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My Thoughts on Vapor Trails

This is my response to “What does everyone like about Vapor Trails?

To me, Vapor Trails is an amazing album. When I first heard it, it was a revelation: “Rush is back!” — and I didn’t even realize how much I’d lowered my expectations after T4E, which was a good album but lacked a certain fire that Rush hadn’t really had since Signals. It’s a certain joie de vivre; Grace Under Pressure is a fantastic album and I’m okay with people thinking it “closes out” the Golden Era (which for me is 2112 through Signals, with P/G being an acceptable close as well).

But Grace Under Pressure really didn’t push things much. I didn’t listen to it going “wait, HOW?” I listened to it going, “yeah, that’s the stuff I’ve come to expect from Rush!” It’s not that it was poorly played at all, but it really didn’t break new ground that nobody else could have, not like 2112 did, or AFTK, or Hemispheres, or PeW, or MP, or Signals. It just introduced new instruments and lyrical themes.

It was CONTINUATION, not PROGRESSION.

Vapor Trails… okay, there’s the obvious fact that it was an unexpected album, given Neil’s situation. I wasn’t sure that there was GOING to be another Rush album. The fact that there was… awesome!

But then… THE RECORD itself. All of the fire that had been missing since Signals, all of the “hey, let’s invent a new paradigm” that Rush had done so well in the early 80s and had not NEEDED to do since… all of it was back.

The lyrics are burning with raw emotion. We’d had flashes of it: The Pass, Heresy, Mission, Everyday Glory, a few others, but a WHOLE ALBUM? Not for a long, long time – maybe even since Moving Pictures. And songs that didn’t try to “check off boxes”! … THAT’s what I wanted.

I mean, consider: a standard rock song has a particular format: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, bridge, lead solo, verse, chorus, outro… although obviously you can play with those a lot. But look at a lot of drum software, for example (EZDrummer is a good example of this, although most drum samplers do it) and you’ll LITERALLY find labeled parts like that, where you drop them into place and get parts written for you.

(BTW, I am a musician and have a lot of recorded material, but I have NEVER used that facility in a drum sampler and hope I never do.)

Rush had fallen into that; the worst thing about Power Windows and Hold Your Fire was how the songs felt rote to me. Bass during the verse, then shift to keyboards during the chorus, over and over again. Analog Kid did that, and it was GREAT, then it felt like they had 40 songs that did the SAME THING… and it’s not that the songs were bad, at all, but they had a SAMENESS to them, even when they inverted that (i.e., synth during the verse, bass during the chorus.)

And every song needs a lead guitar solo, there’s a box that needs to be checked off!

I felt like Neil was doing the same thing over and over and over again, stunning us with how GOOD he was, but not really making us go “… HOW!!!!!” There were bits here and there, but by and large he was static. T4E changed that a little thanks to his restlessness and drive to improve (thus he took lessons from Freddie Gruber) but listening to T4E you can tell he changed something but “Yeah, same old Peart, wow, he’s amazing.”

Vapor Trails… hits you like a ton of lead. (Or, well, a ton of ANYTHING.) Everything’s ramped up: the emotion, the lyrics and content, the vocals, the guitars, the drums… everything’s been reset and amped up to eleven. Sure, the volume, too, but it’s an intense album, full stop, and sounds and feels like it. You’re not SUPPOSED to be comfortable listening to it. You’re supposed to sit up and go “Holy bats in chocolate, WHAT IS THIS!!!!”

And all those rules we came to expect from Rush, forged over the prior six or seven albums? Out. No real guitar solos. Heck, multiple bass lines in a given song. Drums being hit like we haven’t heard for a long time, and played HARD – when I heard OLV’s intro I was like “…. wait whut” – not because I haven’t heard blast beats but because this was Neil Peart showing people how to use blast beats MUSICALLY, to actually communicate something.

Even the vocals give you little solid ground to hold on to – there’re dominant IMPLIED melodic lines, but they’re rarely as simple as what we’d come to expect.

Vapor Trails is not an EASY album to listen to, but it’s deep, and wide, and furious, and tragic. I consider it a return to form for Rush, a form that we really hadn’t seen since Signals, and that makes me love it.

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