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Getting the Vapors

 

Rush: Vapor Trails

Anthem/Atlantic, 2002

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: May 17, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Rush has always been a band of contradictions. Dismissed by many critics and outsiders while inspiring a level of fanaticism on a par with that of the most diehard Star Wars geeks. Employing egghead song structures and time signatures in the service of grippingly melodic and visceral progressive hard rock. Fond of sprawling, indulgent jams and displays of virtuosity, yet increasingly able to condense its musical and lyrical excesses into tight bursts of catchy four-minute treatises that come across more as subversions of the pop-song format than as ungainly attempts to "modernize" its sound (90125-era Yes, anyone?).

So it's no surprise that Vapor Trails, the Canadian power trio's long-awaited collection of new material, is a contradictory affair. Born of personal tragedy (drummer and lyricist Neil Peart lost both his wife and daughter in the years since 1996's Test for Echo), Vapor Trails is a striking song cycle wrapped around themes of looking back and moving forward, and is easily the most personal album of the band's long career. But those cathartic and reflective lyrics are often girded by strangely distant musical foundations. In places, Trails tragically lacks the warmth and vibrancy of accessible works such as Test for Echo and Roll the Bones.

That's not to say that Vapor Trails is a musically leaden affair, although its charms do take a few listens to comfortably unspool. But of all the albums the band has recorded since 1980's Permanent Waves (the beginning of what could be referred to as its "modern" period), it's the least musically cohesive, sporting an occasionally (and unusually) flat sound that proves initially daunting. The album reportedly underwent a strained birthing process, taking a torturous 14 months to complete, and it shows: Too often, the results (most notably the sluggish "Freeze" and the oddly unmelodic "The Stars Look Down") sound forced, jarringly at odds with the questing and ultimately accepting subject matter.

In part, this inconsistency is a product of the song structures, which are less resonant and adventurous than past recent releases. Although there is virtuosity on occasional display -the opening "One Little Victory" kicks off with a minute of vigorous percussive drumming underneath a familiar, galloping chord progression from bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, a bone thrown to fans who might be worried about possible atrophying of the trio's musical muscles. Still, straightforward, accessible numbers like the buoyantly optimistic "Ceiling Unlimited" and the determined "How It Is" never quite attain the crispness or airy infectiousness of previous gems like "Half the World," "Show Don't Tell" and "Dreamline."

Which is a shame, because Peart's usual themes of self-determination provide for some moments of real uplift, all the more effective given the disc's unprecedented emotional resonance. "One Little Victory" is a familiar carpe diem manifesto, assigning importance to even the smallest triumphs of will, which require "a certain degree of surrender...a willingness to risk defeat." "Ceiling Unlimited" redeems clunky verses with bright, wide-open choruses, exhortations to "turn and turn again." Likewise, "How It Is" stumbles over some trite imagery ("such a cloudy day/seems we'll never see the sun") before delivering a stirring acknowledgment that it's easy to get caught "burning in the moment -trapped by the desperation/between how it is and how it ought to be."

If Peart resorts once too often to trite-and-true lyrical tropes, the band does manage to spin them into golden moments of singalong ascendancy: "Secret Touch" soars on a winning vocal melody that acts as a spoonful of sugar for the refrain "a gentle hand, a secret touch on the heart." And the near-weightless "Sweet Miracle" floats on an equally engaging melody that somehow makes "oh sweet miracle of life" sound like Whitman-esque whimsy.

What's also notable about Vapor Trails is a decided trimming of musical and thematic trademarks/excesses. The band abandons its on-again, off-again dalliance with keyboards, opting instead for a stripped-down guitar sound shorn even of Lifeson's mercurial guitar solos. As a result, Trails boasts a sonic signature that builds on the tighter-and-tighter dynamics of Roll The Bones, Counterparts and Test For Echo while retaining its own distinct voice. And Peart's "just do it" philosophy seems more forgiving, tempered with mercy for and an acceptance of the sheer overwhelming force of some of life's blows, particularly on the vulnerable "Sweet Miracle."

Ultimately, Vapor Trails rises above its own musical shackles, propelled by pleasantly memorable melodies and an aura of lyrical poignancy. Given Peart's personal ordeals and the long wait since the trio's last studio effort, fans can be forgiven for wishing that it were a less constricted, more dazzling and triumphant affair. But the fact that Trails exists at all is, in the end, a "little victory" that does yield honest (if somewhat recalcitrant) rewards.

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