Clockwork Angels

The Concept Album: A Brief History

Two weeks ago on June 12, 2012, the nerd within me awoke with the release of Rush’s Clockwork Angels. While musically current, the collection of songs lyrically tells the maturation of a boy, who through a series of adventures (some tragic), questions his faith and the universe run by a rigid watchmaker, all the while, evolving from a boy into a man. Listening to it, I tend to think of the whole concept of the album as an allegory telling the life story of drummer Neil Peart. After a few brief spins, I was transported back in time to 30+ years ago when the concept album was once standard practice for the band.

The concept album is not new, but in today’s disposable music industry, it is quite a risk for band to release a concept album. In a music world driven by the single on iTunes, I find it refreshing for Rush to take a chance like this. One could easily argue that this is their first full length concept album. While 2112 and Hemispheres are both considered concept albums, only one side of the records is conceptual.

For history, the original concept album dates back to Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. While somewhat conceptual by today’s standards, it was unique for it’s time. All the songs were about one topic although the record does not have a main character or storyline that was in every song. Released in 1940, the record was highly influential on future folk songwriters Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan as well as Bruce Springsteen. The album contained the now classic, “Do Re Mi.”

But it was not folk or popular music that turned the concept album into an art form, it was Jazz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Jazz artists began experimenting with sounds and styles. These concepts became the theme of the record. Whether it was rhythms, chord progressions, or scales, jazz was at the forefront of the movement. Two of the biggest innovators were Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and the Wee Small Hours were ahead of their time. Davis, on the other hand, tended to reinvent himself several times throughout the fifties and sixties with Birth of the New Cool, A Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and Skteches of Spain. John Coltrane would also join in with Giant Steps.

The 1950s also saw the rise of Rock and Roll. Rock did not initially lend itself to the concept album. However, some tried liked the Ventures. But the album that started the hey day of concept albums actually was not a concept album. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. The sounds on the record would heavily influence the Beatles. Ironically, Pet Sounds had been heavily influences by the Beatles Rubber Soul. What Pet Sounds did was to sonically challenge the Beatles to come up with unique sounds for what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Depending on which you Beatle you ask, you could have gotten four different responses what Sgt. Pepper was all about. But one thing most people can agree on was that rock and roll could be art. Ideally, the record was a headphone record as it was one of the first records to use an 8 track versus a four track recording. The experimentation with sound became the defining mark of the album culminating in the epic song, “A Day in the Life.”

Soon after, most bands tried to make their own concept album. A plethora of bands joined in. A whole new movement emerged in the late 1960s. Most of the classic rock and roll bands began at art schools throughout England. The style of rock was changing. Pete Townshend of The Who went a step further and created the Rock Opera, Tommy. Art rock was fully born. Bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and others sprang up and made some great music.

Throughout the early 197s, each of the aforementioned bands recorded long form songs and made concept album after concept album. They knew no other way. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon came to epitomize a new high in concept album history. Unfortunately, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes signaled a death knell for the art rock movement. A double album, Tales contained four songs – one for each album side. In response, punk music rebelled against the nature of the art rock movement. But the art rock movement did not stop.

The concept album reached its high water mark with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall was meant to symbolize walls put up between people, The Wall came to symbolize walls put up by authority and dualistically fit with the Cold War Berlin Wall.

Throughout the 1980s, the concept album began to wane as the influence of MTV began. From time to time, the occasional concept album emerged but few captured the public’s interest. Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Dream Theater, Jay Z, and other bands have tried their hands at the concept album.

For me, most of my spare time in the 1970s and early 1980s was spent listening to concept albums. My favorites will most likely differ from yours.

For example, I love two concept albums by Genesis. One is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and the other is Duke. For me, Duke is hugely important as we just moved from the only home I had known after my freshman year of high school to western Illinois, three hours away. In the coming years, these two records were two of my best friends. I adore these records because of where I was in my life and what they did for me.

I always liked the concept album. Whether the album had a lyric that told the story throughout the record, or whether it was a stylistic sonic choice, I associate those type of records as the best. I can still picture myself sitting around Stuart Jackson’s dining room table, smoking cigars, listening to Rush, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it was all just the late 70s, early 80s teen lifestyle, but it was enjoyable. It was art, creative, and fun.

Now, for me, Clockwork Angels is easy to listen to. The music is great, the songs are great, but the story is even greater. It takes me back to many memories of my young adulthood…As the song’s opus, “The Garden,” concludes

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
(c) 2012 Anthem Records
Lyric by Neil Peart


Rush: Reliving the Dream

High school was an experience of melancholy for me. My parents moved from northern Illinois and the only town I had ever known. Next thing I knew, I was living in western Illinois in a town of 3000 people. I felt like I had stepped back in time. Fortunately, at the age 15, and in 1979, I soon discovered three new friends that summer. Their names were (are) Geddy, Alex, and Neil.

