Archive for the Music Category

Track Review of Rush’s Clockwork Angels

Finally I am ready to offer my track-by-track review of Rush’s new album, Clockwork Angels.

For my general take on on the album, see my review for The Objective Standard. I think this is a terrific album, perhaps the best of Rush’s career. Anybody who’s remotely a Rush fan should buy it and give it a listen, and then another.

However, I recognize that Rush’s music is not as accessible to non-fans as is the typical rock album. Most hot singles today come and go. They have a fun riff, some fun lyrics, and people enjoy it, for about three months. And then it disappears, nobody cares about it, and few listen to it again.

Rush’s music is different. It’s more sophisticated, lyrically and compositionally. It requires multiple listening sessions to even fully “hear” a track, to notice its structure and texture. Not as many people will spend the time to listen to Rush’s music, but those who do often fall in love with it, and keep listening to it year after year.

In a hundred years, most rock bands of today will be forgotten. A few will be remembered. Rush will be among them.

That said, as with any album (by Rush or anybody else), I like some of the tracks more than others. My goal here is to rate the tracks. Those who just want a taste might want to purchase the best tracks individually.

As I discussed in my TOS review, this is a “concept album” in the sense that the songs tell a story, chronologically, of a man’s life in an alternate “steampunk” universe. You can’t understand the significance of some of the lyrics outside the context of that story. However, as Geddy Lee has said, each song is meant to stand on its own musically. Thus, while I strongly suggest that you buy the entire album and listen to it as an album, you can also enjoy tracks singly. Here my purpose is to suggest which are the strongest tracks.

Best Song: “Clockwork Angels”

I regard the title track, “Clockwork Angels” (the third track on the album), as the best song on the album. At 7:31 minutes, it’s the longest track, and it offers a range of styles within it.

Lyrically, the setting of the song is the Crown City. The protagonist of the story, a simple farm boy, is visiting the city for the for the first time, and he is dazzled by what he sees. The description that accompanies the lyrics offers his perspective: “I had seen many images of the city before, and Chronos Square, but nothing could convey the immensity—the heaven-reaching towers of the Cathedral of the Timekeepers, or the radiant glory of the Angels. . . bathed in the brilliant glow of the floating globes.”

In the beginning we hear chants and some vapory-sounding guitar. I imagine the cart rolling into the city. Then some really bold, rhythmic guitar takes over.

At the minute-eight mark, the song takes a slow turn. When I first heard this, I was disappointed; I was hoping for a more rocking track. But I think the idea is that the protagonist is a little taken aback by what he sees, and he’s trying to take it all in. The lyrics accompany: “High above the city square / Globes of light float in mid-air / Higher still, against the night / Clockwork angels bathed in light.”

Then at a minute-twenty-nine the song takes off, and this is where I start to really love the track. It is glorious, it is pounding, it is intense. Geddly Lee drives with the bass.

At two-sixteen, the song relaxes into the the refrain, ending, “The people raise their hands [toward the Angels] — As if to fly.” That takes us close to the three-minute mark. From there the song mostly builds on variations of the same material.

But then at the four-fifty mark, the song takes a very different turn, sounding loose, almost drunken. This lasts for nearly a minute. It’s a peculiar section, and I don’t love it musically, but I think what’s going on is that the protagonist is starting to let some of his disillusionment show through. The lyrics go, “Lean not upon your own understanding” / Ignorance is well and truly blessed”—hardly an inspiring thought.

But then the song recaptures its positive, uplifting spirit, its spirit of wonder. It is quintessential Rush. And I love it.

Best Tracks

Several other tracks join “Clockwork Angels” in comprising the album’s best.

“Caravan” opens the album with the clanging of train bells. The opening lasts for nearly forty seconds, and then the song takes off with a bass-driven, off-beat riff. It’s great. Then at a minute-ten, the song offers its powerful refrain to the lyrics, “To the distant dream of the city / The caravan carries me onward / On my way at last.” It’s some of Rush’s best music.

“The Anarchist” is great, rollicking rock. To get an idea of why I think it tops the list, listen in at the 2:50 mark. The interplay here between Lifeson’s guitar and Peart’s pulsing drums is just magical. And then at 3:05 Lee’s bass joins the conversation more strongly.

