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

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Snakes and Arrows – 2004

Snakes and Arrows cover art
Snakes and Arrows cover art

Some eagle-eyed fans will say Hey, why didn’t you include 2004’s Feedback in the Rush Review? The answer is simple: It’s an album of cover tunes. We’re just looking at Rush’s original music here, though Feedback is a good record if you want the full collection. I especially like their version of The Seeker by The Who. I got to hear that one live, and it was awesome. But I digress. Let’s talk about Snakes and Arrows.

Performing live during the Snakes and Arrows tour
Performing live during the Snakes and Arrows tour

Across the board, Snakes and Arrows is much better than their last effort on Vapor Trails. A new studio and a new producer were on tap for this, their 19th studio album (Feedback is considered their 18th). It was recorded at the remote Allaire Studios in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and co-produced by Grammy Award-winner Nick Raskulinecz. He would also produce their final studio album in the next review, Clockwork Angels.

Rush in studio with Neil
Rush in studio with Nick

The overall sound here is a great blend of old and new Rush. There are parts that are rocking new metal and parts that reflect old 70s and 80s tracks. There’s also no synths here either. What you’re hearing is Geddy’s Mellotron and he gives it a workout. For the most part, Snakes and Arrows is very close to Rush returning to peak form. It hasn’t made gold yet, but did climb to #3 on the Billboard 200, and to #1’s both on Top Rock Albums and Top Internet Albums.

Snakes and Arrows back cover art
Snakes and Arrows back cover art

Rush – A nod to Conan the Barbarian?

I can’t help but be reminded of the iconic role of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in 1982s Conan, the Barbarian with this album’s name. If you remember, he can turn snakes into arrows when he runs them through his fingers. I’ll never forget how creepy-awesome that was when i saw this movie as a kid. Not sure if there was ever any connection between them, but a good movie—and a good album—nonetheless.

James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in Conan, the Barbarian
James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in Conan, the Barbarian

Snakes and Arrows, Track 1: Far Cry

True to past form, Far Cry is an opening rocker that grabs you right away with some angry guitar and flows into a good melody. I especially like that little Middle-Eastern tune floating in the breaks and background. If that wasn’t intentional, it was brilliant nonetheless. There is so much guitar happening at so many levels, but they blend without drowning out everything else; something that was missing from Vapor Trails. This is a powerful track that sets a great mood for the rest of the album.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 2: Armor and Sword

Ah, Rush is telling stories again! This time, Armor and Sword evokes some of those old prog-rock beats from Caress of Steel but with an edgier, modern metal twist. There’s some nice acoustic work in here, too. It’s a little heavy to pick out but it’s back there and when it peeks out, it’s beautiful.

“Our better natures seek elevation / A refuge for the coming night / No one gets to their heaven without a fight”

The song is about human nature to build walls (fortresses) around topics and feelings that hurt us, and then lash out when someone comes to close—the armor becomes the sword—among other deep-hidden meanings. Listeners can draw what they like from it. Whatever it means to them, they’re probably right! A solid, rocking track.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 3: Workin’ Them Angels

The herald of what would become an entire album, Workin’ Them Angels is a rocker that, I think, is Neil telling a remaining story from Ghost Rider. The lyrics tell about a life on the edge of everything and working his guardian angels overtime while watching over him. I like to think these were the words and feeling he felt when he decided he had more music in him yet to give. RIP Neil Peart. There will never be another quite like you!

I also love when they throw in an instrument you wouldn’t expect. Bonus points for the mandolin picking at the end, a nice touch!

Snakes and Arrows, Track 4: The Larger Bowl

I love the acoustic work on The Larger Bowl. It’s not flashy and sets a mellow tone. It’s a simple song about the difference between people and their lots in life. I wouldn’t call it a hit, but a solid mellow track with a good beat. The music is better than the lyrics.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 5: Spindrift

Here’s the first face plant. The lyrics are nerdy and science-based, but the music uses too many minor keys to ever reach the heights they build. It’s not bad, it just feels like it doesn’t go anywhere musically. The opening builds tension (reminds we of Witch Hunt a little), but then it just stays there.

A spindrift in real life if the top part of a wave blown back, as seen above

Snakes and Arrows, Track 6: The Main Monkey Business

Let it never be said these guys didn’t have fun on stage at all times. The Main Monkey Business is a great mid-tempo instrumental that gives the spotlight to each instrument in the song. I can pick out the bass. The drums are solid and pounding. The guitar melds in without melting your face off and has overtones of Cygnus X-1 in it. And when the guitar takes the lead, oh man, it sings! This could have been plucked from any Rush era and been a standout. I love it!

