Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weave Out The Fiction...

Clockwork Angels (The Novel), by Kevin J. Anderson
Clockwork Angels (The Album), by Rush

I am not not much the fanboy type, but there are any number of things I've come to like enough where you'd call me a fan. I have a few buy-on-sight authors, online and offline haunts, and if the running soundtrack to my life is (as every listener likes to pretend) somewhat open-minded, it actually ends up a little insular in practice, because I have always developed music tastes slowly, and because it's hard to break through and warp my mind to the state of fandom. But it happens, even to a special little flower like me. My theory is that it starts with a song that's good enough to listen to more than twice. To get me, there's something in there which rewards those extra listens, something I get itchy to explain maybe (it is often a question of why it fits a particular mood so well, and so much of favorite my theme music contains a very specific association, which can make it hard to ever talk about with anyone else), or to figure out how it's getting what it's getting right, maybe I can uncover more of the underlying trick, or, since my music appreciation skills are so minimal, find myself forever puzzling over the same parts. Enough of this kind of investment, and it gets comfortable enough to reside pleasingly at some appointed spot in my life, and the next CD gets an automatic listen too. That's when I become a fan.

So. Rush. They made it to soundtrack level back when I was a college kid, and if I've shifted away from heavy fandom, I can't deny it's brought me pleasure over the years, and I can't wait to see them in a couple weeks. In my freshman year, I distinctly remember a constant duel down the corridors of Crockett Hall between one kid who blasted his Rush CDs, and another who cranked back slightly more eclectic stuff--Nine Inch Nails, The Black Crowes, Living Colour--from the other end. I'd heard exactly none of it before, but it was the first guy that was my friend at the time, and before long I knew a bunch of other kids who were fans of the band too, and that's what got me through those off-putting vocals* into second- and third-listen territory. I liked the interplay between the instruments, how the bass carried a lot of melody, how the guitar-playing was amorphous and textural, but still filled in all the space it needed to (like nougat!), and how the beats were hard to follow but still got my feet tapping. I liked some of the themes.** I've painted the picture a handful of times by now, and my group of nerds was no more like the creepy little Objectivist retards of popular imagination than we were like the Cool Kids (who in 1990, let's point out, often enough had that chucklehead from two posts down featured on their mix tapes). And it is funny to see the band rise to sudden mainstream acclaim, pretty much just this year--garnering kind words from dozens of younger and now-established artists and writers, who act as though they're coming out, and they've even been nominated to the pointless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--after almost four decades of critical unlove from the establishment that turned their fans into fanboys, and makes me, even now, itch to asterisk the living fuck out of this blog post.***

This is a book review, by the way, and all the buildup really does has a point. Clockwork Angels is a novelization of the album of the same name. The music itself is good: very riff-heavy, with a lot of precisely picked notes (maybe a departure from their older styles), heavy blocks of sound, simple verse-and-chorus structure (but don't ask me about the progressions, which to this tin ear seem random sometimes), and plenty of room for instrumental breaks. The songs which are more fully composed sound a lot better, and they do a nice job with their more thoughtful tracks. (I like The Wreckers as the best all-around song. Seven Cities of Gold is very rock-ish, and it drives.) You get bits and pieces of sounds that would fit into their last several albums, but the whole things sounds less Rush-like than usual. They claim to have been inspired to tell a story in a steampunk setting, and there is, as mentioned, a lot of precise timing going through it, although I'm surprised that Neil didn't get a lot more tickity-tock sounds in the drumming, even if they did sometimes gather up some worthwhile huffs and wheezes to fill up the background space.

If you read the footnotes, you may gather that Neil Peart is happy to read all manner of literary books, and he's not terribly shy about peddling their influences. This can be a good thing or not, depending on the original material and what he gets from it. Xanadu, for an old example, is an decent atmospheric song, but it's pretty embarrassing to stack up those lyrics against the Coleridge poem that inspired it, which is famous for a reason. The arc of Clockwork Angels roughly channels Candide, and it works well so long as the young optimist is treated as an archetype, venturing naively or discovering the real-world price for it, but it suffers when the comparison gets too specific. The Garden is a lovely song, but it has the same problem that Xanadu does, that it overexplains and overextends a line that was originally great for its subtlety and nuance.

When my kids were younger, we had a pile of these terrible Disney-licensed books that they always wanted me to read, short "chapter books" versions of the cartoon movies. Really painful stuff.  I always imagined that they were written by underpaid temps who stopped self-editing as soon as they hit the word count. They were crappy knockoffs of the original films, which were in turn, more often than not, uneven**** knockoffs of famous literature.

You can probably see where I'm going with this.

Clockwork Angels the novel... there just isn't a whole lot there for me to review. It's as though Kevin Anderson tacked together the points of the songs with just enough verbage to cobble up the continuity necessary for a plot and setting, and not more than that. There's very little added depth--not enough character, and not enough world--not much more than stretched over the skeleton. It could have been an entertaining fantasy in the escapist tradition (and maybe it doesn't help that I just read a brilliantly written fantasy about an optimistic young kid who grew up in a weird clockwork society, that had parallel universes and everything), and given that it's fluffed up with a bunch of the compelling album artwork, it could have inspired a real kickass graphic novel, and it's a damn shame that they didn't go this way instead, because the scope would have much better fit. Maybe it was written to a younger audience, but I have to think people who'd be buying the book are well into their forties by now. Probably it was nothing more than a vanity project.  I will say, positively, that Anderson and Peart did seem to enjoy the idea of writing this thing, and that does come through a little bit in the text. The most entertaining reading experience was uncovering a bunch of Rush lyrics that got slipped in here and there (and if Anderson is quoting less-impressive songs like Countdown, then he's doing okay by me on the nerd spectrum).