“Carnies” begins as just another hard-rock song. But then at 0:57 it sprouts wings, and then at 1:22 it soars into this airy, contemplative space. I love the song’s mix of pounding rock and sweet melody.

“The Wreckers” has a pretty weak opening, but at sixteen seconds it begins an intriguing interplay between strummed guitar and bass. My understanding is that, in recording this, Lee and Lifeson switched instruments. This is followed by a wonderful, soul-wrenching refrain at fifty-eight seconds: “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / ’Cause sometimes the target is you.”

For pure, driving hard-rock genius, “Headlong Flight” is a must-purchase. Plus, I love this song lyrically: “Some days were dark . . . / Some nights were bright / I wish that I could live it all again.”

“The Garden” closes the album perfectly. It is far and away Rush’s best “slow song,” carried by acoustic guitar and Lee’s soulful voice. The refrain (at a minute-twelve) is beautiful musically and lyrically: “The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect. . .”

Second-Tier Tracks

Look, don’t get me wrong, I love all the tracks. But these are relatively weak ones, in my book. Of course, Rush’s weaker tracks are still loads better than most bands’ best tracks, so this is relative.

I enjoy “BU2B,” and it’s a good hard-rock song, but to me the music just isn’t quite as compelling and interesting as with other tracks.

“Halo Effect” is a fine slower song, but nothing about it makes me want to tag it as top-tier.

You can tell right away that “Seven Cities of Gold” is going to be a groovy song. I like it quite a lot, but it seems too repetitive to me, and little about it stands out. I have to say, though, that there’s some fantastic bass work starting at the four-minute mark; Lee grooves out.

“BU2B2″ is more of an interlude than a song. It ably conveys the protagonist’s sense of anguish at this point in his life.

I quite like “Wish Them Well” musically and lyrically, but it’s not a stand-out to me. The theme is that you can’t get caught up with those who wish to tear you down.

The Album

By my reckoning, then, a person could get the “best of Clockwork Angels” by purchasing seven of the tracks.

But, as noted, even the relatively “weaker” tracks are still pretty good.

Plus, the album artwork is exceptional for this album, and it also tells more of the story than is revealed in the lyrics.

So there are several good reasons to get the entire album, even if you’re not a lifelong Rush fan.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank the guys of Rush for making this album. It’s amazing, and arguably Rush’s best album ever. I’m impressed by their long-lasting passion and drive to make the best music they possibly can.

Voice of the Musical Saw: Interview with Natalia Paruz

My favorite scene from the film Another Earth involves the two main characters in a music hall; the composer plays the musical saw for his friend. The director skillfully weaves in scenes of space flight, and the friend (played by Brit Marling, who also cowrote the script) offers a moving response to the music. (I appreciated and enjoyed the quirky film overall despite its problems.)

After I posted my initial remarks, Natalia Paruz—the “Saw Lady”—mentioned to me via Twitter that she played the music of that scene. I’d already seen her perform the “Star Trek” theme on a YouTube video. And, when I was younger, a friend of mine played musical saw. So I figured I’d ask Paruz for an interview. She agreed, and the exchange follows. My questions are in italics.

How did you come to participate in the film Another Earth?

Director Mike Cahill saw me performing in the NYC subway and that gave him the idea to incorporate a musical saw into the film. He asked me if I would help choose music for the saw to play, and then record it for the soundtrack. He also asked me if I would coach William Mapother, the actor who was to act as if playing a saw, to do that.

Did you record the piece specifically for this film? How long of a process was it?

The piece was composed for the film by composer Scott Munson, who is probably the most prolific composer for the musical saw, inspired by the way Mike (the director) described the movie and the feel of the scene in an e-mail. I recorded what was to be a demo of the piece for Mike to hear—I was basically sight-reading the piece. We were certain we would re-record it properly later (if the piece met with Mike’s approval). It turned out that Mike loved the piece so much that he wanted to keep it exactly as is—so we never re-recorded it—what you hear in the movie is the demo! I later recorded the piece again, for my second album.

What was it like working with an actor to teach him to look like he’s playing the saw? Did he end up actually being able to play it a bit?

Working with William was a lot of fun for me because it was different from what I usually do, which is teach people how to actually play. It was challenging to come up with a system of signs that would map out the moves the music requires, for a person who doesn’t read music.

