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Rush Scorches the Atmosphere with Vapor Trails
Pros: Power-filled songs refined by years of experience. Touching lyrics. They're Back!
Cons: Some over-use of layered vocals.
The Bottom Line: This is Rush at their hardest, their edgiest, their deepest, their most controversial, their rocking...best.
"Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire."
Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for Rush, read that quote on the wall of a bar in Montana. An odd place to derive inspiration from but, nonetheless, Peart carried those words away with him and allowed them to forge his drive, his direction - himself - when creating the lyrics for Rush's latest album Vapor Trails.
It has been nearly 6 years since the last Rush studio album was released - the longest dry spell in their incredible 28-year history. And understandably so. After Peart lost his daughter in a senseless traffic accident and then lost his wife less than a year later to cancer, fans and non-fans alike sent out their heart-felt sympathy towards this masterful percussionist. We also realized that this was likely the end of Rush.
But as time went by and the healing process took hold, the 3 long-time members of Rush began to explore the possibility of producing another album. The decision rest of Peart's shoulders - as it should - and his friends first and band co-members second gave him the time, space and backing that he required.
So, when it was first announced that Rush was heading back in the studio, 2 years ago, fans rejoiced. Not only because they would be treated to new Rush music, but because it was a sign that Peart had found some happiness after his tragedy. That, more than the music, was the important factor in this equation, and that is the message I bring to heart each time I hold, listen and absorb this incredible new album from the Canadian Rock Power Trio known as Rush.
Vapor Trails, with its 13 tracks, sends a statement to the music world - a powerful one at that. The message? "We're baaaaaaaack!". And back they are. Instead of treading lightly on the music scene, Rush blazes back in a fireball of glory with one of their hardest, most powerful and enlightening albums in years.
It's hard to believe that it's been a decade since they released their coveted Counterparts album where Rush decided to really energize their songs with incredible guitar, bass and percussion work. Their next album, Test For Echo, refined that touch and softened the music considerably. Now, with Vapor Trails, the hard-edge sound coupled with some impressive new vocal directions, proves once again that Rush, like no others, can still rock.
Going into the studio, the three members of Rush - Geddy Lee (bass/vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Neil Peart (percussionist/lyricist) all had one thing in mind - separately - that they wanted to achieve with this album.
Lee wanted to explore and stretch his vocal abilities - beyond anything he has ever done before. Since the band equally decided to eliminate most, if not all, keyboard work from Vapor Trails, Lee set on a path to produce vocals in a layered technique that would replace the missing synths. Was he successful? Read on and see.
Lifeson, in addition to vehemently wanting all keyboards to be absent from this work, using instead a layered approach to his guitar work plus Lee's vocals to provide the melodies, also wanted to steer away from the customary guitar solos contained in most of the earlier songs by Rush. Lifeson's superb guitar work was always greeted openly by fans when he launched into one of his many solos, now he would form the foundation of each song with his riffs as opposed to just exploding in some sections of them. An interesting direction and choice to take.
Peart was intent on not producing lyrics that focused on his aforementioned painful recent history. Instead, he would focus on the affirmation of life itself, his continued fascination with weather, and his recent cycling experience through Africa and other far-off locations on the globe. The result, as many have noted already, are more "accessible" lyrics. Accessible or not, Vapor Trails contains some of Peart's finest writing to date.
Three band members, who have worked so perfectly together in the past, were back again, designing their magical tapestry of music, lyrics and visions into a 13 - song album that speaks of the culmination of their entire catalog of work.
Vapor Trails is made up of the following tracks:
1. One Little Victory
Opening up with some militaristic driving drums, this more than anything quickly dispels any concerns over Peart's absence from drumming over the past 5 years. He was and still is rock's premiere percussionist. Lifeson's guitar work is also forging ahead while Lee's vocals are put to the test with highs and lows that show off his range. Lyrically, this song reflects how each day can provide a victory to ourselves.
"A certain amount of resistance
To the forces of life and love
A certain measure of tolerance
A willingness to rise above..."
All of this coupled with some nice background vocalizations from Lee is sure to make this another Rush hit to be played (hopefully) endlessly on the airwaves. My only 'concern' here is that part of the song sounds a little muffled. It only occurs on this track, and I've sensed it on various stereo systems. Perhaps it's the strong bass track on the song, but I feel that production-wise, this song suffered a little bit - but not enough to detract from its utter rocking sound.
2. Ceiling Unlimited
Lifeson's guitars take the lead on this song which are later joined by Lee's virtuoso bass playing. The song switches from a rocking sound to a moody sound and back again, setting up the emphasis on Peart's lyrics.
