Neil gives some credit to Robertson Davies and Herbert Gold for this piece. Davies is known for his trilogies, probably the most well-known of which is The Deptford Trilogy, about how a simple act like throwing a snowball and missing your target sets off a series of transforming events that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Neil says he picked up on the circus motifs in Davies’ work. Gold is a Beat- and hippie-era novelist whose best known work is Fathers, about growing up in a lower-middle class, suburban, Jewish household.
In the Clockwork Angels narrative, the young man becomes friends with other, like-minded people who are looking for adventure. The term “carnies” refers to carnival barkers, an idea likely influenced somewhat by Neil’s time working at the carnival in Lakeside Park.
The music came together in early 2011, before the second half of the Time Machine tour, Neil says. Alex and Geddy “got together to try to get going on the writing again. Having a bit of a struggle, they seemed to spend more time drinking coffee and making stupid jokes—except for a couple of furious jams that, when reviewed later, turned out to be the foundations of ‘Carnies’ and ‘Headlong Flight.'”
“I love the opening riff with the cool harmonics,” Alex says in a MusicRadar interview. “It’s got a little bit of Hendrix or Robin Trower. The choruses are strong. The carnival-type vibe and the sounds make them quite different from the verse and bridge sections. The climbing bridge is reminiscent of something, but I don’t know what it is. A lot of moments on the album are like that: I’m reminded of something, but I couldn’t tell you what song it is or what era it’s from. That’s a great thing, though—people gravitate to that. Take Bryan Adams, for example: a lot of his writing had that quality. He used melodies from other songs, and it was very successful for him. You’d listen to his music and take comfort in the familiarity; therefore, you felt familiar with him. This song has that same thing going on. It even takes me back to The Beatles, but I can’t say that we’ve listened to a Beatles record and said, ‘Let’s do that!’ Still, there’s something in the choruses that recalls the era of the ‘60s.”
“Sweet and soul, rude and inviting – this phantasmagoric pounder is fascinating in how everything seems effortlessly, inexplicably right. It also features probably the meanest riff that Alex Lifeson has ever played – on record at least – one which dovetails seamlessly into a brutal mass of a verse. Throughout Carnies, Lifeson keeps upping his game and reaching new heights. His solo is a spiral of patterns both raging and tender. He possesses an extravagant gift for making the perfect sound at the perfect time – bell-like flourishes, scooped-out phased chords, spitfire trills – and his intuition adds to their ceaseless and bewildering beauty.”—Joe Bosso, MusicRadar
“Bang! Now this is some heavy shit! Very much the partner-in-crime of ‘BU2B’ with its deliciously crunching riff – complete with harmonics – this is a good contender for the album highlight, and will certainly be an absolute barnstormer live. Rush are continuing to strike the perfect balance between experimenting with something new yet still sounding undeniably themselves. Oh that riff, that sweet, sweet riff! “—Dominic Hemy, The Digital Fix
“‘Carnies’ hit me hard between the eyes, lyrically, as it immediately conjured the classic noir of William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley. Rush is off on another ass-over-head trip into the crypt, Neil bashing away, more gobs of Magazine-like heavy post-punk, weird chords in the chorus. Bloody ‘ell, ‘Halo Effect’ perpetuates the (coincidental) connection with Nightmare Alley, making me want to read it again, and dragging further immersion into the album’s insistent, consistent, boomy, garagey, welled-up-with-wattage claustrophobia.”—Martin Popoff, BraveWords
“’Carnies’” has some truly jaw-breaking, brutal riffing. However, Rush infuses even it’s heaviest moments with a wonderful melody amongst the drive and force.”—Rob Palladino, Audio Times