Blackstar: A David Bowie Tribute and Review

Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

— David Bowie, “Lazarus,” Blackstar (2016)

I’ve been putting this off for a bit — That’s if, of course, you consider a month under the definition of, “a bit.” I honestly felt that David Bowie’s swansong, and final effort, Blackstar, deserved some time to grow, to escape the swelling press and nonsense attributed to a famed celebrity’s passing.  The Blackstar review needed to be objective.  The review needed to feel sincere.  My love for Bowie’s music and his various personas would’ve clouded the discussion and led to a completely biased post.  What else could you expect when one of your personal artistic influences dies the day after you purchase his last album?

Initial Reaction

After listening to Blackstar multiple times, and watching the “spectacle” of Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute, I can safely say this is one of the Thin White Duke’s finest achievements, a record pulling from the melancholy of the Berlin trilogy and jazzing it up.  Yeah, yeah, bias be damned.

For projecting such a flamboyant stage presence, Bowie seemed to operate behind the camera’s eye.  Nobody, not even hailed producer and Berlin trilogy creative consultant, Brian Eno — whom Ziggy was scheduled to work with on a future project — knew how short the artist’s time was. Yet, Blackstar was recorded.  Blackstar dropped.



The record delves deep in symbolism, from the star pieces in the cover spelling out Bowie, to the cryptic lyrics throughout its seven tracks.  This highlights the artistic realization of the musician, the finality of the moment.  So, does it all mean something?  Or, am I just bullshitting away for the sake of word count?  You tell me:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/Your eyes

— David Bowie, “Blackstar,” Blackstar

Immediately, Bowie adds an occult, dark tone to a career smothered in glamour, drugs, sex, and good ol’ rock n’ roll.  The twelve personas stare into the flame and capture that feeling of hopeful isolation.  As the record rolls on to, “Lazarus,” and then closes with, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the message is simple and powerful, punctuated by the hopeless notes of a saxophone.  Bowie has said his goodbye to the the music world in the only suitable way.

An Influence

Bowie was a legend on the sheets of stardom.  He didn’t give a damn whether the mainstream market approved of his disco number or his funk experiment.  He certainly didn’t care if the masses disapproved of his support for minority musician airplay on national media. How many guys can enter the film world as Crotch and Big Hair — I mean, Labyrinth’s, the Goblin King, of course — and then, a few years later, jump on stage with Trent Reznor and seep venom into the crowd with Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rattle, “Reptile.”

Yet, through all of the collaborations, all of the media appearances, Bowie seemed to desire privacy in his personal life.  That’s why, on January 10, 2016, the music industry faced shock and reflection on just how much The Man Who Fell Down to Earth influenced the way music was composed, performed, recorded, and understood.

Bowie singlehandedly pioneered glam rock with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  He brought experimentation to the mainstream, starting with the blues/soul/pop sensibilities of Station to Station and ending with the listener friendly, but serene, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).   Bowie continued this musical freedom into the eighties, where Let’s Dance and other do-whatever-the-fuck-Bowie-wants records came to fruition.  Let’s not even mention the amount of singles and classic tracks he pumped out;  “Under Pressure,” anyone? He was a fan of music as much as he was a creator, a trait evident in his — deceivingly random — performances with other musicians.

Basically, if Kanye West cites you as an influence, you know you broke some ground.

*Mic drop.

Pshhhh, I’m not going to end Bowie’s influence on a Kanye tweet.  That’s the last thing I want to do.  Either way, David Bowie’s stage presence itself brought theatrics into rock n’ roll, a flamboyant expression inspiring thousands to pick up the guitar, throw on — to mom and dad’s disappointment — a kimono and belt out some, “Wam, bam, thank you, ma’am!”

Bowie was a rock star who, quite simply, did not give a single fuck what the industry pushed or pulled. He performed and inspired artists to pursue what they wanted, rather than cater to the needs of a third party.  Of course, this led to fandom chaos, but, fortunately, each Bowie persona was met with embrace rather than alienation.  By the peak of his career, the Bowie brand was defined by the eccentricities and flamboyance of Ziggy Stardust.

Bringing it Down

So, it is no surprise that, in this perspective, Blackstar brings a different light to Bowie’s discography, one of sincere sadness, reflection, and longing.  Please forgive the pretentious pun. Anyways, take the pairing of the haunting, marching rhythm of, “Girl Loves Me,” and the somber, “Dollar Days.” Both tracks highlight this dark atmosphere, as well as push the boundaries of the musician’s instrumental focus.

