"Lighting up my unconscious, And the secret places of the heart.'
'Vapor Trails' is the last Rush studio album I got hold of as I knew it did not receive favourable reviews. I really only bought it as there was nothing else in the shop worth purchasing. I listened to it in the car on the way home and was underwhelmed to say the least. Apart from a few decent songs in the first half it is a very half hearted return to the studio from the virtuoso musicians that have produced some genius work over the years. The keyboards have been locked in a cupboard somewhere, and Lifeson has put his guitar soloing on hold. The sound is compressed and it is a raw aggressive sound overall. A lot of the songs have appeared on 'Live In Rio' and I prefer those versions any day however at least it is superior to some of the mediocrity in the 80s such as 'Presto' and 'Hold Your Fire'.
The background of the album is more famous than the actual songs. The production is below par but the music has passion and lyrically is very strong. There were some extenuating circumstances in which the album was released. Tragically Neil Peart suffered terrible losses with the death of his daughter and subsequently his wife. The lyrics reflect the pain of loss and grief and as such have a lot to say to us about suffering and dealing with grief.
The album cover is an iconic image of a meteor blazing away, or perhaps it is the sun, and we see the vapour trails of the burning mass. The image is symbolic of burning away the dross of the past, the turmoil of tragedy, and moving on which is a key point of the album. There are some definitive highlights as on any Rush album and most of these come at the first half of the album. so I will begin with these first.
'A certain measure of righteousness, A certain amount of force, A certain degree of determination, Daring on a different course, A certain amount of resistance, To the forces of the light and love, A certain measure of tolerance, A willingness to rise above'.
'One Little Victory' starts things off with a thunder clap of loud guitar and drum pounding. The band sound serious and really thrash this out with conviction. Rush are back and they want the world to know it. It is a fantastic song with tons of melodic guitar and very powerful lyrics. One of the better Rush songs of recent years and it sounds incredible live.
'The vacant smile, Of true insanity, Dressed up in the mask of Tragedy, Programmed for the guts and glands, Of idle minds and idle hands, I rest my case, Or at least my vanity, Dressed up in the mask of Comedy, If laughter is a straw for a drowning man.'
'Ceiling Unlimited' is a feast of guitar and fast paced basslines with indelible percussion. The quick tempo works well making it feel very urgent and quite uplifting. The lyrics border on impenetrable but of course Peart was keeping a lot of his thoughts private and it is open to interpretation. The song drags on a bit and is not memorable but not too bad overall thanks to the driving beat.
'Sunrise in the mirror, Lightens that invisible load, Riding on a nameless quest, Haunting that wilderness road, Like a ghost rider, Just an escape artist, Racing against the night, A wandering hermit, Racing toward the light.'
'Ghost Rider' has a beautiful melody sung well by Lee and augmented with some very innovative guitar licks. The hopeful lyrics depict Peart motorcycling across North America following the tragedy of losing both his wife to a terminable disease and daughter in a car crash in the same year. The song is one of the best things on this album and it is Peart's songwriting that makes it extra special; 'nothing can stop you now'.
'All this time we're burning like bonfires in the dark, A billion other blazes are shooting off their sparks, Every spark a drifting ember of desire, To fall upon the earth and spark another fire, A homeward angel on the fly, A wave toward the clearing sky.'
'Peaceable Kingdom' begins with preternatural vocalisations and there is a strong cadence. The verses are primarily bass and some ambient guitars. Later there is a crunching guitar riff that is raw and harsh but it has emotion and passion. It feels like a throwaway track but at least it is heavier than the material on previous albums. I especially like the riff at 3:30 and the way it builds with layered vocals.
'Like the rat in a maze who says, 'Watch me choose my own direction', Are you under the illusion, The path is winding your way? Are you surprised by confusion, When it leads you astray? Have you lived a lifetime today, Or do you feel like you just got carried away?'
'The Stars Look Down' is based on the 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin that was concentric on how mankind is powerless to comprehend the main reasons why we have to suffer pain due to the tragedies that befall us. Of course Peart related to this and eloquently is able to convey the emotions of grief in the lyrics. The melody is upbeat but Lifeson's heavy guitars add a darker texture. The twelve-string guitar is a welcome addition, and Peart's drumming is forced and appropriate to the heavy atmospheres. The song is a highlight as it is a very different sound for Rush.
