“Knowing that our music is nothing if not idiosyncratic, and doesn’t really cater to popular ‘taste,’ we . . . envisioned advertising slogans along the lines of, ‘If you hated them before, you’ll really hate them now!’ Or, ‘And now-more of everything you always hated about Rush!'”
— Neil Peart
OK, I’m not even going to try to sound objective in this review, since Rush has been hands, feet, and hair down, my favorite band since 1981. And I’ll just say off the top here, that this new album is as good a Rush as I’ve had in a long, long time, in this galaxy or any other. All right, enough rant, let me say something substantial about this disc. After a five-year hiatus, following the startling deaths of drummer Neil Peart’s daughter and wife within the same year, Rush has emerged with more edge and energy than some bands can even dream of, certainly more than anyone would expect of a trio of 50-year-old Kanuks.
Like all Rush albums, this one starts with a cooker, “One Little Victory”, a song that, in Peart’s words, announces, “We’re back!” And, back the boys are. Peart kicks off the disc and the return of the kings with a clean, crisp, double-pedal bass intro, hitting open hi-hats on the beat, slamming and one-hand flamming the snare, before Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee stab in on guitar and bass respectively with a statement of the song’s theme that even Joey Ramone and Johnny Rotten would applaud, and this intensity pervades each of the disc’s 13 tracks, as Lifeson insisted that no keyboards be used.
Besides the infectious verve, what makes Vapor Trails so engrossing is its musical quality. Though Rush has always made melodically profound music, this album features richly textured, polyrhythmic melodies that take a lot from non-rock ensembles like string quartets and jazz orchestras. This big rangy sound, however, should not come as any surprise, considering the individual projects each member worked on during their hiatus. Lee learned a good deal about layered melodies from Ben Mink, guitarist, co-producer, and co-writer on his critically acclaimed solo album My Favorite Headache. Lifeson’s Victor is a dark, aggressive, ambient album, a romping crossbreed between Nine Inch Nails, King Crimson, and Miles Davis’s band on Bitch’s Brew. And Peart’s musical undertaking, Burning for Buddy, is a monumental tribute to legendary big band drummer, Buddy Rich.
All of these influences have come together to help Rush create a sound that is broad as a sub-arctic snow field and just as stunningly subtle and beautiful. This sound is a result of multilayering guitar, bass, and vocal lines, so you may not hear this whole rich palette if you are lucky enough to see the band on their current tour. For some, this may be a heavy criticism, but, as the quote above alludes to, this is an album that Lee, Lifeson, and Peart made to satisfy their own musical sensibilities, so such complaints are of little effect. Besides, if you go to the band’s website and checkout the clip from their Hartford, Connecticut show, you’ll see that these guys can still dish it out like a skip loader.
One particular complaint about Rush that I would like to address quickly, if I may, is the claim that the band is a collective of virtuosos who make complex, but sterile music. While I admit there have been individual songs that may not have been particularly emotionally engaging, this complaint is a bit simplistic, especially when it comes to this album. Naturally, one might expect that after what the band has gone through, especially Peart, their music would be emotionally rich, and it is, but it in a mature way. These songs do not rely on ten-penny sexual pathos, nihilism, or self-denigration. Rush songs never have (although, “In the Mood” from their debut album might be an exception).
This album (and I would argue that, to varying degrees of success, all Rush albums, especially since Hemispheres) fights for a gritty and deeply realistic emotional complexity; optimism with a bloody nose, if you will. Take the fourth track, “Peaceable Kingdom”, for example. By Lee’s admission, this is the only song that directly reacts to the events of September 11th, but in a very tangled way. The music is driving, tense, and busy, with Lifeson’s constant, almost epileptic guitar and Lee’s steady-fill bass lines juxtaposed to Peart’s heavy straight-ahead drumming. Over this anxious blend, the lyrics acknowledge and embrace the emotional contradictions of the event: dismay and a certain amount of anger directed towards those who piloted the jetliners to fiery destruction, as well as the “billion other teachers [who] are teaching” terrorists “how to burn”; disgust with the leaders of nations who have responded with an-eye-and-a-tooth-for-an-eye style justice, “The ones we wish would hear us”, but who “Have heard it all before”; and hope that those who desire peace can have a positive effect on others as they shoot “off their sparks . . . To fall upon the earth and spark another fire”. This song is certainly not the facile patriotic anthem that W. whistles in the White House; it asks us to view the situation in a more complex light than the empty glow of the evening news. It is very emotional, but emotional like a Wim Wenders or a Jean-Luc Godard film, not like Disney or the Top 40 Countdown.
Vapor Trails does indeed have everything that Rush haters hate: complex, busy music and intelligent, literary lyrics. It is a bounteous testament to the vitality and curiosity that has made Rush a quintessential band’s band for three decades.