As I previously said, Bowie was no enemy of collaboration.  However, instead of bringing in A-list or aged names, the album welcomes the talent of prominent jazz musicians.  This is not a typical solo artist, half assed vocal performance, where session musicians take a back seat to the ego of their employer.  Blackstar often leans on its studio musicians, especially in the umph of the title track and, “Girl Loves Me.”  The LP’s rhythm section, courtesy of drummer, Mark Guiliana, and Tim Lefebvre, balance complexity with rhythmic freedom; noticeable, but not distracting.  Their chemistry and poise develop Blackstar into a lesson on tasteful, musical freedom.  That’s hard to find in a record emphasizing a jazzy style.  The record also features a career performance by saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, whose horns bring out, “Lazarus’,” heavy subject matter, making tears nearly inevitable.

Vocally, Bowie doesn’t even sound like he’s aged.  There are moments where his voice adopts a rasp, but that only heightens the overall feel; that of a tired man facing the reality of his situation.  Sure, his voice is not quite at the quality level of, “Under Pressure,” or, “Heroes,” but there is no denying the emotion transmitted through tracks like the title piece and, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

A Final Look

Overall, Blackstar brings the audience to the darker, experimental side of David Bowie.  In his final record, he pulls ears in with explorations in jazz form, dark atmosphere, and cryptic lyrics, often alluding to past treasures in the likes of the Berlin Trilogy and his quintessential 70’s classics.  A beautiful transition from the idol to the human, Blackstar serves as both a celebration and ode to the life of a musician, that of excess, fear, longing, and fulfillment.  Whichever Bowie felt in his final moment, we’ll never know.

We love you, David Bowie.  You will be missed.  Rest in peace.


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Review: Symphony X – Underworld

With their latest LP, Underworld, Symphony X taps into their neoclassical roots to create one of the more entertaining listens of 2015.

Yep, I’m doing a 180 here. When a band does what they do best, it’s hard not to appreciate their effort.  Because, let’s face it, Symphony X lays it all down on their latest studio album, combining past and present influence into one of their more consistent records.

Now, before you get all “Make up your damn mind!” on me, know that this is a record burdened by familiarity, pushing more of an Iconoclast sound over, say, their coined The Divine Wings of Tragedy’s Gregorian, neoclassical epic approach. However, where Iconoclast felt pointlessly heavy, Underworld amplifies that heaviness, all the while grounding listeners with the complex, beautiful, and might I say “cleaner” songwriting of their past.  There’s reason to Romeo, Allen, Pinnella, and Rullo’s style again. This is a testament to Romeo’s obsession with Christian mythology.  Look at it this way, when a prog metal album’s concept is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, how can you not make the material heavy as shit?

“Underworld,” with its punchy, galloping chorus, accented by Russel Allen’s binary vocal style, complements this sound realization, reminiscent to Paradise Lost’s symphonic numbers.   Now, with that in mind, you won’t get anything new on this album.  That’s where this album suffers most.  Underworld feels more like a continuation of Symphony X’s newfound appreciation for metaldom, rather than a musical progression.  At this point, you must ask:  What else do these guys have to prove?  They rode Dream Theater’s wake, producing an organic combination of power, prog, and neoclassical metal, then darkened the progressive genre further, incorporating harsher vocals, blast beats, and heavier riffs.   And, hell, the blast beats in “Underworld” will most definitely take the casual prog listener out of the equation. But, to say Underworld is uninspired is an insult to the band’s legacy and meticulous effort to separate itself from dreaded Dream Theater imitation.


Credit: Blabbermouth

Does the album feel Nuclear Blast-esque?  Metal heads will understand that statement.  The LP, as feared, suffers from the band’s overwhelming metal obsession,  “Without You,” condemned as more of a sellout, derivative “Paradise Lost” clone, contains some of Russell Allen’s most passionate vocals.  So, power prog Symphony X fans listen up.  The clean voice has returned! That’s enough to give Underworld a star in itself.