At the shoot I stood in front of William and mimed directions for him while he was “playing.” In the scene it looks as if William is looking as Brit Marling watching him play, but in actuality she wasn’t even there when we shot William “playing.” He was looking at my miming. Later, we shot Brit sitting in the audience. William wasn’t there for that—the director had me play on stage, so that the sound would inspire emotions on Brit’s face.

There is an instant when all one sees is the saw (a shot from behind)—that shot was done with me actually holding the blade. William did an excellent job pretending to play a saw—he never made a sound (he didn’t learn how to actually play) but he looks very convincing. During the shoot I had to give marks to each take, letting the director know which part of which take looked realistic and which didn’t. Editing that scene is a masterpiece of its own—it couldn’t have been easy to assemble all this separate footage, and Mike did such an amazing job!

Can you actually “tune” a saw, as the actor suggests in the film, or was that just made up for the performance?

In actuality one doesn’t “tune” the saw but rather “warms it up” before playing. That is done by bending the blade repeatedly up and down. If the air is cold (say, because of strong AC in an auditorium)—the saw wouldn’t sound good on the first try, and bending it up and down warms the metal to a temperature where it would vibrate more readily. That is what the “tuning” bit is based on.

How big of a deal was the film in terms of advancing your career?

Having a Fox Searchlight film on my bio certainly looks nice next to the other films I played for (Dummy with actor Adrien Brody, American Carny, I Sell the Dead, etc.). Also, the majority of the “Likes” on my Facebook Page are from people who saw Another Earth, so I would say the film certainly helped spread word about musical saw playing in general and myself as well.

As I watched the scene from Another Earth, I was struck by how much the musical saw sounds like a human voice. Usually the violin is described as close to the human voice; is the musical saw the closest to it?

It is amazing how a piece of steel can sound so human. So many times when people hear me playing before seeing me play, they come looking for a singer . . . and when they realize the sound is coming from the saw they find it hard to believe. They put their ears close to the blade to verify the sound is actually coming from there!

The saw’s sound is so much like that of a soprano voice that it was used in a recording of some choir, to do the high notes their sopranos couldn’t reach. I perform with opera singers often. Audience members often remark on how sometimes they cannot tell what sound is coming from the singer and what sound is coming from the saw! I recorded track #13 of my second album especially in order to show the similarity of a soprano voice to that of the saw’s.

I assume one can buy specialty “saws” for music that can’t actually saw anything. What’s the business of producing musical saws like?

About 100 years ago there were many manufacturers of saws made especially for music (see my detailed list of them). Today there are only three manufacturers of musical saws in the USA and some overseas, led by Mussehl & Westphal, which is the only manufacturer who lasted over the years. They have been selling musical saws since 1921. For a few years during the 1920s, sales averaged approximately 25,000 per year! However sales dropped significantly during the late 1930s as the art of playing music on a saw almost disappeared, especially after WWII.

So how did you get involved in this unusual pursuit? How long did it take you to become proficient?

I was introduced to the art of playing music on a saw by chance (or fate). I had mapped out my life as a dancer (I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and I performed with many smaller companies, in musicals, taught dance, etc.) but being run over by a car put an end to that. I searched for an alternate career, but nothing I tried filled the void the lack of dance left in my spirit. To cheer me up, my parents took me to Europe. We went to a show for tourists and part of it was a guy playing a saw, and for the first time since the accident I felt excited about something. It was as if providence pointed its finger to tell me what I was meant to do in life.

Since there was no musical saw teacher to be found, I taught myself, through trial & error (no internet tutorials back then either) how to play. At first I only thought of it as a hobby, but an invitation from a local Salvation Army Center (which heard about my playing from a neighbor of mine who could hear me practicing) changed that. When my phone kept ringing with invitations to perform, I realized that I could turn this into a career.

Anything else?

About 10 years ago I founded the NYC Musical Saw Festival which aims to promote the art form of playing music with a saw. When I started there were only five other saw players, but our numbers grew and we even established a new Guinness World Record for the “Largest Musical Saw Ensemble,” with 53 people playing saws together!

Thank you for the great questions, Ari!

Readers are invited to visit my website, where people can download my music, and my Facebook Page, where people may ask me questions about the musical saw or the movie.

Thank you very much,

all the best,
Natalia