I know that I said, some time ago, I would review Rush’s Vapor Trails album. Well, that’s a difficult thing to do. Rush aren’t the kind of band that you can pin down and quickly analyze, and the same goes for their work. On one level, Vapor Trails is a collection of great catchy songs, so it isn’t totally forbidding, and that probably explains the excellent reviews it has received elsewhere. Beneath the surface, however, there’s a lot more going on; in their 30 year history, Rush have investigated deeper questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and Vapor Trails is no exception.
I recently visited rush.com to see what was new, and found a link to an article on MTV.com. Not only was the article, about drummer Neil Peart’s new book Ghost Rider, useful and informative, but MTV has several other current articles as well as a very positive review of the album. If hell freezes over, will the flying piglets get out in time?
Anyway, back to Vapor Trails. First of all, the musicianship is as excellent as ever, but I’m not just talking about pure skill. Alex Lifeson (guitars, mandola, & more guitars) is doing things a little differently this time around; not only is his work heavier than ever (which is saying something), but the album has no solos at all. OK, perhaps a fraction of one. Neil Peart (aka the Professor) sounds as consummate as ever, maybe with a bit more “idiot glee” in his playing, not quite as carefully controlled as in the past.
Then there’s Geddy Lee, the bassist and singer, who has been fattening up his bass sound and style so much in the past decade, to the point where he’s almost a one-man band in himself. No keyboards this time, they’re not needed. Besides throwing in bass chords all over the show, there’s a weird flamenco feel to some of his playing too. Speaking as a bassist who thought he was getting better with time, this is just frightening stuff, really difficult to follow musically, yet inspirational.
- One Little Victory: yoo-hoo, we’re back! Peart gets the honour of opening the album in thunderous post-punk double time mode. Funky with dramatic interludes, Geddy yodelling just because he can. The first single.
- Ceiling Unlimited: Guitar madness, with Geddy layering bass tracks where other bands might throw in more guitars. Wonderful, elevating chorus. Ceiling Unlimited is a term from the aviation world – it means something like “no clouds, perfect visibility”. Rush’s answer to The Who’s I Can See For Miles.
- Ghost Rider: a melancholic tale of a man who takes to the road as a way of softening the blow of tragedy, knowing full well that his ghosts travel with him. This is the title of Neil Peart’s new book, about the 55,000 miles he travelled on motorbike after he found himself without a family.
- Peaceable Kingdom: a plea for world peace, but not the kind that Sting could ever find himself singing. The voices of those who have died in senseless wars, who have seen humans at their worst, don’t seriously expect things to improve, yet perversely allow themselves hopeful dreams for the future.
- The Stars Look Down: Q: why? A: because.
- How It Is: a potential single, the catchiest, breeziest track on the album, with multi-tracked vocals, sinuous guitar and mandola, it’s hard to say who this reminds me of, but I like it. A real summer song, with Alex at his most musical (i.e. very).
- Vapor Trail: a track I have difficulty getting into perhaps because it’s the most reminiscent of previous Rush songs, similar in feel and structure, but still grand in sound and scope.
- Secret Touch: the second single, almost a love song, but cryptic, crunchy and catchy, and features that partial solo I spoke of earlier.
- Earthshine: a new expression of Peart’s ongoing fascination with weather and other natural phenomena (see also Jacob’s Ladder, Chain Lightning). Not even slightly hippie, this has more in common with Black Sabbath than the Grateful Dead.
- Sweet Miracle: this sounds at first like a simple celebration of nature, but hides a darker message of alienation and loneliness, as well as a rebuttal to common or garden theology.
- Nocturne: a venture into the world of dreams and circular logic, this reminds me of something Peart said years ago: “I’m not a solipsist, I just like to watch other solipsists!”
- Freeze (Part IV of “Fear”): a long-awaited continuation of the Fear Trilogy, the first three parts of which were released in reverse order. Another slight throwback with odd time signatures, but as dense as George Dubya Bush’s frontal lobes.
- Out Of The Cradle: Got time for one more, have we? This is where they toss out the rule book, just play for the sheer joy of it, and try to fix it in the mix. Not a bad patch-up job either, this one is probably going to sound even better live. Cracking.
Just in case this review makes you want to pigeon-hole Rush as humourless musos: they’re touring at the moment, and while previous stage sets have featured fridges, huge rabbits popping out of hats, and gargantuan nuts and bolts, this time they have three huge washing machines on stage, tumbling piles of T-shirts which they later throw out to the audience. Wish I’d thought of that.
I have a foolproof litmus test for any band: do they make me want to play an instrument myself? By that standard, Rush score on every count. Listening to a Rush album makes me want to play guitar, drums, keyboards and bass, sometimes all at the same time. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Second Look: November 2003
Since I published my original review, I found that it was the top Google search result for “Rush Vapor Trails Review”, probably because the page has a clear subject heading, and about 200 people have read it, typos and all.
After repeated listening, I became a little concerned by the sound quality, which had me wondering if my ears were waxed up again. I found I was not alone: Rip Rowan, editor of ProRec.com, wrote the following article that goes into the sound problems in detail, and notes that it’s part of a gradual trend in recording practice.
As Rip says, the damage is generally done at the mastering stage, when the album is given a final “polish”, usually outside the control of the band or artist. That article doesn’t have the whole story, however, since the seeds of the problem were sown while laying down tracks. Alex Lifeson (Rush’s guitarist) had this to say:
We found problems that we didn’t hear in mixing that were apparent in mastering. To get the kind of levels (we wanted), we had digital distortion. We remixed a couple of songs half-way through the mastering, through the remix, back to mastering. The poor guy (Geddy Lee) was doing this on his own. It really shook him up.
“When I got back, I called him and said, ‘Ged! The album is great! We did a great job! We got through it, we stuck to everything we believed in and we did it!”
“He said: ‘I don’t know what to think. I think it’s awful.’ I said, please do me a favour. Just don’t put it on for a couple of weeks. Be relaxed and open’.”
(quoted from an article on canoe.ca that is no longer online)
To my ears it sounds as if mastering compression was over-applied as a way of compensating for the clipping in the source tracks. This kind of problem can’t be rectified in the mixing or mastering stage.
other vapor trails reviews