"Hope is like an endless river,
the time is now...again..."
There's less vocal layering on this song as in others, but what is here works perfectly. Also the extended instrumental near the end of the song shows the tremendous talent that Rush has long been known for. Lacking a true instrumental track on this CD (a first in quite some time for Rush), it's stretches like this one that help fill that particular void.
3. Ghost Rider
Neil Peart recently published his second novel entitled "Ghost Rider" where he details his cycling adventures across the globe. That inspiration for this song lends to a deep, dark and haunting tune that opens a small door into the healing process Peart went through, and how he used cycling to escape at times.
"Pack up all those phantoms
Shoulder that invisible load
Keep on riding north and west
Haunting that wilderness road
Like a ghost rider..."
Easily one of the album's best songs, the real highlight here is Lee's vocals. They're simply perfect, layering and all. They add such an incredible depth to the song that it takes on a life all its own. This is Rush at their finest. And this is Rush at their hauntingly best.
4. Peaceable Kingdom
The trio puts on a strong performance of powerful guitars, bass and drums in this important 'message' song about how we all strive to live in peace and harmony, but ultimately those who should be listening and doing something about the current state of affairs end up doing nothing at all.
"Talk of a Peaceable Kingdom
Talk of a time without fear
The ones we wish would listen
Are never going to hear.
Talk of a time without war
The ones we wish would hear us
Have heard it all before..."
Here, most of the vocals are doubled-layered, coupled with vocalization-based melodies - all of which seems to be a bit of overkill. It's all impressively arranged, to be sure, but this is an example where Lee's singular voice should have dominated the song - and the message. Musically, however, this one shines.
5. The Stars Look Down
Does fate lie in the stars? That's the question asked here by Peart.
"Are you under the illusion
The path is winding your way?
Are you surprised by confusion
When it leads you astray?
Have you lived a lifetime today -
Or do you feel like you just got carried away?"
Musically, The Stars Look Down is a nice continuation of the jam that was going on with Peaceable Kingdom. The melodies nicely match the lyrics, Lee's vocals are presently nicely with moderate layering, and the guitar solo near the end of the track (yes, there is one on the album after all) moves at such a high-warp speed that I'm anxious to see Lifeson reproduce this one live (I'll let you know how he does it after the show on July 11th @ the PNC Arts Center in sunny Holmdel, NJ). A solid song that's sure to hit the airwaves as a future single from this CD.
6. How It Is
But before The Stars Look Down hits the airwaves, this is the song that is likely to be Rush's next big hit. How It Is has a great melodic sound behind beautifully orchestrated guitars and vocals - all with the controlled power that Rush superbly pulls off. Interestingly enough, though the music has an uplifting feel to it, the lyrics are actually quite the reverse.
"It's such a cloudy day
Seems we'll never see the sun
Or feel the day is all uncertainty
Burning in the moment - trapped by the desperation
Between how it is and how it ought to be..."
Still, this is easily one of the highlights of Vapor Trails. Take a listen and you'll instantly hear and feel why. Besides, that's how it ought to be...
7. Vapor Trail
The title track (singular) of the CD opens up with a great techno-fusion sound that's far to rare in some of Rush's works. Here's another prime example of Lee's layered approach to singing. But once again, this effect serves to produce dimensions on this song that would otherwise not be there with the use of keyboards. The layered vocals helps to visualize the lyrics and the image Peart is trying to capture...
"Horizon to horizon,
memory written on the wind
Fading away, like an hourglass, grain by grain
Swept away like voices in a hurricane...
Washed away like footprints in the rain...
In a vapor trail..."
Also of important note is the percussion work by Peart. His constant and orchestrated abuse of his drum set produces some of the best sounding thunderous eruptions ever heard. Another gem from this CD.
8. Secret Touch
This song has a great opening of bluesy guitars married with what is to be a continuing chorus line from Lee - "The Way Out is the Way In..." - which really highlights his effortless range. The background guitar work that continues through the song is absolutely, classic Rush/Lifeson. But once again, the lyrics tell the story here - another reflection of Peart's journey.
"You can never break the chain
There is never love without pain
A gentle hand, a secret touch of the heart...
A healing hand, a secret touch of the heart..."
The secret touch of the heart has Peart coming back into life - and providing this uplifting and inspirational tune. The way out of desperation is truly the way in ...through the secret touch of the heart. The song ends with a great, jazzy jam from the boys that I hope they explore further should they play this one live.