The state of music on top 40 radio in the summer of 1979 was nothing short of abysmal. There was a mix of new wave, disco, some rock, and other tragic songs. That summer I discovered album radio, and in doing so, Rush. For most of my life, I had followed music but it was not something I lived for. Sure, I had my Beatles records, some Steely Dan, but the summer of 79 brought The Police, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, The Cars, and The Clash into my basement bedroom.

What made Rush different was the just sounds the three of them could make. They did not release a record in 1979, but from 1980 to 1986, I grew up with the band. As they grew musically, so did I. I learned to play guitar, I went to college, and I fell in and out of love – several times. But Rush was always there, always. They were always challenging me as a fan. I didn’t always like every record but I still bought them and listened to all the songs. They brought me comfort, a soundtrack to the 80s and the “what was I thinking?” decade. I may look back and question a lot of things about that decade, but not my allegiance to Rush.

It all began with Dungeons and Dragons. Some kids down the street got it, and I got hooked. The first time I played Dungeons and Dragons, Hemispheres and 2112 provided the soundtrack. Soon playing Risk meant Rush. Everything meant Rush. That fall saw me buying the back catalog of Farewell to Kings, Caress of Steel, Fly by Night, and Rush.

1980 and 1981 saw Rush at a career high (one of many). Permanent Waves hit the stores and I bought it. I always loved the songs Spirit of Radio, Entre Nous, but my favorite is Freewill.

1981 saw the release of the classic Moving Pictures. It provided the soundtrack of the summer before my senior year in high school. Sure Tom Sawyer is a great song, so are Red Barchetta, Limelight, and Witch Hunt, but my favorite still is the instrumental YYZ. The record fused the music of the day with Rush. To try and define what Rush is, is pointless. They are technically proficient musicians who are influenced by only one kind of music according to Geddy Lee – Good music. For Lee there is only good and bad music. He chooses the good regardless of the genre.

When most people find out I like Rush, they don’t get it. I tell them there is really nothing to get. Rush is just three guys, superior musicians, who challenge themselves by writing hard rocking pieces of music in different styles and time signatures. The lyrics are intelligent, but not always musical or easy to understand. They are a thinking man’s band. There is no magic formula. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Some of the 80s albums didn’t do it for me. Subdivisions relied heavily on the synthesizer while Grace Under Pressure was filled with classic rhythms and songs. Then Power Windows showed glimpses of returning to form only to have Hold Your Fire totally disappoint me. But then the band bounced back with Presto in 1989 and disappointed me with Roll the Bones in the early 90s.

As my life began to evolve so did Rush. In 1993 and 1996 Rush released two hard rock records which I still love to this day – Counterparts and Test for Echo. Unfortunately, tragedy struck Neil Peart with the loss of his daughter and then his wife passed away. Rush would not release a record again until 2002. When they released Vapor Trails in 2002, Rush was back with a force. Vapor Trails is as hard as Rush has ever sounded. It was as excited as I have ever been to hear a Rush record. Geddy Lee talks about making the record:

I mean it wasn’t all easy and there was a lot of crafting that went in after the initial period of inspiration or spontaneous jamming. But a lot of these songs were born out of, I think, a desire to almost state to each other proof that we still have a great feeling and intensity for what we do. In a way, it is kind of a celebration of a return of spirit, which of course was a huge question mark for quite a while.

There is not just one thing I like about Rush. Geddy is not the greatest singer, Neil doesn’t write the greatest lyrics, Alex is not the world’s greatest guitarist, but combined, the whole is more than the sum of their parts. They are a tour de force sonically and technically. And they wrote some pretty damn good songs along the way.

Unlike most bands that have been around  a long time, Rush is still making relevant music – still influencing new generations of musicians. 2007’s Snakes and Arrows saw the band kick out the jams and finds the band in high spirits and playing to packed houses every night. Check out Far Cry from that record….

2011 will find Rush releasing a new CD, Clockwork Angels. The record is being approached in a unique way. Where most bands tour, write new songs, record the new songs, and then tour behind the new record. Rush has written some new songs, is touring now, and recording the new songs at the same time. The band is operating under the assumption that they are in their best playing shape out on tour and not in the studio. Thus the resulting record is being recorded while they tour. Caravan will be the first single.

Nearing 60, the trio is still making significant quality records. This fall I turned 47. I got the DVD documentary of Rush called Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. It was three of the best hours of my life spent reliving the dream of Rush.