The Fountain of Clockwork Angels

Those who know me are aware that I’m a huge fan of the Canadian progressive-rock power trio Rush. I have been a fan of the band for over 30 years, I’ve attended shows during each of their concert tours since 1982, and I own their complete studio and live-recording catalog.

If you’re familiar with the band’s oeuvre and history, you’ll understand that it’s no small thing when I say that I even love their much-maligned third album, Caress of Steel (1975), and its B-side concept track, “The Fountain of Lamneth.” Not as much as some of their other albums, but I still consider it vintage Rush.

Like many other of the Holy Triumvirate’s faithful legions, I bought their latest studio release, a 65-minute concept album titled Clockwork Angels (2012). And I love it. It’s powerful, personal, and truly epic.

Clockwork Angels also felt incredibly familiar to me, and as soon as I’d finished my first full listen of the album on June 12, I knew why: it’s the same basic story as “The Fountain of Lamneth.”

Now, I know I can’t be the first or only fan to have noticed the similarity between these two works; it’s obvious to the point of being dumbfounding. However, I would like to point out that, in the interest of not biasing my comments for this essay, I have not looked up any other blog posts or articles on this topic. Any similarities between my observations and those of others should be attributed to the source material.

First, I know the works are not identical, and I’m not asserting that they are. There are major differences in style and execution, not to mention sheer scope. “The Fountain of Lamneth” (TFL) is a 20-minute suite, whereas Clockwork Angels (CA) is an entire album. But let’s consider the many similarities between them:

  • Both are tales of an impressionable, idealistic youth from a bucolic setting who dreams of taking a long journey to a distant place of myth and legend, in search of some elusive insight. (TFL: “I. In the Valley”; CA: “Caravan”)
  • Both highlight a sense of rebellion against received wisdom, painting it as an essential step on the road to individual identity and intellectual honesty. (TFL: “II: Didacts and Narpets”; CA: “BU2B” and “The Anarchist”)
  • Both involve the narrator falling in love, only to find the romance doomed, and then being left with no choice but to leave behind the object of desire in the pursuit of a greater quest for enlightenment. (TFL: “IV: Panacea”; CA: “Halo Effect”)
  • Both feature a sea voyage that ends in disaster. (TFL: “III: No One at the Bridge”; CA: “The Wreckers”)
  • Both depict the narrator arriving in a new land of wonder and splendor, a place that alters his understanding of life, the world, and his place in it. (TFL: “V: Bacchus Plateau”; CA: “Clockwork Angels”)
  • Both tell of the narrator reaching the distant, mystical place he has sought, only to find himself disillusioned by the experience. (TFL: “VI: The Fountain”; CA: “Seven Cities of Gold”)
  • Both stories span the length of the character’s life and end with him looking back upon the journey of his life and the wisdom gained along the way. (TFL: “VI: The Fountain”; CA: “Headlong Flight” and “The Garden”)

With so many similarities of content, structure, and theme, it’s difficult for me not to wonder if Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee intended for Clockwork Angels to serve as their 37-years-delayed revenge for the popular and critical rejections they endured for Caress of Steel.

In the interest of fairness, there are also many very important differences between the two works, as one would expect of compositions separated by nearly four decades.

First and foremost, Clockwork Angels is far more sophisticated, on every level, than “The Fountain of Lamneth,” and not merely because it’s three times longer. The members of Rush have matured as performers, composers, producers — and, in Neil’s case, as a lyricist — and their virtuosity shines through on the new album.

In terms of the lyrical content of the two works, “The Fountain of Lamneth” sounds like a work by a young man who can only speculate about what it would mean to look back on a lifetime of experience; Clockwork Angels reflects a deeper and more nuanced view of life and the world. This is evidenced by some of the more insightful touches on the new album. For instance:

  • Greater attention has been paid to the world-building in Clockwork Angels, which helps bring the setting alive in a far more vivid manner than was accomplished in “The Fountain of Lamneth.”
  • The songs on Clockwork Angels do a great job of exploring the psychology of the narrator and also a bit player who serves as the catalyst for his journey, “The Anarchist.”
  • While the romance in “The Fountain of Lamneth” seemed to be doomed by nothing more than the narrator’s wanderlust, in Clockwork Angels it serves to illustrate the narrator’s tendency to project illusions upon the objects of his desire, a sin many of us have committed (often more than once, especially when we’re young). This gives his heartbreak greater poignancy and plausibility.
  • In TFL, the shipwreck occurs solely because of inclement weather; in Clockwork Angels, the shipwreck is brought about by human malfeasance, adding a darker note to the story. By making it an act of malice that sinks the ship, the story is elevated from a circumstantial event to a consequential event — a big difference.

Last but not least, the lessons gleaned by the two works’ narrators are dramatically different. At the end of “The Fountain of Lamneth,” the narrator’s final thoughts are cryptic, at best:

I’m in motion
I am still
I am crying
I am…still
I’m together
I’m apart
I’m forever
At the start

Still…I am

These words are superficially fascinating, and Geddy Lee’s vocals make them haunting, but when I try to discern what they mean, when I ask myself what the narrator is saying about the meaning of life after his epic journey … I’m forced to conclude that the last moments of “The Fountain of Lamneth” are philosophically and emotionally empty.

Compare them, however, to these lines from “The Garden,” the final track on Clockwork Angels:

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It’s the only return you can expect

There is so much empathy, quiet wisdom, compassion, and profound beauty in this song’s lyrics that even reading them chokes me up. To hear Geddy Lee sing them brings a tear to my eye. The entire track is packed with this kind of gentle insight. The difference in world view between the 23-year-old Peart writing “The Fountain of Lamneth” and the 59-year-old Peart writing “The Garden” could not be more striking.

If there is a conclusion to be drawn from all of this, I suppose it would be that Neil Peart, like all artists, has themes that resonate and recur in his work, and like most artists, his work evolves and changes with him.

Part of me wonders if the seed of Clockwork Angels‘ soulful narrative has been living in the band’s collective heart all their lives. If so, what we saw in 1975 was only its first sprouting; now, thanks to the way that Rush has tended its own garden through the decades, the true beauty of “The Fountain of Lamneth” has come to fruition, erupting into full, majestic bloom.

Now, if only we could persuade the band to play side one of Hemispheres live on the next tour….

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