into the lyric dropping, comes from Peart. Of course, I digested the book in audio form, which is read by Peart. Unfortunately, Neal sounds like he’s reading a story to a group of kids and doesn’t really work as a narrator. And he hits those lyrical Easter eggs like a bad comedian hammering a punch line, in most instances.

Ultimately, the difference between the album and book were driven home to me while listening to “BU2B,” short for brought up to believe, which deals with Owen’s “education:”
Believe in what we’re told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death
From Owen’s mouth (or Peart’s), those lines are rote recitation, nearly meaningless, spoken by someone who’s never really thought about them. On the other hand, belted out by Geddy Lee in a song full of rocking syncopation, they come across as biting, somewhat angry, and cynical. That Owen Hardy would have been a much more interesting protagonist than the one Anderson ultimately delivers.

In the end, the book’s primary failing is that it is merely adequate, while the album upon which it’s based kicks all manner of ass. My recommendation – leave the book on the shelf, throw the album in the car, and crank it up during a long drive.

* I’ve seen some references here and there to things like 2112 or Hemispheres being concept albums, but they aren’t. One side got the suite, the other had songs that were completely unrelated.

Clockwork Angels, by Rush
Released 2012

1. Caravan (5:40)
2. BU2B (5:10)
3. Clockwork Angels (7:31)
4. The Anarchist (6:52)
5. Carnies (4:52)
6. Halo Effect (3:14)
7. Seven Cities Of Gold (6:32)
8. The Wreckers (5:01)
9. Headlong Flight (7:20)
10. BU2B2 (1:28)
11. Wish Them Well (5:25)
12. The Garden (6:59)

Geddy Lee (bass, bass pedals, vocals, synthesizers)
Alex Lifeson (guitar, additional keyboards)
Neil Peart (drums, percussion)

The Details
Clockwork Angels
By Kevin J. Anderson (story by Anderson and Neal Peart)
Published 2012

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