Revisiting Rush’s First and Final Concept LP, ‘Clockwork Angels’
Rush released their first proper concept album on June 12, 2012 — although, at the time, they didn't know it would also be their final studio album.
The Canadian trio was certainly no stranger to conceptual grandeur before Clockwork Angels, having produced lengthy, side-long suites such as "2112" and "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres" on previous albums. And at the time of their new album's release, guitarist Alex Lifeson told this writer that "all our records are thematic — maybe not as overt as Clockwork Angels, but all our records have a connection and fluidity that runs through them."
But, he added, "This one is a little more overt, and there's a little more of a story to it and I think it gave [drummer and lyricist] Neil [Peart] an opportunity to express himself on a wider platform."
Clockwork Angels was the longest-gestating record Rush ever made. According to Peart, discussions began at a dinner in December 2009, when he presented Lifeson and singer, bassist and keyboardist Geddy Lee the idea for a concept album based on a story he'd worked up with friend and science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson — the drummer's future collaborator on a Clockwork Angels novel and comic book series. The theme was "a young man's quest to follow his dreams" in a world that fought against them, and by January 2010 Peart had sent a batch of lyric ideas to Toronto for his bandmates to start working with.
"We understood what the gist of the story was, and of course, it evolved over a couple of years," said Lifeson, who cofounded Rush with Lee in 1968. (Peart replaced original drummer John Rutsey in 1974.) "We understood that it was a story about a journey, and with that singular thought in mind, that's kind of how we approached the music. We wanted to make it quite cinematic and get a sense of going to these places and feeling these moods as the journey continues."
Rush started recording Clockwork Angels in April 2010 at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, working again with Nick Raskulinecz, who coproduced 2007's Snakes & Arrows. The initial sessions yielded a pair of songs — "Caravan" and "BU2B" — that Rush released online and played during their Time Machine Tour that began that summer and stretched into 2011, while sessions for the album resumed during the fall and early winter of that year at Toronto's Revolution Recording studio.
Watch Rush's 'The Wreckers' Video
"It was very different for us," Lifeson acknowledged. "Usually when we commit to a record, that's all we're focused on, and we kind of dive into it and ... do it all at once. So to break it up like this was something very different and new for us.
"But it was nice because we could live with [the songs] for a little bit, and we came in with a different vibe and a different attitude at each stage of the process," he continued. "That really made writing this record an absolute joy. We were positive through the whole experience. It never got bogged down. It was a lot of work, and I think we all made a great effort to make it the best album we could but at the same time we were just having so much fun."
Adding to the bonhomie were string arrangements by David Campbell, who also conducted the section for the recordings. "When we were doing the string sessions for 'The Garden,' I mean, we were all sniffling and in tears," Lifeson recalled. "It was just so beautiful in there. But it works so well in the record, and it's so dramatic and uplifting. I'm really glad that we did it." Rush wound up bringing a nine-piece string section on the road for the Clockwork Angels tour, with Campbell conducting.
The album took Rush's already super-sized ambitions up a notch. Lifeson said they were only too happy to do so and not concerned about who came along for the ride — particularly radio, which had embraced the group only sporadically over the years for songs like "Closer to the Heart," "Spirit of Radio," "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight." "We never think about radio or if something is commercially accessible," Lifeson said.
"We've never done that, and this album was definitely no exception." Clockwork Angels' first single, "Headlong Flight," clocked in at an imposing seven and a half minutes. "Our expectation was [radio] probably wouldn't play it," Lifeson said, "and there was pressure to do a radio-edit version which came down to about five and a half minutes ... and yet it's got lots of play and is generating attention for the album. So we get by without radio, really, although it's wonderful to have the support if you can get it."
Listen to Rush's 'Caravan'
Clockwork Angels certainly got plenty of fan support. The album debuted at No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 on the Billboard 200, tied with 1993's Counterparts for Rush's highest entry ever. It also premiered atop Billboard's Top Rock Albums and Top Hard Rock Albums charts and would go on to be named Rock Album of the Year at Canada's 2013 Juno Awards — just three days after Rush were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Clockwork Angels had an active afterlife once it was released: Clockwork Angels Tour, a document of the $27.2 million-grossing road trip supporting it, was released in November 2013; the Clockwork Angels novel, meanwhile, debuted at No. 18 on The New York Times Hardcover Fiction bestseller list; a movie adaptation was spoken about but never transpired.
Rush would never return to the studio for another album. The group reconvened just once more en masse, for the 2015 R40 Live Tour. Peart announced his retirement at the end of that year, citing physical issues from the wear and tear of decades of drumming. The trio remained close friends, however, and Peart's death from brain cancer on Jan. 7, 2020, brought an end to any hopes of a change of heart.