REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/09/2009
A thunder of drums, a furious riff, earth-shaking bass… it’s a snowy owl! It’s a red Barchetta! No! It’s Rush! After a five-year hiatus, the opening of Rush’s 17th studio album is a statement -- and it says “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’re back!” “One Little Victory” is a perfect welcome back to their fans, an exclamation of finding the joy in simple everyday glories and a poignant statement written by a guy who lost his wife and only child. Vapor Trails is a journey through grief, healing and hope. It is in turns acidic and bitter, then hopeful and optimistic.
Following these tragic events in the life of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, many thought the band was done. Even bandmates Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee made no commitment as to their future. It looked pretty dark for Rush fans. Five years later, after over a year in the studio, the release of Vapor Trails signifies a fantastic comeback for the band that never really went away.
Peart’s lyrics are not surprisingly, deeply introspective. Throughout the disc, he tells his story of loss and renewal. Peart, a motorcycle enthusiast, criss-crossed North America alone on his bike during his leave of absence, covering over 50,000 miles, which is recounted in “Ghost Rider.” Lee and Lifeson’s arrangement lends the perfect air of isolation to accompany his tale. “Sweet Miracle” follows the stages of grief through anger, hope and renewal. Looking outwardly, Peart reflects on the precarious state of world peace on “Peaceable Kingdom,” presenting images of conflict through the icons of the tarot. “Earthshine” is an elegant poem of shared experience set to an anthemic riff.
When they went back into the studio, the band made two decisions for this album. No keyboards. No guitar solos. And true to that claim, those elements are nowhere to be seen. I was enthusiastic about the lack of keys after some of their rather synth-heavy albums. I’m sure many fans who were turned off by that period were happy to come back to the heavier, more guitar-based sound. The result is rawer and more aggressive but by no means stripped down. Each track is thickly layered with multiple guitar and bass tracks, an interweaving sonic stew of dense sound. Within the limitations they set for themselves, Lee and Lifeson create a powerful and very fresh sound, continuing the trend started with the album Counterparts that has been taking them further away from a slick keyboard sound and closer to their hard rock roots. Vapor Trails has a looser, less sterile vibe from beginning to end than I've heard on a Rush album for a long time.
The band’s return to the studio -- and to stages around the world -- finds them sounding more energetic, inspired and fresher than they have in many years. From my first listen, I was eager to hear what the next track would bring, and in time it has become a standard of my personal playlist. There's not a weak track on the disc, and it's a satisfying “Welcome back!” to one the world’s most enduring and beloved bands.