Clockwork Angels Live Review

In the early part of their career, Rush released a live album every four studio albums, and the occasional concert video (starting with Exit... Stage Left). But the economics of the industry have shifted to concerts and live videos. Since their return from hiatus in 2002, Rush has released 3 studio albums (not counting Feedback) and 4 live DVDs and CDs. This is great news for Rush fans, as there's been a detailed record of every Rush tour for the past 11 years.

And now we have the The Clockwork Angels Tour video (the fifth live release since 2002), which captures the stage show and set lists of Rush's 2012 and 2013 tours. This was a unique tour and included a lot of firsts for Rush (which is saying something when a band has been touring for almost 40 years):

  • Rush performed with a string ensemble for the first time (which was also the first time any musicians joined them onstage during a tour for an extended amount of time).
  • They alternated the set lists almost every night, swapping multiple songs instead of just one or two as they had on previous tours.
  • Neil Peart split his usual 8-plus minute solo into three shorter solos.
  • They played rare tracks from Grace Under Pressure and Power Windows, many of which hadn't been played in years ("Grand Designs," "The Body Electric," "Territories," "Manhattan Project," and "Middletown Dreams") and also brought back the instrumental from Roll the Bones, "Where's My Thing?"
  • The stage lighting and design was stunning, and probably the best light show ever designed for a Rush show (hats off to Howard Ungerleider and Production Design International).
  • To top things off, Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame between the 2012 and 2013 tours.

Here are my impressions of the Blu-ray video:

Good news first

  • This is the first Rush video I've seen that reminded me of actually being at one of their concerts. This is achieved through multiple angles around the concert hall, with many from the audience's point of view.
  • The spectacular concert and stage show is captured in pristine video on the Blu-ray.
  • On this particular night (Dallas, TX), Rush was playing at their usual high level, with Alex Lifeson shining very brightly.
  • In the extras, there are a few things we've never seen before -- including the "Limelight" soundcheck..
  • The stereo mix is good.

And the bad news

  • The 5.1 audio mix is painful to listen on 5.1 presets. To be clear, on my Sony 5.1 amp, these are the CSTEX A, B, and C settings. (From what I've read in the Sony documentation, these presets are for 5.1 audio -- where the audio channels are split into 6 distinct channels.) When I used any of these settings, Geddy's singing and Neil's drums are completely buried in the mix (even during the drum solo!) and are overwhelmed by Alex's guitar. The result is a muddy soundscape.
  • There are some synching issues between video and sound, but for the most part it's OK.
  • Geddy struggles at times with the high vocal parts (hey, he's no spring chicken -- so it's amazing he can do it at all!). Still, this becomes distracting on a few songs. I agree with some others that it's better than "The Time Machine" tour.

How to make this video sound decent on a 5.1 Sony amp

Even though we shouldn't have to do this, I have been able to tweak the 5.1 audio to a much better state. Here's what I did:

  1. On the disc, go to the Blu-ray setup menu and select DTS Master Audio.
  2. On your Sony amp, select PLII MS (this is the Pro Logic II Music Sound field). You can also try Pro Logic II Movie Sound Field)
  3. Watch the concert

As an alternative, you can use the stereo mix, but this won't use all 6 speakers.

If possible, on your Blu-ray player set the audio to "5.1 lossless" instead of DTS.

Watching the concert on a TV with stereo sound

I also tested the concert on a Samsung stereo TV with Sony Blu-ray player. I used the "Music" sound field on the Samsung TV, and the audio sounded fine.

Why all the problems?

After the original Vapor Trails release and Rush's later decision to remix and re-release it in 2013, you have to wonder why Rush is having so much trouble mixing their audio -- especially in 5.1. In my opinion, the only two video releases that sounded decent were R30 and Snakes & Arrows Live.

If I had to guess, these kinds of problems probably come from both deadlines to get new releases out the door -- and Rush not using objective ears. David Bottrill's remix of Vapor Trails shows what an objective ear can do when given the chance. I'm not sure Richard Chycki is proving the kind of "objective ear" that Rush needs, although for Clockwork Angels Tour he was only involved in "Digital Editing."

Another thought is whether Geddy's vocal performance was strong enough to be spread out across 5.1, and possibly increasing the guitar level to cover up some of the flaws. If you use a 5.1 preset with the the HD audio mix, sit next to the center speaker to hear something really interesting: Geddy's isolated vocals. And when the vocal line ends, the channel drops out again. I'm not sure why this was done.

What's really interesting is if you listen to the stereo mix on good headphones or watch the concert on a regular TV with stereo speakers, everything sounds better (including Geddy).

The bottom line

Are all of these issues enough to stop you from buying this release? I don't think so. It's a great document of the concert, and the performances are definitely representative of what I saw during three shows (2 in 2012 and 1 in 2013). But being a Rush fan over the years, I've come to expect pristine sound and vibrant soundscapes, and sonic detail. Though a lot of people have expressed problems with Exit... Stage Left, I've always found it to be a good mix where I can hear the details of each instrument and vocals. Different Stages also has this type of mix, but with a more organic approach.

The performances are also worth watching. Collectively, Rush has been working toward a more organic sound that's less about technical proficiency and more about feel. (But to be clear, their technique is definitely on display here as well.)

Peart in particular seems to have arrived at a style that he's been working on since he began his studies with Freddie Gruber in the 90s. He's been moving closer and closer to an improvisational approach and feel that allows the songs to breathe. Take a listen to "Subdivisions" on Show of Hands compared to this release, and you'll the hear the difference in his playing.

And Alex is practically on fire this night. If you had any doubts about Alex's place in the pantheon of Rock guitar gods, this video should put that debate to rest. Highlights for him include "Force 10," and "The Analog Kid," but almost every song includes some amazing playing. (This is one place where the extra guitar volume helps!)

While the sound might not be perfect, and Geddy might not be able to hit all those notes (at least without more effort), there's no experience like that of attending a live Rush show. Clockwork Angels Live comes the closest to bringing you back to that experience, even if it's not perfect.