Snakes and Arrows, Track 7: The Way The Wind Blows

The Way The Wind Blows is like being in a Metal Roadhouse Blues Bar and Grill. That opening riff is straight out of Stevie Ray Vaughn, until the hard rockers come in. This song has a split personality complex. It has layered acoustics on one side, then heavy guitar on the other. Cool lyrics and a bit jumpy in style (even by Rush’s standards), but a good track. It really showcases how many styles of play these three could masterfully do. I also think this is a highlight of Lee’s vocals and melody.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 8: Hope

The second of three instrumentals on Snakes and Arrows, Hope is a departure from all you ever thought you knew about Rush. In fact, there’s more acoustic sound on Snakes and Arrows than any other Rush album to date. The album liner note says:

“All songs composed by Lee and Lifeson, with lyrics by Peart, except ‘Hope’, composed and performed by Lerxst Lifeson, all by his own self.”

In case you didn’t know, Lerxst is one of Lifeson’s many nicknames. Here, he wields his 12-string and makes a beautiful melody unlike anything we’ve heard before. It rocks because it doesn’t! I’m going to ask to have this played at my funeral, and all you Rush fans are invited.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 9: Faithless

There seems to be a seamless flow from The Way The Wind Blows, to Hope, and now to Faithless. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but whatever, it works. It’s a good track about, well, not having any faith.

I don’t think it’s any secret that most Rush songs in this wheelhouse are subtle shots at theology on the whole. Freewill, 2112, Peaceable Kingdom and the like are all in there digging at it. Major points for the bluesy guitar solo at 3:45. Sweet, sweet work there Lerxst!

Snakes and Arrows, Track 10: Bravest Face

I don’t really like this song, but it is also really good. The lyrics are pessimistic, yet realistic at the same time. Bravest Face feels like a Film noir in a song (if that’s even possible). It drags you down but still encourages you to get up and take it with—to quote the song—your Bravest Face. This is another one you wouldn’t expect from Rush, but it’s a testament that in any genre, they are still so damn good.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 11: Good News First

I’m on the fence with Good News First. It another one I want to like but can’t wrap around the whole arrangement and feel good about it. I like the lyrics. They go straight to the heart. I like the choral arrangement. The vocal harmonies are beautiful, especially at the end. I like the guitar solo, and Neil is relentless on those drums throughout. It’s not bad at all, but I’m just not there on this one being a hit on my playlist.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 12: Malignant Narcissism

Malignant Narcissism is not soft and gentle like Hope was. This short instrumental comes at you with mood and drive and a wicked bass line, with Peart throwing cymbals at your head and Lifeson taking you full on with some mean string work for nearly two minutes straight.

Snakes and Arrows, Track 13: We Hold On

The boys close us out with a rocking finale about sticking it out (no, not Stick It Out) even when it gets rough. There’s also some encouragement here to change your stars and quit doing something “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”. I can’t tell you how much I hate that phrase.

Anyway, this one jumps back into the old prog-rock mold we all like Rush for and strikes many high-praise chords. And again, love that Middle-Eastern tinge Lifeson puts on his guitar. It’s different Rush, but good Rush.

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

I give Snakes and Arrows a 7.9 out of 10. That’s cheating, you say. 7.9? Yes. I can’t get it to 8. As good as this album is, it’s not without its hiccups. The second half of this album drops a notch in fortitude. It has a couple drags that hold it down, but it has a lot of good in it, too. It shows a growth in sound ability that they didn’t need at this point in their career. They grew for the fans, and for that, we love them.

Check out our other thoughts on music here at That Hashtag Show!

I cannot imagine the goofiness in studio with these guys - Rush
I cannot imagine the goofiness in studio with these guys

Snakes and Arrows has a lot of firsts on it for Rush, especially when it comes to this new sound. While they would give us one more studio album afterward, I wish we had more time with Rush experimenting with this new sonic sound structure they play so well here.

We’re almost there…

Rush legacy

Hang in there, Hashtaggers! Rush has one more studio album to review: 2012s Clockwork Angels! In that final review we’ll deep-dive on their last tracks, as well as talk about the legacy three guys from Toronto leave behind in the world of rock and roll. Until then, you can learn more about Rush at Rush.com, and stick with us at That Hashtag Show for all your geek pop-culture news!

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