Listening to the re-released and remixed version of Vapor Trails (originally released May 14, 2002) over the last several days has been akin to a great hike in the Rockies with my brothers. Clean air, deep conversation, and almost ceaseless movement through ever-changing vistas.
Indeed, I often think how much I’d love to have Neil Peart as an older brother. He’s 15 years old than I am, and I doubt if any figure (and, be prepared to be shocked–I was a nerd kid; I read everything I could find) influenced my own view of life and the world more than did Peart, especially between my 13th birthday and my 21st.
During the most troubling parts of my childhood, the Canadian drummer always seemed to offer some of the best advice I received in those days. And, without exaggeration, I can say that some of the lyrics on Moving Pictures, Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows saved my life–quite literally and truly.
I owe Peart a lot.
I know I’m not alone. There are, at the very least, a generation of us North Americans who were guided far more by Peart than by any of our teachers, our pastors and ministers, and, even, our extended relatives. Certainly, between roughly 1981 and 1986, given a choice between spending time with headphones on listening to Rush or watching TV, I would’ve (and did) choose Rush every time. The images Geddy, Alex, and Neil evoked had far more power–at least in my mind, heart, and soul–than that of any exec, writer, or actor associated with the small screen.
I’ve never lost my love of or appreciation of Rush. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve only grown with them.
In particular, I’m happy to note, I’ve celebrated with them. Much of what I knew in the 1990s (those somewhat dreary, pre-marriage graduate school years) came from the internet forum (new in those days), the National Midnight Star and the long-involved discussions of Rush, the lyrics, and the music. The three members of Rush continued to guide me–again, much like my older brothers, always a bit ahead of me in life, always willing to share wisdom with the pesky, somewhat annoying, little brother.
And, of course, as we all did, I mourned with them. When word arrived of Neil’s double losses in the late 1990s–the death of his daughter and his wife–I was devastated for him.
At the time, Neil disappeared, and we all, more or less, assumed Rush was done. Rumors abounded that Neil had gotten on his motorcycle and just taken off. Several friends and I looked for him in the news–an odd announcement here or there might reveal a small detail or a hint. Could he be in Texas, hiding out, looking for a small band to form, perhaps to heal? Perhaps he’d driven to Argentina or Chile.
As it turns out, we were partially right. Neil, as he soon revealed, had indeed been traveling throughout North America on his touring motorcycle, looking for solitude and solace.
After reemerging from a year on the road, he rejoined Geddy and Alex, and the band recorded one of its best albums, an album, as Neil has explained, of victory and redemption.
This would be reason enough to love Vapor Trails. But, the album is also a stunning work of art.
Little did I know when Vapor Trails came out in 2002 that my wife and I would experience something similar, losing our third daughter, Cecilia Rose, named after a great aunt as well as the patron saint of music, in August 2007. Neil would once again–though at a distance–serve as older brother, helping me understand our own terrible and confusing loss. But, this is not the post to go into this. Suffice it say, I understand what Neil experienced.
Vapor Trails, as I saw it then, and still do, is three very important things.
First, it’s the most intense album Rush had written and produced since Grace Under Pressure (my favorite Rush album; an album that defined the rather broken, tense world of the 1980s for me).
Second, what’s not to love? The album, even in its resignation and mixed tone, is nothing if not a celebration of life, a tribute of two brothers, supporting and loving the third, helping Neil grieve and helping him overcome. Geddy and Alex throw themselves into this album, as does Neil.
Third, the album is the beginning of an entire re-emergence of Rush, a more rocking as well as more progressive Rush. It’s nearly impossible for me to separate Vapor Trails from Snakes and Arrows and Snakes and Arrows from Clockwork Angels. It’s as though Rush tapped into the very essence of the third wave of prog, having been early pioneers in the genre in the 1970s, and adding their own very Rushian spirit to the movement in the first and second decades of the twenty-first century.
Complaints–but not from me
A lot of long-time Rush fans complained about Vapor Trails when it came out, and many still do. For the diehard Rush fan, Vapor Trails is accepted, but it rarely ranks high. The key excuse for not liking the album has always been, first and foremost, that it was poorly mixed and mastered.
I would never have even considered this as an issue unless others had told me it was. Perhaps I just don’t have the right ears, but I’d always assumed the album was meant to have a bit of a post-grunge, hollowish, sound. I’d assumed this sound quality was a part of its charm.
If, however, the remixed and released version of Vapor Trails is what Rush originally had wanted, then, I finally understand some of the grumblings over the last 11 years.
The remixed 2013 version is a piece of sonic brilliance, an audiophile’s equivalent of an 8- pound bag of peanut M&Ms from Costco, even with the blue dye number 3.
Whatever my own aural limitations, I’m hearing things with the 2013 release that I’d never even imagined with the 2002 version. Every instrument is punctuated and individually enhanced while yet remaining rather seamless in its integration with every other instrument. This is one tight band.
Not surprisingly, the emotional tone of the lyrics is all over the place. One Little Victory: exactly what it states, victory of life over death. Ceiling Unlimited: hope. Ghost Rider: resignation and penance. Peaceable Kingdom: wishes. The Stars Look Down and How It Is: fate and acceptance. Vapor Trail: fleeting and ephemeral. Secret Touch: stoic fortitude. Earthshine and Sweet Miracle: wonder and grace. Nocturne and Freeze Part IV: unworthiness. Out of the Cradle: victory and pronouncement.
If anything, the 2013 version only highlights Neil’s very personal and confessional lyrics. Indeed, if Grace Under Pressure examines the state of the world and laments, Vapor Trails examines the state of the soul and rejoices. . . mostly.