“Without You,” brings back the band’s classical influence to the forefront, replacing complexity with good ol’ fashioned emotional songwriting.  Same with “To Hell and Back.” The track’s introduction adds atmosphere to the LP, then leads to guitar, vocal, and rhythm excellence, courtesy to each band member’s famous precision.  Again, “To Hell and Back,” is more of a listenable track — oh God, not melody! Melody doesn’t belong in metal! — but the band was known for melody, never brutality. “Swan Song,” continues this trek into melodic territory, alluding to “The Accolade.”  Atmospheric, complex, melodic, beautiful, heavy in an ideological sense, rather than in a “smash your face” sense. That’s something I thought I would never hear after Iconoclast.

*On a side note, has anyone ever wondered how chaotic it is when someone asks for Michael in the band?

Meanwhile, Romeo, with his blistering fretboard control, continues to wow listeners in tracks like “Nevermore” and “Charon.” Now, I’m on the fence with these two tracks.  Remember that little “Nevermore” single review that Reviews From the Other Side composed a month or so ago?  Obviously, Symphony X wanted to continue their “guitar first” philosophy, sacrificing chorus and general appeal in the process.  This leads to disenchantment from the source material.  I appreciate a kick ass guitar performance, but when everything around that guitar performance is, well, for lack of a better word, boring, then it’s easy to forget said tracks. Disenchantment and boredom is the bane to progressive metal. Even as a fan, I can admit that. Michael Romeo and Michael Pinnella tend to noodle, it’s a known fact!  “Nevermore” is a studio single, for crying out loud! For an album that promises a collage of influences, “Nevermore” fails in that the track sounds like nothing more than a Iconoclast bonus track.  That’s what is so frustrating with this album.  It tries to move past the heaviness of Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but for every melodic, neoclassical passage, there’s ten overwhelming, “What the fuck? Should I bang my head or air guitar?” metal wanks.

It’s in these metal passages, however, that the band’s rhythm section pulls through. Michael Romeo and Russell Allen are awesome! Who in metaldom doesn’t know that? Pinnella is a little too Rudess for me, but does his part nonetheless.  Hell, the guy even has a couple credits to his name, so kudos, good key meister. In previous recordings — especially their rendition of The Odyssey — Jason Rullo’s drums came across as flat, even mediocre at times, but Underworld brings the best out of our little mountain mover.  It’s an understatement to say Rullo was made for explosive passages, complemented by Michael Lepond’s, as-always, moving rumble.

Symphony X, with their 11th studio album, Underworld, force listeners to gaze into the looking glass of their discography, exploring their descent from neoclassical, power prog to straight forward, kick ass metal. Fans, indulge. Casual listeners, think of this album as a focused, greatest hits record.

Credit:  Skullsnbones

Credit: Skullsnbones

P.S. That album art…


RATING:  4/5

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Monday Shuffle: Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

Welcome to the Monday Shuffle.  Every Monday I’m going to, as hockey profit Gordon Bombay once said, “change it up” by reviewing a random album on my iPod.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “How can this asshole be objective about an album he enjoys listening to?”  If you know anything about me, my iPod is littered with everything under the sun: good, bad, brilliant, terrible.  I don’t have a filter.  To put it this in perspective, I didn’t delete a couple, sappy Nickelback songs until recently.  I’m kidding.  Or, am I? (dramatic crescendo). To sum up this nonsense, my opinions alter with multiple listens.  An enjoyable first listen can easily turn into an ear scraping second listen.  Doesn’t matter. So, since I enjoyed my little iPod experiment so much the first time, here we go.  The first entry in Reviews From the Other Sides’ Monday Shuffle, and a fitting return from a slight, month(ish) hiatus:

Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane

Pain of Salvation had a sonicly successful career.  Key word, had.  Golden voice Daniel Gildenlow, shirtless Johan Hallgren, brother Kristoffer Gildenlow, dramatic Frederick Hermansson, and holy poly rhythms, Johan Langell, served a delicious cocktail of genre innovating prog metal.  Redundant labeling aside, everything was there, the pretentiousness, the complex rhythms, the noodling guitars.  Then, haircuts and alternative rock happened.  Thanks Metallica! Because, isn’t every mistake in metal Metallica’s fault? YouTube sure as hell thinks so.  And who’s going to argue with YouTube?