Peart's fascination with weather and astral phenomena is the inspiration for this Rush-esque tune. The opening lyrics define what the 'Earthshine' phenomena is:
"On certain nights,
when the angles are right
And the moon is a slender crescent
Its circle shows
in a ghostly glow
Of earthly luminescence..."
In other words, you can see the reflection or 'shine' of the Earth in the dark part of a crescent moon. Peart seems to really get behind the lyrics as he explores his percussion abilities along with Lifeson's highly pitched guitar work. Once again, we are treated to Lee's falsetto vocals that are overly layered at times, and truly stunning at others.
10. Sweet Miracle
Lyrically, this is one of the most compelling songs on the CD if nothing but because of Peart's personal journey through the depths of despair and into the joyous highs of new-found life and love. Because the lyrics are relatively short, I'd like to share all of them with you.
"I wasn't walking on water
I was standing on a reef
When the tide came in
Swept beneath the surface
No hope at all
No hope at all
Oh - sweet miracle
Oh - sweet miracle
I wasn't walking with angels
I was talking to myself
Rising up to the surface
Raging against the night
Oh - sweet miracle
Love's sweet miracle
I wasn't praying for magic
I was hiding in plain sight
Rising up from the surface
To fly into the light..."
Touching, inspirational lyrics that Rush plays expertly, if not a little too hard at times. Still, another gem that, while may not get any airplay, will reach many fans of Rush and Peart.
With the opening lyric/question "Did I have a dream, or did the dream have me?" we are treated to an onslaught of musical directions that takes more turns than I could count. It's to the point of sounding almost disjointed at times - which is the mastery behind the method - for a dream is often disjointed as well. Lee's background vocals - sung with a sense of peril - are chilling, and the driving guitars really push the envelope with Nocturne. With "unconscious revelations" and "unconscious recreation", this becomes an exercise in self-indulgence for Lifeson...perhaps as a follow-up to Rush's premiere instrumental La Villa Strangiato from their Hemisphere's album - a song that, Lifeson indicates, was inspired by a nightmare. This is Rush at their hardest in years...and it's a whole lot of scary fun.
12. Freeze - Part IV of "Fear"
"Fear" was originally a trilogy of songs that spanned over 3 concurrent albums back in the early 80's. On 'Moving Pictures', the trilogy began, in reverse direction, with Part III being reflected in Witch Hunt. Then, on 'Signals', Part II of the trilogy was in the form of The Weapon. Finally, on 'Grace Under Pressure', the trilogy was completed (or began depending on how you looked at it) with The Enemy Within. Now, 18 years after the trilogy ended, or began, or whatever...a 4th installment has been added - to the absolute delight of fans. The mono-sounding guitars have a nice feel to them, and the vocals dealing with the fear of the unknown and the paranoia that sets in from it are exceptionally well done. This is a nice follow-up to Nocturne as it continues the hard-edge playing that Rush really shot for in this album.
I love the indecision of fear that the lyrics project. To me, this is the highlight of the song...
"Coiled for the spring
Or caught like a creature in the headlights
Into a desperate panic
Or a tempest of blind fury
Like a corned beast
or a conquering hero
Sometimes we fight - against the darkness
sometimes we fly - into the night..."
13. Out of the Cradle
Here we are treated to some impressive double layered guitar work that's prevalent throughout the CD. It really will be interesting to see how Lifeson approaches these songs live. Out of the Cradle deals with what life has in store once we leave the cradle of security. Catchy, thought-provoking lyrics like:
"It's the hand
that rocks the cradle
It's the motion
that swings the sky..."
really set the tone for the song. As we leave that cradle, life is a "balance on the edge of a knife". And as we go forward into the world, "it's a dance on the edge of life...". But regardless, we'll endlessly be rocking...and so will Rush...on this CD, on their numerous previous ones...and hopefully beyond.
And there you have it. 13 new tracks from the Canadian Rock Group that's largely misunderstood - except by their legions of devoted fans.
In conclusion, I'm drawn to the title of this CD. Vapor Trails has a level of finality to it. Is this Rush's final studio album, or is this a new beginning of sorts for the band. Looking through the liner notes contained in the CD, the phrase "Endlessly r o c k i n g" appears at the very end of the lyrics sheet, as the final line to Out of the cradle. A sign of hope for more to come? Perhaps. But one has to wonder.
I think Neil Peart captured the essence of the title and the direction and future of Rush best with his own quote:
"When you set yourself on fire and aim for the sky, you hope to leave behind some sparks of heat and light. Like a vapor trail..."
Rush has certainly done that.
Thanks, as always, for reading...
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