Album Review: “Vapor Trails” — Rush (2002)

Rush’s 2002 release Vapor Trails is a difficult album. It was, by all accounts, difficult for the band to record, taking over a year to produce after an extended period during which the band had effectively shut down. The album is also infamous for its unfortunate production quality; the audio is overly loud, distorted, cluttered, and often unlistenable (a 2013 remix was an improvement over the original release, but still fundamentally lacking in dynamic range). Nonetheless, Vapor Trails represented a return of sorts for the band; not just from their six-year absence from the music scene, but to a rawer, more immediate, less synthesized approach. Guitar, bass, drums, vocals — that’s what was on the menu for this album.

Not to say that Vapor Trails was a regressive album; it wasn’t. Nor was it a “return to form” either, because Rush’s only form was constant movement and evolution. But the “stripped down” approach to instrumentation (if not songwriting and recording) certainly raised a few eyebrows among their early fans who checked out during the band’s 80s/synth-driven era.

Having dealt with the issues of hiatus, sonic distortion, and a notable lack of keyboards or synths, we examine the album tracks and, upon listening to them, we sense something harder, darker, and more deeply impactful than what we’ve come to expect from Rush so far. Since 1996’s Test For Echo, drummer Neil Peart went through unimaginable personal tragedy with the passing of both his wife and daughter, and his road to emotional stability is reflected in both words and rhythm. The driving, bluesy hard-rock of opening track “One Little Victory” reflects this inexorable struggle towards some measure of stability. One agonizing step at a time, celebrating that moment’s triumph no matter how painful the cost. The song’s driving momentum carries over into “Ceiling Unlimited”, a primal scream at the futility of existence against its seemingly limitless potential for greatness and wonder. These opening songs present a tableau of intense immediacy that sets the tone for the remainder of the album.

The softer opening of “Ghost Rider” lays the foundation for Neil’s lyrical ode to escape, both literal and figurative, inspired by his motorcycle journey undertaken shortly after his wife’s death. I find the lyrics strongly compelling, the music less so. The same goes for “Peaceable Kingdom”, a thundering ode the failure of global empathy (especially in the face of a post 9/11 universe). It’s a dour, heavy song, but it seems like the music is in service of the lyrics rather than in its usual symbiotic equilibrium.

On the other hand, music and lyric coexist and enhance each other more effectively in “The Stars Look Down”, Peart’s trip through the Total Perspective Vortex. This is one of the album’s better tracks, hampered only by its unfortunate production qualities. Any nuance and subtlety the song might have had is hidden behind that omnipresent wall of distortion. Similar complaints can be leveled at “How It Is” and “Vapor Trail”, the former a strongly moving and melodic tune with some power-pop elements, the latter a heart-rendering expression of tragedy featuring some of Alex Lifeson’s most atmospheric guitar work on the record, both tunes let down by the album’s overall production. It’s a shame, because buried underneath those oppressive mixes are songs of quality.

“Secret Touch” plays out like the central message of the album, that love and pain are not mutually exclusive. It’s a winning tune, as is “Earthshine”, a concert staple for a few years and one of the most hopeful tracks the album has to offer. “Sweet Miracle” offers more hopefulness in its declaration that salvation comes not necessarily from faith or spirituality, from myth or allegory, but rather from pulling oneself up from the wreckage of tragedy and despair. Therein lies the miracle of life. Something like that, perhaps.

What also pervades throughout the album — and whether or not this is due to the aforementioned production problems, its subject matter, or its musical direction — is an overall feeling of sameness. There isn’t much in terms of tonal variety. By the time we explore the dreamscapes of “Nocturne” and the crippling intimidation of “Freeze” (the newest entry into Peart’s “Fear” cycle), the album has begun to melt into itself, lacking a measure of distinction that detracts from the overall listening experience. The record ends strongly with “Out Of The Cradle”; while on one hand it might sound like “more of the same”, but it purports to reaffirm the value of life and the beauty of its living through its musicality, and it is in this determination of its ethos it succeeds more than many of the songs that preceded it.

Vapor Trails is not an easy album to listen to, but it definitely has its rewards for those patient enough to look past its unfortunate sound quality and somewhat homogenous musical direction. It represented a nova era for Rush as well as a powerful document of Neil Peart’s grief and his journey back to, for lack of a better phrase, “the new normal”. Perhaps in order for Rush to become Rush again, they first had to tackle the gauntlet of Vapor Trails as a band.

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