Some bands just choose to strip their sound to its roots, sometimes enlightening, while most times leaving listeners like myself saying, “Really? Edgy? How is generic garage rock, especially in this day and age, edgy?”  Pain of Salvation unfortunately became Golden Gildenlow’s side project, leaving their quintessential album, Remedy Lane behind as an unfortunate memoir. And boy is it a hell of a memoir.

So, you’re probably sitting there thinking, “Why the fuck is this guy talking smack about Salvation’s later releases? What does their current direction have anything to do with anything?”  The songwriting, ladies and gentlemen.  I don’t know if it’s the departure of Johan and Frederick or lack of inspiration, but Remedy Lane is everything Road Salt I,Road Salt II, even acoustic record, Falling Home, isn’t.  The album, unfortunately, stands as the beginning of the band’s musical descent, and aside from behemoth concept-heavy LP, Be, and a handful of pop/alternative rock tracks, there seems to be nothing left in Gildenlow’s creative tank. And that’s worth mentioning, as both a fan and reviewer of Pain of Salvation.  That’s it.  I’m off my soap box.  Now, for a look back at the Pain of Salvation we all know and love.  Let’s go!

From the opening drama of “Two Beginnings,” to the heartrending, introspective conclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” Pain of Salvation successfully combined the theatrics of The Perfect Element and the foreshadowing experimentation later found on Be to create a sound all their own in Remedy Lane.  This is an album you can feel, experience, and tilt your head to in appreciation.  Unlike Be and The Perfect Element, however, Remedy Lane’s tracks stand both alone and together, never falling victim to the complexity of their overarching concept.  This can be seen as an insult regarding Remedy Lane’s comprehensive product.  Yet, balance is key here.  The songwriting stands on its own two legs, all the while sounding like nothing the band previously performed.  The music is so diverse, its cohesive.  And that’s why Daniel Gildenlow and company are classified as progressive metal — insert shades and cigarette.

There’s metal; there’s folk; there’s noodling polyrhythms; there’s even a couple pop-centric numbers in “This Heart of Mine (I Pledge),” and “Two Loves.”  Yet, when dealing with this particular genre, one must ask: does every element come together for a complete experience? Besides the album’s oddball, electronic title track, my answer is an overwhelming, heartstopping, world changing…yes!

Oh, and did I mention these guys know how to fucking play?  My God of holy drums and guitars! There’s enough musical complexity, time shifts, key changes, vocal wails in “Fandango” alone to make Yes look like a side show.  But again, the band treads on the realms of  indulgence, tapping the third circle just enough to make Cerberus salivate.  Ha, get that one?  But then, the album spins into melodic tracks like, “A Trace of Blood,” and “Undertow,” with tearjerker lyrics and a more atmospheric approach to structure and overall feeling.  These tracks are where I really “got” Daniel Gildenlow’s psyche, where emotion — think, the bridge in “Undertow” or Gildenlow’s climactic high note in “A Trace of Blood” — has a moment to peak its head without fear of being bludgeoned to death by technicality.  Sure, Johan’s solos and brother Gildenlow’s hypnotic bass grooves peak interest in the album’s more progressive numbers, not to mention one of the more tighter, non-sleep inducing epics in “Beyond the Pale,” but its Daniel’s diverse vocal performance that lifts Remedy Lane to heartrending beauty.  Great work, through and through.

Pain of Salvation’s quintessential 2002 LP, Remedy Lane, is an emotional record full of progressive rock/metal sensibilities.  Fans of Opeth and Dream Theater have probably already eaten this up, but for the more inexperienced prog listener out there in the prog omniverse with all their prog shit, this ranks high on the proggiest prog of all time.  And that’s why Reviews From the Other Side rates Remedy Lane a 4.75.

RATING: 4.75/5

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Review: Muse – Drones

Drones is the byproduct of a pop/prog band that takes itself too seriously. I love it.

One must tread lightly when dealing with a band like Muse.  On one hand, there’s the fans.  Think, Radiohead fans, but take away a few years, and add belief that Matt Bellamy is Freddy Mercury’s second coming.  Yeah, we’re talking X Files devotion here, man.  On the other hand, the general opinion of the band lies on a “hate em’ or love em'” basis, leaving little room for objective criticism.  If such a thing even exists.  I don’t blame listeners, though.  Muse is too prog for the pop fan, too song-oriented for the general prog head.  There really isn’t a middle ground, but for eye rollers and coffee slammers like myself.

