Rush – The 2k’s: “Vapor Trails” and “Snakes & Arrows”

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Vapor Trails – 2002

Studio album number seventeen rolls in six years after their last one, and it took over a year to make. Vapor Trails would hit #6 on the Billboard 200 but has not yet hit gold or platinum status. In reality, that doesn’t make much difference when you’ve reached the peak of rock like Rush has by this time in their careers. This is studio album seventeen! Add to that the four live albums, and each member had released their own solo albums by this time. Rush had nothing left to prove. They just wanted to rock again.

Vapor Trails is the first time since Caress of Steel that they used no synthesizers on a Rush album. Lifeson also gave up his fancy guitar effects in an effort to find a “more raw” sound. Even with these compromises, they still struggled to put down solid tracks and would take a 3-week on, 1-week off approach to meshing their lyrics with sound. In the end, thirteen tracks were released but there were still some problems with the sound.

“It was a contest, and it was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it.”

Alex Lifeson, on Vapor Trails
Rush - Vapor Trails promo
Vapor Trails promo

Vapor Trails would get a full remix in 2013, which are all shared in the review below. Fans still were ravenous after the long break to hear new Rush music. One thing this album declares is there is no limit to the creative direction Rush can go.

Neil Peart – A terrible tragedy strikes… twice.

Neil Peart would suffer a terrible personal tragedy after Test for Echo, losing his daughter in a car accident, and his wife to cancer about a year later. I cannot imagine the feelings and the emotions that you carry after such a loss, but it just about made him quit music altogether. It would be hard to blame him if he had.

But instead, he packed up his BMW motorcycle and rode it around the country. In between working out lyrics on Vapor Trails, he would pen his book, Ghost Rider, and tell the story of his biking journey on the road to healing, and eventually to decide to make more music. The epiphanies he had on the road led him to make more music and embrace life more. A long hiatus can sometimes be a good thing, even for Rush. Let’s get into the tracks and see how they did.

Vapor Trails – Track 1: One Little Victory

One Little Victory is the first album opening track I didn’t care much for. They meet the listener with rapid-fire drums and riffs that blows your hair back from the opening note. The song would become part of the soundtrack for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, also released in 2002. That probably led to some of the popularity this track garnered.

I can definitely see the foot getting heavier on the gas pedal with it blasting in the speakers. It rocks, and demands your attention as an opening track, but didn’t appeal to me the way it does to most fans.

Vapor Trails – Track 2: Ceiling Unlimited

It’s just bland. The guitar riff at the 4:05 mark is nice, but other than that, this is room temperature Rush at a high rate of speed. There is so much going on in the song it’s difficult to hear any part come through clearly. This could be a problem they tried to fix with the re-master, but it might have been too late for this track. The opening lyric is poignant though:

“It’s not the heat / It’s the inhumanity”

That gives you food for thought, but the rest of the song is starving.

Vapor Trails – Track 3: Ghost Rider

“Pack up all those phantoms / Shoulder that invisible load / Keep on riding north and west / Haunting that wilderness road / Like a ghost rider”

This track shares it’s name with the book Neil Peart wrote about his journey across country to deal with his personal loss. Overall, this is one of the more solid songs on this entire album. It’s echo-ey, dissonant, maybe even haunting. I might even go so far as to call this a 2000s rocker follow-up to The Allman Brother’s Midnight Rider. I know, maybe a stretch but the feel of the song reminds me of that.

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

excerpt from Ghost Rider, Travels on the Healing Road

He released the book in 2002, the same year as this album. I haven’t read it yet, but a browse of reviews on Good Reads and Amazon say this is one to pick up. The song is good, and I wish they would have used that sound more on this album.

Vapor Trails – Track 4: Peaceable Kingdom

When I first heard Peaceable Kingdom, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There is zero doubt it’s a swipe at the perpetrators behind the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The lyrics are a sharp rebuke of saying one thing and meaning another, in this case on Islamic fundamentalism:

Talk of a Peaceable Kingdom / Talk of a time without fear / The ones we wish would listen / Are never going to hear.”

As with other tracks here, there’s a lot of noise going on in the background but it’s too dulled down and drowned to hear any clear musical motive. The words drive the tune, but the music is left out.

Vapor Trails – Track 5: The Stars Look Down

An abstract artist once told me he felt like it was his job in his paintings to make the viewer think about his work and split their emotions in half. Do they like it or hate it? If they can’t decide, then he’s succeeded. Well, here’s my Rush example of that.

I go back and forth on whether I really like this song. I love the choral arrangement and the harmony blending at the end, but it’s too late in the song to save the track. Overall, I get more of the individual musicians coming through. I can pick out the bass line and the drums are sharper, but my jury is out. I’ll still listen to it, but I don’t know if I like it or hate it.

Vapor Trails – Track 6: How It Is

How It Is would have been awesome as an acoustic. In Rush’s pantheon, outside of Rivendell and Tears, there’s not much acoustic material. This song would have been great with just Lifeson and Geddy Lee giving an unplugged run at this. It kind of starts out that way, with the clear ringing acoustics and melodic woo-woos, but then Lifeson jumps in and screw that, let’s rock! I like the track overall, but this on an acoustic list would be a hit.

