The first 35 years of Rush's career were certainly eventful. And accomplished.
But the last decade has been nothing less than stellar for the Canadian trio.
Back in 2002 Rush issued a new album, "Vapor Trails," but was more importantly coming back from a five-year hiatus that followed the tragic deaths of drummer/lyricist Neil Peart's wife and daughter, just 10 months apart. The band was on tenderhooks, unsure if the "comeback" would take, if fans would still be there, if the its particular band of musical magic was still intact.
Those concerns quickly became moot, however, and the time since has been arguably the most successful in Rush's history.
The group has released three Top 5 studio albums and an EP, with "Clockwork Angels" debuting atop the Canadian charts and giving Rush its highest placement (No. 2) on the Billboard 200 since "Counterparts" in 1993. A string of successful tours resulted in four live album/DVD releases, and in 2010 Rush was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Billboard magazine Legends of Live award, and was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary, "Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage."
Earlier this year, meanwhile, the group received a Governor General of Canada Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.
"It has been a very fruitful time, and it's been a bit of a whirlwind," guitarist Alex Lifeson, who formed the group in 1968 with singer-bassist-keyboardist Geddy Lee (Peart came on board in 1974), says. "We've been doing so much touring and three albums of new material, so it's been quite an interesting period -- particularly the last few years with the documentary coming out and the broadening of our audience. It's really been quite a ride these past few years."
And, Lifeson adds, "I think all of us would agree that we are at a stage where we're playing, we feel, the best we've ever played. There's a relaxed confidence that we're feeling in playing live and in all the work we do. It's nice to be able to do that on your 20th album, and when you're approaching 60 years old."
"Clockwork Angels" is a unique album for Rush, the longest-gestating recording the group has ever made. According to Peart, discussions began at a dinner during December of 2009, when he presented Lifeson and Lee the idea for a concept album based on a story he'd worked up with friend and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson -- who's also collaborating with Peart on a "Clockwork Angels" novel. The theme was "a young man's quest to follow his dreams" in a world that fought against them, and by January of 2010 Peart, who resides in California with his second wife and their two-year-old daughter, 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," says Lifeson, 59, who was born Alexandar Zivojinovich [cq both] in British Columbia. "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."
Conceptual pieces are hardly new to Rush, whose past albums have included lengthy suites such as "2112" and "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres." "You know, 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," Lifeson explains. "But this one is a little more overt, and there's a little more of a story to it and I think it gave Neil an opportunity to express himself on a wider platform."
Rush started recording "Clockwork Angels" in April of 2010 at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, working again with "Snakes & Arrows" co-producer NIck Raskulinecz. The initial sessions yielded a pair of songs -- "Caravan" and "BU2B" -- that Rush released online and played during its 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 in Toronto.
"It was very different for us," Lifeson acknowledges. "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. 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."
One thing Rush wasn't concerned about, according to Lifeson, was accessibility -- particularly to radio, which has embraced the group only sporadically over the years for songs such as "Closer to the Heart," "Spirit of Radio," "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight."
"We never think about radio or if something is commercially accessible," Lifeson says. "We've never done that, and this album was definitely no exception." In fact, "Clockwork Angels' " first single, "Headlong Flight," clocks in at an imposing seven and a half minutes. "Our expectation was (radio) probably wouldn't play it," Lifeson contends, "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."
Rush is more sure of its appeal on the road, however. "Clockwork Angels" has the group back on tour, this time accompanied by a string section to recreate some of the album's songs and be added to some of Rush's older material. Award-winning David Campbell, who worked on the album will also write arrangements for the live show and even conduct the strings on early dates.
"It's just something else that's different for us," Lifeson says. "It's a whole new show. It's new staging, new lighting, everything is new and fresh about it. I would say that it's an evolutionary extension of what the Time Machine Tour was, but we are definitely freshening it up and bringing and there'll be a lot of new video stuff going on."
And, Lifeson promises, he and his bandmates will hit the road continuing to appreciate Rush's rare and iconic status.
"I think when we came back from those very, very difficult times..we felt like you've got to enjoy every moment that you're out there doing this," he explains. "It's a privilege to be able to play music for your whole life, and it's an even greater privilege to have such a fantastic audience that's willing to support you and listen to what you're doing and become so passionate, like Rush fans have become.
"That's really, really something special and it's never lost on us, and certainly in the last 10 years I would say every night on stage is like the last gig, and we don't take it for granted at all, ever."
Rush performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $49.50-$126. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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