Muse is a band of taste, dabbling in prog excess without garnering too much of the pompousness required for a full blown member of the genre.  Yes, Bellamy’s lyrics are pretentious and ofttimes cheesy.  The concepts are often overblown and preachy.  Yet, when stripped down, Muse explores multiple musical avenues, a unique blend of electronica, jazz, rock, and even metal. Not to mention Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations brought progressive rock back into the mainstream. That alone is respectable.  Drones doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but continues Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard, and Christopher Wolstenholme’s statement on the state of progressive rock.

Straight off, the album goes into Depeche Mode territory with opener, “Dead Inside.”  Cringeworthy song title aside, the track does well as an introduction to the band’s bombastic sound.  Drum machines.  Drum machines everywhere! “Dead Inside” is as genetically close to a classic Muse song than any other track on the record.  The track bleeps and bloops in a weird intro before hitting the listener with emotion.  Muse emotion, that is.  I say that because there’s a level of drama only Muse can create, and it is in this emotional crescendo, that listeners are divided. The lyrics, themselves, are suspect.  Behind Bellamy’s still impressive falsetto, “Dead Inside,” brings out a healthy dose of Muse drama, spouting:

Your lips feel warm to the touch/You can bring me back to life/On the outside you’re ablaze and alive/But you’re dead inside.

Muse, “Dead Inside,” Drones (2015)

Overseeing the album is a convoluted concept of prog’s finest subject: individualism.  As in the past, I try to focus on the music and lyrics alone, so concept falls low on my critical repertoire.  However, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the lack of originality in Bellamy’s lyrics.  They observe topics with the most shallow of executions, exploiting cliche after cliche as if wishing to frustrate the listener.  In this regard, the juvenile lyrics take away from the music.  Coming from a guy that places lyrics behind music, that’s saying a lot.

Luckily, the music is strong enough to mask the overdone concept. As listeners reach the album’s midsection, the music becomes abrasive, adopting elements of hard rock, even metal. “The Handler,” for instance, grabs this musical progression by the balls.  Muse tackled heaviness in previous albums in tracks like, “Knights of Cydonia,” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” but Drones brings their heavier spectrum to the forefront.  And I’ll admit, I like this new direction.  For the first time, Muse’s album feels tied together, bringing in multiple markets, but still holding on to their trademark sound.  Each influence comes through in album epic, “The Globalist,” the main highlight of the album, a track exploding with melody and aggression.  This track is the pinnacle of Muse’s experimentation, while, “Revolt,” and, “Mercy,” tap into accessible, Queen-esque waters.  If anything, Drones is an accessible progressive rock album, which — I must say — shows songwriting maturity.

At the head of this aggressive direction is Matt Bellamy’s guitar.  Neoclassical, earpleasing shreddery.  Although the album’s tracks fail to reach, “Stockholm Syndrome,” intensity, Bellamy still throws down memorable riffs in heavier tracks like, “Psycho,” and “Defector.” Besides lead guitar, each instrument plays for atmosphere over technical brilliance. That’s okay. My only complaint, musicianship-wise, is the absence of natural drum sounds. I get that the band strives for more of an electronic feel, but the drums, at times, make the songs feel…synthetic.  Perhaps intentional, perhaps an aesthetic choice.  Maybe it’s a production issue.  Either way, Dominic Howard’s kit sounds lifeless and that’s a problem.

Overall, Muse’s seventh studio album, Drones, overcomes its shoddy concept and stale rhythm section with an accessible, but heavy approach to the progressive genre.

RATING:  3.75/5

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5 Days of Rush! Day 2

4. Moving Pictures

Number 4 was a hard choice for me.  Shit, this whole list has proven difficult.  When you’re dealing with one of rock’s most consistent discography, the phrase “personal favorite” kind of becomes an understatement.  I mean, shit, there’s Permanent Waves, A Farewell to Kings, 2112, Hemispheres…so, this time, get ready for Rush’s more influential — meaning, famous — 1981 record, Moving Pictures.  

At this point in their careers, the holy trinity already dropped four progressive juggernauts, and their sound threatened to be at its peak.  There’s no way three guys could possibly top “2112” or “Cygnus” or even crank out a single anywhere close to “Spirit of Radio.”  And then, pewwwwwwwwwww!