Vapor Trails – Track 7: Vapor Trail

The title track, Vapor Trails, has the most Rush-y feel on the whole album. Nerdy lyrics, clear bass hum, ringing guitar riffs, sharp and pounding drums. They blend the instrument harmony so much better here than other places on this album. This one is the dark horse hit tat should have gotten more attention. It certainly deserves it.

Vapor Trails – Track 8: Secret Touch

Secret Touch is Geddy Lee’s favorite song on this album.

“This is a bit of an extravaganza. We built the song around these repeating bass chords that I thought sounded like French Horns. The tune has a hypnotic feel, and because we weren’t happy just enjoying that feel, we had to smack it up with some power. When we get to the middle section and all hell breaks loose, there are these stuttering bass punctuations. I double-tracked them, but on one of the tracks I went in and digitally truncated the notes to make them sound really abrupt and punchy.”

Geddy Lee to Bass Player Magazine

While I appreciate his enthusiasm, I didn’t get the same feeling. I really like that banging guitar riff. At first, I felt like it was out of place in this track, but it actually is the saving grace of the song. Overall, the track is a little bland. I feel like the lyrics are Peart trying to express his feelings, especially after his personal tragedy, but the delivery comes across a little jumbled. The last two minutes and the outro are better than the whole song together.

Vapor Trails – Track 9: Earthshine

Earthshine is another dark horse favorite on this album. That electric opening riff rocks and the ride cymbal builds the tension into a melodic chorus of doo-de-doos. The one problem I have is how close Lifeson edges toward overpowering the song.

It’s hard for any Rush fan to complain about too much Alex Lifeson on guitar, but through this whole album, some of his new sound smashes everything else down. I’m glad he kept it in check here, and bonus points for the crying stratospheric solo starting at 3:17. This is a good Rush song in any era.

Vapor Trails – Track 10: Sweet Miracle

I love the opening of Sweet Miracle, the shortest track on Vapor Trails. It has good harmonious blends and fresh guitar work, but doesn’t hit all the marks for me to like it that much. I rate it “just okay”.

Vapor Trails – Track 11: Nocturne

Nocturne is a rare Rush trip-and-fall. Lyrics are interesting but the song lacks substance. Vapor Trails could have been twelve tracks without this and been just as good.

Vapor Trails – Track 12: Freeze

At long last, the final part of the four songs of Fear! Freeze has a crazy time signature and doesn’t follow any mold or pattern for anything. It jangles and jumps, crashes and rocks wherever it wants to and all at the same time. The lyrics are on-point. It’s hard to determine if the hero of the song is actually the hero or the beast, but it’s awesome and better than the other tracks on this record.

A word about the brilliance of the four songs of Fear

The first track released was Part III: Witch Hunt way back on Moving Pictures, twenty years earlier. If you listen to the songs in order now that all four parts exist, each one paints it’s own canvas that make one larger picture when they’re together, and each one has it’s own unique sound for the time they were released in.

Starting with Part II: The Enemy Within, it has a ska-inspired back beat to it. Then Part I: The Weapon has an original sound all its own, almost like 80’s techno (and the famous Count Floyd intro!). Part III: Witch Hunt has a creepy, almost operatic vibe. Now in Part IV: Freeze, we get a gritty hard-rocker that closes out the saga. Releasing them in distant parts makes them relevant at release and is genius before it’s time. Neil was a madman!

Vapor Trails – Track 13: Out Of The Cradle

Keeping with the history of hopeful and uplifting closing tracks, Out of the Cradle offers just that. It’s not a great track, but it is definitely sending us out on a high note. It keeps all the fun jangle this album started with, but is arranged much better than some of its predecessors, and overall has a different sound than any other track on Vapor Trails and has a foot-tapping quality.

One a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best…)

I give Vapor Trails a 4.5 out of 10. I realize that may not seem fair, but hear me out. With a couple exceptions, I struggled to like this album. Not that it’s a bad record, but this is the first album I felt didn’t sound like Rush. This effort feels like the band is stumbling back into relevance after their longest break ever, and a couple tracks are full face-plants.

From the Vapor Trails Tour
From the Vapor Trails Tour

Lee’s voice and bass pop is always unique and instantly recognizable. Peart’s drum technique and offbeat cadence is also a recognizable standout, and Lifeson’s guitar work has a signature all its own. On Vapor Trails, the elegant sounds of the three best musicians to pick up instruments were so smashed together that they drowned each other out in a bland pool of new-metal textures. The remaster may have helped, but there are some songs here that needed more work than that.

Performing Tom Sawyer on the Vapor Trails Tour
Performing Tom Sawyer on the Vapor Trails Tour

Where this album loses me is the songs begin to run together. Only Freeze, Ghost Rider and Earthshine stick out to me as distinct, original, stand-alone Rush sound. Vapor Trails, How It Is, and Secret Touch have redeeming qualities, but the rest is just noise, and that makes me sad. The late 90’s and early 2000’s were full of bands muscling for position on the sharpest off-key sound vibe. I feel like Rush tried to join in that cacophony and succeeded. They didn’t need to. They’re better than that.

Click over to page two for the review of Snakes and Arrows!

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