“Vapor Trails was an album made under difficult and emotional circumstances—sort of like Rush learning how to be Rush again—and as a result, mistakes were made that we have longed to correct. David Bottrill’s remixes have finally brought some justice and clarity to this deserving body of our work.”
– Geddy Lee on the Rush website
I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the songs on Vapor Trails. That was already done by a multitude of publications when the album was first released back in 2002, including here on PopMatters. Rolling Stone called it the band’s most focused effort in years and Billboard hailed it as “an absolute triumph.” If you’re buying this new remixed edition, you probably already know the original release. You’ve been living with it for over 10 years now and developed your own relationship with the music. You want to know if this new version of Vapor Trails is the next level of wonderful the band would have you believe it is and the one the fans have been clamoring for since its initial release. The good news is that the answer is largely yes.
But how did a band of Rush’s stature get to the point where a whole album recorded late in their career required a complete sonic overhaul in the first place? The reasons were personal as well as technological, as we’ll see.
To begin with, Vapor Trails was a unique album in the Rush catalog. At the time, Rush hadn’t released new music in six years, a long time for them (and for any band, really). This was due to the tragedies that befell drummer/lyricist Neil Peart prior to recording. His teenage daughter was killed in a car accident and then his wife succumbed to cancer a few short months later. The future of the band was uncertain as Peart set off on a long distance solo motorcycle odyssey (chronicled in his book Ghost Rider) to come to terms with his grief. Rush eventually reconvened to see if they still had a future and, deciding they did, relearned how to be a band again.
The resulting Vapor Trails was a dense, heavy album. There was a lot happening in the songs, lots of band interplay, lots of layering and overdubbing. Notably, it was a change of direction for Rush in that there were no keyboards or synthesizers—instruments which had become an integral part of Rush’s sound as far back as the mid-70s. Also there were no guitar solos (what, a Rush album with no guitar solos?!). It was a band album, with a capitol B-A-N-D. Everything was centered on the three musicians working as a singular unit, as they sought rebirth. It was the sound of a band, and particularly its drummer, fighting its way back and reclaiming life.
During the lengthy 15-month sessions for the album, the focus was understandably on the band interplay and recovery. As a result, not as much attention was paid to the technical side of things. There were digital problems during recording but more importantly, Vapor Trails was mixed for maximum loudness as was the standard practice at the time.
In essence, the dynamic range of a recording is the difference between the high frequencies and low frequencies. The wider the difference, the more live the recording sounds and the more pleasing to the ear it is. The highs and lows of Vapor Trails were compressed, the peaks and valleys of the sound wave leveled off, creating a very loud CD. Unfortunately, also a very flat sounding one. It’s kind of like when you’re watching TV or listening to the radio and a commercial comes on. The commercial is always louder, to get your attention. The philosophy at the time was that music should be presented the same way. Vapor Trails became an album accepted and loved by Rush’s fans, but with reservations, tempered by the substandard listening experience.
The responsibility for the remix fell to producer/mixer/engineer David Bottrill. Grammy winner Bottrill owns his own studio in Rush’s home base of Toronto and is known for his work with musicians such as Dream Theater, Tool, Silverchair, Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, Smashing Pumpkins and others. He began his career in Daniel Lanois’ studio and moved from there to Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England. If anyone had the experience and credentials to pull off such a remix, it was Bottrill.
He’s worked his magic so that there’s noticeably more space around the instruments—it’s not as much of a wall of sound onslaught. The music is not as fatiguing on the ears. The melodies of the songs are allowed to breathe, to come into their own, to be recognized.
It’s not an accident that Peart’s drumming leads off the album. The frenzied opening of first track “One Little Victory” is a declaration of intent and a battle cry (as is the song title, for that matter). Rush, and drummer Peart, mean to tell you they’re back and they mean business. In the new remixed version, when the guitar and bass join the drums, it sounds more like three musicians locking into a groove than three musicians battling for supremacy.
It’s in these more intense, musically aggressive songs that the remixing really shows. In other songs such as “Peaceable Kingdom”, “Secret Touch”, and “Ceiling Unlimited” the bass, and especially the drums, are more defined. There’s less of the gauzy blur of sound that plagued the old Vapor Trails.
The new album art is slightly modified from the original, reflecting the more expansive sonics. The hurtling ball of matter (fire?) is not confined between two solid black bars any longer. In addition, there’s more color in the picture with the addition of some blues and yellows, just as there’s more color in the remixed music.
For a band that now shows no signs of slowing down, Vapor Trails was a pivotal album. It set them up for a return that has since taken them to new levels of popularity, while still remaining creative. The elder statesman status they now possess has enabled them to revisit the work with the benefit of hindsight, allowing them to come to grips with what was a difficult time in their history and create a closure of sorts.