Yeah, you Rush fans and classic rock radio listeners know exactly what I’m talking about.  You’re probably air drumming right now just thinking about the intro to “Tom Sawyer,” the bands goldmine.  What’s there not to love?  The track pushed the boundaries of contemporary — for the time — mainstream music, throwing instrumental complexities straight at the average listener with Canadian fury.

Okay, maybe that was an oxymoron, but you get the idea.  Geddy throws down a solid bass groove, complemented nicely by layered synths.  Before Pictures, Rush hinted towards more electronic influences, but “Tom Sawyer,” brings the element to the forefront in a tasteful, even kickass fashion.  An album achievement, for sure, but later, this synthesizer obsession invited electronic drums and diminished guitars. But, that’s another story entirely.

Moving Pictures prides itself on melody over complexity without reaching too far into the pop realm. Sure, there’s an instrumental, a cult instrumental at that, “YYZ,” and an epic, but the songwriting never indulges in itself. That’s what separates Moving Pictures from the rest of Rush’s discography.  It is a complete, balanced sound, where all the gears click and have purpose.  Hard rockers will apppreciate the more direct sound of “Limelight.” Shit, drummers still can’t get over Peart’s solo in “Tom Sawyer,” and I don’t blame them.  Either way, each song stands on its own and moves forward in a seamless, well paced fashion.  This, my friends, is what a mature sound is supposed to sound like.  I won’t be the first to admit that Rush has their fair share of wanky moments.  For those alien to the word:

Wankery – verb, adjective, noun – someone who partakes in playing for the self rather than the music, usually playing scales really damn fast just for the sake of playing them. Example: I can’t stand that Malmsteen guy! All he does is wank!

That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its experimental numbers.  The closer, “Vital Signs,” ejects a simple but sweet Reggae riff, while Geddy’s bass blazes in the background.  Geddy’s voice carries at a tolerable level throughout the track, adding some soul to his otherwise wailing vocal chords.  I’ve always appreciated the man’s lower register due to its clarity and beautiful tone.  This tone especially comes out in the track’s repeated final lyric:

 Everybody got to deviate from the norm.

– Neil Peirt, “Vital Signs,” Moving Pictures (1981)

Geddy’s voice in “Tom Sawyer,” brings forth the wail we all know and love, but “Vital Signs” feels more personal, melancholic, beautiful with its slowed down tempo and emotional lyrics. “Red Barchetta,” on the other end, adopts the slow intro, driving — pardon the pun — verse and chorus style of songwriting, with creative harmonics throughout.

Oh complaints, my least and favorite part of reviews, depending on the album.  Unlike Clockwork Angels, Moving Pictures has excellent production so that critique goes out the window.  But, there’s no such thing as a perfect work of art.  If you find one, please play it or show it to me so I can write an easy review for once.  I know I just complimented the pacing of the album’s tracks, but unfortunately, some of the songs tend to drag.  “The Camera Eye,” for instance, could’ve been reduced to 9 minutes, instead of 11, but that’s neither here nor there.  Also, the synths, in all their spacey glory, tend to distract the listener rather than engage them, taking away from the album’s impact.

Overall, excellent musicianship,  strong flow, and beautiful melodies bring Moving Pictures lower on Reviews From the Other Side’s 5 Days of Rush.

Rating: 4.75

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5 Days of Rush!

Geddy Lee aerokay

Credit: Altalamotox

It’s only fitting that Reviews From the Other Side dedicates the week to one of progressive rock’s finest.  So, I’ve decided to review and discuss five of Rush’s quintessential albums.  At the end of the week, I don’t know, maybe I’ll post a top 10 of something or another.  And there’ll be a show review at some point, so stay tuned!

Either way, May 8 started what will most likely be Rush’s  last major tour, appropriately titled the R40 tour.  40 years of geeky, inspirational prog, played before millions of air drummers.  And then there’ll be me, strumming at my air bass, looking all proud like I’m the only one that notices the bass player.  Who am I kidding? Who doesn’t know what Geddy Lee is known for? Well, besides the mouse voice?  Okay, no more banter with myself. Let’s kick it off!

