I hate to beat a dead horse – but allow me to this time. In today’s edition of my Deep Music Criticism series I revisit the title track to Rush’s latest album, Clockwork Angels.
I’ve ranked it #6 on their all-time top 20 best Rush songs. When it comes to such an old and long-running band of musicians, with as prolific a recorded output as Rush – ranking their best work gets a bit silly – and individualistic. Its no surprise that most Rush fans responded to my list with puzzlement and a bit of good natured mockery.
But Clockwork Angels truly is something special, in particular among their later output after 2000. Rather than swing at the fences to describe every musical nook and cranny of the song that I find compelling, I’m going to focus on one single compositional element that makes this song special. As I’ve said in prior reviews, its really those unexpected turns in a musical composition that make it interesting. This song has just the right amount of them to please, surprise and keep the fan coming back for repeated listens.
An instrumental, stop-time rendering of the song’s chorus starts off the song, after a bit of hollywood-style atmospherics. Given that the chorus is pretty epic in structure and drama, its a great compositional choice.
What is so striking about this section, and the later full band repetitions of it (with voice) is the tense harmony. The first chord is pure dissonance:
The song’s key is B Major. Its not uncommon for a rock song to harp around the sub-tonic (flatted note, A, below the tonic – which is B in this case). Going back and forth then between A and B is pretty formulaic for a rock tune. But here we have delicious twist #1 – a 1st inversion sub-tonic chord – the A Major/C# chord.
As you see from the B chord in the above example, a typical “triad” or basic chord looks like a neatly stacked set of thirds – either all spaces or all lines on the staff.
But when you take the low note of the chord (the root) and flip it up an octave, leaving the 3rd note in the bass, you get this new dissonance between the two outside notes. Here’s that A Major chord again, first in the “root position” then in the 1st inversion:
Compound the dissonance of this 1st inversion chord with a dramatic build-up like in Clockwork Angels, as well as a sound mix that prominently features the bass instrument (Geddy Lee’s bass guitar), and you get AWESOMENESS.
My friends – this is composition. All intentional, informed by technique and based on tradition, but mixed with a surprise. There’s nothing at all revolutionary about 1st inversion triads – they’ve been around in western music since the 12th century. But when you’re dealing in the fairly rigid world of popular rock music, applying a little lesson from tradition to your song can bring interest that otherwise wouldn’t be there.