'Here's a little trap, That sometimes catches everyone, When today's as far as we can see, Faith in bright tomorrows, Giving way to resignation, That's how it is, How it's going to be.'
'How It Is' continues a fast pace with a ton of 12 string acoustic and a happier feel especially in the lyrics. I am not so taken with it and it is not one that stands out among the others on the album.
'Atmospheric phases make the transitory last, Vaporize the memories that freeze the fading past, Silence all the songbirds, Stilled by the killing frost, Forests burn to ashes, Everything is lost.'
'Vapor Trail' is another highlight with great musicianship. A touch of synth enhances the guitar break. Peart is terrific on fast drumming fills and the bass accentuates the sound. Overall the vocals sound excellent and this is always one of the delights of the album on every listen.
'Out of touch, With the weather and the wind direction, With the sunrise, And the phases of the moon, Out of touch, With life in the land of the loving, With the living night, And the darkness at high noon.'
'Secret Touch' is one of my favourites with it's memorable 'the way out is the way in,' mantra. I heard this live a few times on one of the many DVDs I own. The melody is nice and the whole thing sounds uplifting and optimistic. I like Peart's lyrics here and especially the way Lee injects so much emotion in the vocals. One of the best Rush moments on this album.
'Earthshine, Stretching out your hand, Full of starlit diamonds, Earthshine, Reflected light, To another's sight, And the moon tells a lover's story.'
Earthshine' is another fast paced track with some innovative guitar work. I like how it misses a beat in some sections. Lifeson unleashes a great lead break which is a nice change on this album. I like the lyrics that focus on the way occasionally the sun's light bounces off the Earth's surface and reflects to the moon, and then the moon shines its light back to the Earth. Perhaps this reflects Peart's thoughts as he controls the grief he feels by putting on a brave face hiding his true feelings like a mask. I think we can all relate to doing this occasionally to hide our feelings. I like the ideas that surface on this album such as this.
'I wasn't walking on water, I was standing on a reef, When the tide came in, Swept beneath the surface, Lost without a trace, No hope at all.'
'Sweet Miracle' is another sleeper that I have rarely heard but it is okay. The guitars are akin to the U2 sound of Edge. The lyrics are again full of hope despite tragedy and it is a credit to Peart that he was able to express such feelings. The music is also uptempo and bright to enhance the mood.
'Set off on a night-sea journey, Without memory or desire, Drifting through lost latitudes, With no compass and no chart, Flying through hallucination, Distant voices, signal fires, Lighting up my unconscious, And the secret places of the heart.'
'Nocturne' has a booming drum tempo and some grinding guitar distortion. The lyrics question if the protagonist had the dream or did the dream have him. The aggressive fuzz guitars are a welcome sound, and overall this is one of the darker explorations of Peart's thoughts. I like this as something very unique in the Rush canon, with a diverse sound and instrumentation. Lee screams in one section adding to the mystical atmospheres.
'Coiled for the spring, Or caught like a creature in the headlights, Into a desperate panic, Or a tempest of blind fury, Like a cornered beast, Or a conquering hero, The menace threatens, closing, And I'm frozen in the shadows.'
'Freeze (Part IV of Fear)' is the continuing saga began on earlier albums that deals with fear. The riffing and deep growling bass are a feature but it is monotonous. It is an unremarkable song but still not half as bad as a lot of material on their 80s albums, so at least the band have stepped up a notch on this heavier sound. It is a bit noisy though, the multilayered processed vocals are annoying after a while, and it is way too long and repetitive.
'It's a hand, That rocks the cradle, It's a motion, That swings the sky, It's method on the edge of madness, It's a balance on the edge of a knife, It's a smile on the edge of sadness, It's a dance on the edge of life, Endlessly rocking.'
'Out Of The Cradle' closes things off with a breakout of heavy guitar riffs and energetic drumming. Lee still opts for a processed vocal which does not resonate with me when I know he has great vocals without studio trickery. It is again not a highlight on the album but rocks hard and is an interesting song to finish on. Peart is saying despite all that has happened the band will keep on endlessly rocking, and thank heavens for that!
Overall 'Vapor Trails' is certainly not half as bad as the critics attest. It is no masterpiece but at least it rocks and the lyrics are some of the best Peart has penned. 3 solid stars.