5.  Clockwork Angels

You’re probably thinking, “Why start with their newest album? Aged bands rarely ever drop average, let alone excellent albums!”  Sorry to bust your hypothetical bubble, but 2012’s Clockwork Angels highlights not only Rush’s maturity, but the band’s ability to adapt.  Within lies a heavy edge, an opportunity to follow the classic Rush formula, all the while pushing progressive rock and metal to their limit.  Speaking of which, I’ve always been mystified by metal’s immortalization of Rush.  Yes, they’re heavy — see “BU2B” on Clockwork Angels — and deal with more thought provoking lyrical themes, but the band never exactly emitted the metal attitude in their music. What’s the metal attitude? Well, it’s like obscenity.  You’ll know it when you see it.  Rush were always more of a hard rock turned progressive rock in lieu of Yes than a prog metal juggernaut. Clockwork Angels, however, changes that opinion drastically.  The albums melts faces, pummels chests, and waters eyes all at the same time.

Oh, and Neil Peart’s still got it.  Just look at his kit set up for the 2013 Clockwork Angels Tour.

Is that not the definition of nerdy, steam punk badassness?

The band meant business this time around.  Clockwork Angels opens with “Caravan,” a prelude of sorts to the concept of the album, courtesy of Neil Peart’s storytelling.  I don’t want to get too deep into the concept, but basically the album is a steam punk epic, following a high minded dreamer as he faces perils during his long travels. Kevin J. Anderson adapted the concept into a  novel if you’re interested in the full story.  “Caravan” does well as an introduction musically, highlighting strings and Geddy Lee’s still impressive vocals.

The musicianship is astonishing for three guys in their 60’s.  Alex Lifeson, for example, really comes through during “Carvan[‘s]” instrumental section, in which his guitar distorts an already weird soundscape.  Lifeson never really got the respect he deserved.  Sure, he’s won awards and is the guitarist of Rush, but talent-wise, he’s overlooked.  Hell, Reviews From the Other Side overlooked him in its  Top Ten Guitarists list.  Here, he comes out and drives the music onward.  Geddy provides some interesting bass lines, his fingers still throwing fire across his fret board.  The title track, “Seven Cities of Gold,” and “Headlong Flight” feature some of his best bass work.

And Peart, well, just look at that picture again.

After just a few seconds, it’s already apparent that Clockwork Angels suffers from average production.  The overall sound is notably compressed, which takes away from the general feel. I’m all for bass being brought forward, but at times, that’s all I can hear.  As a three piece, Rush is known for its larger than life sound.  Although instrumentally brilliant, the album sounds like three musicians playing together, taking away from their trademark blare.

That’s not to take away from the songwriting, however.  There isn’t a dull moment on the record.  Pushing and pulling at all the right places, listeners experience epics, hard rockers, power ballads.  There’s even a doomy track, “The Wreckers.” Experience can be looked at either as a breath of fresh air or a final exhale.  Luckily, Rush’s output on Clockwork Angels feels inspired by their experience rather than held down.  The aforementioned track, for example, highlights Peart’s heart wrenching, but reflective lyrics:

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.

– Neil Peart, “The Wreckers,” Rush

Imagine those lyrics on Fly By Night.  Peart, throughout his lyrical career, laid down philosophy, fantasy, science fiction, but when it came to more emotional subjects, his writing bordered on preachy.  “The Wreckers” feels honest and relatable, abandoning fantasy for humanity.  Also, if Rush had a swansong, “The Garden” fits the bill perfectly with its beautiful message, lyrics, and melody.  During the bridge, Alex Lifeson cranks out his own High Hopes”-esque solo, which leads the album to a tearjerking finish.  “The Garden” may even be Rush’s most beautiful ballad, but that’s up to you guys.

So, what separates this album from the rest of Rush’s discography? How is such an averagely produced album ranked higher than, say, Subdivisions, Fly By Night, and A Farewell to Kings? Oh, spoiler alert!  Clockwork Angels is a statement, that the band lasts creatively in their post-maturity stage.  It embodies progressive rock, throwing convention — you know, the let’s write an acoustic album phase — out the door and embraces its audience wholeheartedly, defying expectations.  Maybe their last album, maybe not, but either way it accomplishes what it was made for.  And that has to be respected, especially from three guys who have worked creatively together their whole lives.

Rating: 4.5/5

Disclaimer: All rights, property, and content of the header image belongs to altalamatox on Deviantart.  All rights, property and content of the body image belong to Roberta Baker on Flikr. I, in no way, have used said images for profit.  Images shrunk for size.