Well, I suppose I didn't have high expectations, and I've been off my reading game lately anyway, so it was a good time to pick this one up. No more books cowritten by rock stars for me though.

*Yes, it's true that poor Geddy Lee sounded like he was shrieking through an autotuner a full quarter-century before the technology was even invented. I will argue that he's perfectly pleasant-sounding when he controls himself a little more, and even the wailing works fine when there's an appropriate spot in the song for it. And hey, if we weren't supposed to laugh at Robert Plant's emasculated moaning all those years--and that was basically Lee's starting point--then I don't see how we get to pick on this guy.

**The first two tracks of Signals were the ones blasted down the hall, and I picked up the albums Moving Pictures, A Farewell to Kings, and, when it came out, Roll the Bones over the next year. The themes from those selections, the ones that moved me, can be summarized as, "life is complicated but beautiful," "freedom is awesome when you're a kid," "compassion and understanding are important," and "authority is easily abused," which are by far the most common ones for the rest of their work too.

I bring this up because I already know what you're thinking. Yeah, "the genius of Ayn Rand" did get written into the liner notes of 2112, embarrassingly. Songwriter Neil Peart got rather impressed with the novella Anthem when he was 20 years old, but in his defense, (a) unlike all too many people who came across that dreck in their formative years, he by all evidence outgrew it before very long, and says as much when asked, (b) he gets caught up in left-wing literature (i.e., the entire rest of it) just as easily, and he pretty much comes to the same places with it, which (c) in the case of Rand, the parts of her "philosophy" that actually got into his lyrics, even back then, were much more an expression of individualism than the smug fuck-you-I-got-mine selfishness that the desiccated and sadly unforgotten hag foisted on the world. 

A reader or two may remember this happening, but getting into an argument with an Objectivist retard who did fit the fanboy stereotype was pretty much what convinced me it was time to walk away from the Slate Fray for good.  I spent two weeks (that I'll never get back) refuting his free market wackjobbery entirely using quotes from Rush. 

Peart is not completely forgiven--he projects a certain kind of humorless and instrospective self-regard that seems to require the other two guys to break up--but there's plenty enough good in there to enjoy, and I happened to stick around long enough to learn how to acquire the taste. The title of this post, in fact, comes from one of my all-time favorite lines in rock music, that he wrote. And I should say too, that for such successful people, and keeping in mind that I don't actually know them, all three band members seem like utterly decent human beings.  Those damn Canadians.


****Oh come on, we all hate The Mouse, but they do have their moments, and I was forced for a few years to become a connossieur of these things. I think the Mad Hatter scene in the Alice movie was brilliant, for one example.


UPDATE!  They played Boston on Wednesday, and it was badass.  They just jammed it out, lots of solos and long intros.  Before they got into the new material, they played a lot of tunes from the mid-eighties--maybe not their best period--but even least-favorite songs like Territories sounded pretty impressive live.  They still played the synth parts, but those songs sounded more guitar-heavy, which helped a great deal.  They noted that The Analog Kid (one of my all-time favorite songs) isn't remotely a kid anymore.

I bought two tickets, thinking I could drag a friend along, but I ended up going with my 15-year-old daughter instead.  Her comments: "those guys look pretty old, but oh my god, they're really playing the living crap out of the guitar and the drums."  She also opined that the vocals were getting a little Steve Tyler-ish by the end, and I think Geddy was pushing it by then too, but he did just fine for the first three quarters of the show. 

As for me, the live show was great.  They worked out the songs from Clockwork Angels a good deal better than they had on the album.  Neil's third solo used electronic percussion to generate those steampunk sounds I thought were wanting, and I think he's improvising these days too.  The videos and shorts were well enough done to support the "graphic novel" theory (instead of a blowoff novelization that sucked), and a shame, it was.  They had a string section for the second set, maybe ten cellists and fiddlers, and unlike any other time I've seen that with rock music, (a) it wasn't gimmicky, (b) they were really into it, and got visibly tired out well before the 60-year-old headline band did, and (c) it worked very well to smooth out the sound, and make the whole thing seem more intended.  If the progressions hadn't always lead me around where I thought made sense, the strings filled in those gaps, and one thing I've gathered from bluegrass is that long, drawn notes are often a good counterpoint to those fast finger-twisters.  It felt like the sharp edges were filed off.

Good times.


David Marlow said...

KJ Anderson and Rush? I'm gonna need a couple days.


Keifus said...

I don't know anything about the Anderson guy. I think he's written a bunch of star wars novels and things of similar quality.

Guilty pleasure! If you want to pretend that you never knew me, I'll understand.

David Marlow said...

Off topic. So after the debate the other night (only caught last ten minutes), one of my PBS channels showed The Hoover Dam. American Experience, maybe? Anyways, fascinating engineering, strike busts, collusion, a lot of hard work that paid, with all the fixings. Boulder City, Vegas, whores. Government doesn't create jobs, spectacular engineering with really cool architecture, and thousands of jobs. It was just kind of an interesting punch line. What really killed me was a guy on there saying something like can you believe someone came down to this spot and started this dam with a shovel.

And I pat myself on the back after I get a sump pump to work for longer than five minutes at a time. Funny. Which means, on a very personal note, my greatest weapon against relapse is humility.

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