20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Vapor Trails
DAY EIGHT: Rush, Vapor Trails, running time 67:15 (too damn long), released May 14, 2002
This is where Rush goes off the rails for me. Vapor Trails, released after a six year hiatus due mostly to the personal tragedies suffered by Neil Peart, contains moments of brilliance, many wonder riffs, and some effective melodies, but it’s all too much. Too many songs (who in his right mind thought that a 67-minute album was a good idea?), too many songs that go on forever without adding any forward momentum (listen to “Secret Touch” and tell me you’re not ready to call it a day after four minutes, but it goes on for another two and half), too many ethereal backup vocals that only muddy up the mix, too much clutter, too many busy bass lines, and too many unmemorable melodies (try singing the verses to some of the songs – “Nocturne” or “Freeze,” for instance – and it’s impossible. The tunes, in effect, lack a tune).
This isn’t to say there aren’t great moments. I actually love the way the album begins, with the full-throttled, blistering bombardment of “One Little Victory” followed by my favorite track, “Ceiling Unlimited.” “Ghost Rider” isn’t perfect, but it’s such a personal song that it’s hard not to identify with what Peart is writing about. And then it’s song after song (after song) with some good parts but way too many unsuccessful sections. For me, there isn’t a single track beyond this point that works well from beginning to end.
Take “How it Is,” what should have been a wonderful song. The chorus is poignant and beautiful, but the verse is a mess, trudging through tuneless and meterless poetry that doesn’t lend itself well to a rock song. That is what Rush is, after all. A rock band that writes songs, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “song” among these thirteen tracks. “Freeze” also has one of the best, most melodic choruses in all of Rush’s history, but the verses, well…blow. They’re a mess, stuck in a wall of sound, overly busy bass, tuneless melodies and unnecessary backup vocals.
Another item of concern is what I call the Elvis Costello Syndrome, whereby one tries to cram lyrics into a structure even if they don’t fit the structure well. And that’s exactly what Rush is doing here. Consider the following quote from Neil Peart (I got this off of Wikipedia):
Eventually Geddy began to sift through the vast number of jams they had created, finding a verse here, a chorus there, and piecing them together. Often a pattern had only ever been played once in passing, but through the use of computer tools it could be repeated or reworked into a part...once Geddy and Alex had agreed on basic structures, Geddy would go through the lyrics to see what might suit the music and "sing well," then come to me to discuss any improvements, additions, or deletions I could make from my end.
This is a very odd way to compose, and it explains a lot, I think. Usually, one composes a tune and then writes lyrics to fit the tune, or one composes lyrics and comes up with a melody for the lyrics. On Vapor Trails, Rush creates songs from jam sessions, and then they review the lyrics to see which ones might work with the verses and choruses. It's a Frankensteinian approach to making music. Kudos to Rush for trying something different, but unfortunately it doesn’t work. The result sounds exactly what it is: pieces of music spliced together with lyrics forced into the structure.
Geddy’s bass is incredible on this album, Exhibit A for what’s possible with this instrument, but it’s also Exhibit A on how to muck up a recording. Too busy. Too much. And that pretty much encapsulates the entire album. Too busy. Too much. Even the 2013 remix, which is a definite improvement over the original, suffers from a thwacking kick drum that’s way too hot. It seems that even a remix couldn’t save this effort.
Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to…drum roll, please…number 7. Rewind to 1980’s Permanent Waves. It’ll be interesting to listen to an album that’s almost one half the length of Vapor Trails. It’ll be a lot quicker, too.