Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why I Am Not a Disciple of Vapor Trails

For those of you not familiar with Rush (which probably encompasses the majority of my readers), Vapor Trails was Rush’s “Resurrection Album” from 2002. I call it their Resurrection Album because it was their first studio album in six years – by far the longest off period of their career – and because it came after a series of unimaginable personal tragedies in the life of their drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart (his only child was killed in a 1-car accident on her way back to college for the Fall 1997 semester, and 6 months later, his wife/partner of 20+ years died of cancer).

After four years without writing, recording, or touring, Rush finally got back into the studio in 2001. By their own later admission, it took them longer to write and arrange the music for Vapor Trails than any other album they had ever done. 14 months, I believe, is how long they spent writing, arranging, and recording the music for this long-awaited album. It was finally released in 2002, and they hit the road again, and have been touring and recording regularly ever since.

Vapor Trails, however, has proven to be their slowest selling album ever. To date, five years since its release, it still has only sold 300,000 copies or thereabouts – not even Gold yet. The primary complaint from die-hard Rush fans about this album centers on its production quality. The Rush Internet message boards have had literally hundreds of threads, with thousands and thousands of replies, discussing this issue over the years. The album displays what is known in the industry as “clipping,” which is a reference to the waveforms created by the amplifiers. It basically happens by turning an amplifier up beyond its capacity, which causes the signal to cut and clip at its peak. It results in a sound that is distorted and blaring. And distorted and blaring is a perfect way to describe the general production of this album. When listening to it, you get the distinct impression that the microphones and amplifiers were turned up as loud as they could go, and it sort of gives you the feeling that you are listening to a radio station that is not quite on the right dial and is turned up too loud. If your favorite radio station is 100.1, imagine tuning it to 100.2 and then turning it up really loud. That’s sort of what listening to Vapor Trails is like.

Like most people, the production is probably the first thing that turns me off about this album. It is simply difficult to listen to. One of the regular members on the message board I frequent has done a “re-master” of the album, and offers to burn it for free for anyone who has purchased an authentic copy of the album. I have a copy of this “re-mastered” Vapor Trails, and while it is better than the original, there is only so much you can do to an album that was recorded poorly to start with. In general, the album has the feeling of one produced by a garage band with their brother’s recording equipment, rather than by a major band on a major record label. The production simply doesn’t sound professional.

For many people, the production issue is where it stops. I know a lot of Rush fans who think Vapor Trails is a great album, displaying great songs with meaningful lyrics, despite the production woes. For me, however, the production issue – while probably the most important – is simply the beginning.

Aside from the poor production, I get the impression that the band simply didn’t have its chemistry back yet when they recorded this album. I think that is evidenced not only by the fact that it took them so long to get it written, arranged, and recorded, but also by a number of pitfalls in the music itself. It’s sort of like a baseball team who has great chemistry, then enters the off-season and doesn’t play together for 4 months, and then requires 2 or 3 months in the spring to get their chemistry back. Rush is known for its incredible chemistry and synergy, but I think the 4-year lay-off following Neil’s personal tragedies had a very strong impact on the band’s chemistry. “H to O, no flow without the other,” as the lyrics say to Rush’s 1982 song “Chemistry,” and I think the “flow” was definitely off during the recording of Vapor Trails. Perhaps it would have served them better to have had a reunion tour first, then recorded a new album. But that’s neither here nor there – they chose to enter the studio first, and I think their atrophying chemistry is evident in the album they produced.

Evidence of this lack of chemistry abounds throughout the album. The first problem is a tendency toward repetition that you don’t see on other albums. The songs “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” and “Freeze,” are all good songs, but are simply too long. Now, if you know anything about Rush’s music, you know they have written a lot of long songs (“2112,” which is one of their signature songs, is over 20 minutes long). So when I say these songs are “too long,” I’m not suggesting that I can’t enjoy a long song or even an “epic” song. However, in the past, when Rush recorded long songs, they were always fresh and exciting for the duration of the song. “Jacob’s Ladder,” for instance, from 1980, is about 10 minutes long, and only has about two stanzas’ worth of lyrics, but the music is constantly changing throughout the song. It’s what would have been called in the 19th century a durchkomponiert song – meaning that it doesn’t have repetitive refrains, but rather new riffs and new melodies throughout. In the case of “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” and “Freeze,” however, there is no durchkomponiert aspect. Instead, they repeat the same riffs and phrases over and over and over again. “Freeze” and “Secret Touch” are both over 6 minutes long, but really only have about 2 minutes’ worth of original music. The rest is just repetition of the main riff and chorus. If they weren’t going to add in new bridges and new lyrics, then these songs would have worked much better at about 4 minutes apiece, instead of in excess of 6 minutes. Same goes for “One Little Victory,” which is over 5 minutes long and just repeats the same phrase and riff endlessly.

There is also an issue surrounding guitar solos. Inexplicably, Alex Lifeson – despite being one of the most talented and innovative lead guitarists in rock n’ roll – intentionally chose not to play many guitar solos on this album. And the very few solos that he does play sound distorted and watered down. I don’t know of many Rush fans that don’t find this curious and at least slightly annoying.

Another piece of evidence that points toward lack of chemistry is an apparent need by the band and/or their producer to “thicken” the songs with layer upon layer of voiceovers and instrumental sounds. The result is a very burdensome sound that causes all the detail to be washed out. Part of this, of course, goes back to the production quality as well. The song “Peaceable Kingdom,” for instance, is a great song, but I can hardly tell what any of the lyrics are, because Geddy’s voice is drowned out by the layers of voiceovers singing “Ooooh” and “Aaaaah” and all the layers of guitars. Same is true of “How It Is.” Geddy’s voice – which should be the most prominent sound – is instead the least prominent, and these two songs in particular just sound washed out and like they were recorded under water.

Yet another negative aspect of the album is an infuriating tendency to have all the wrongs sounds at the wrong times. To explain what I mean, I point to the song “Secret Touch,” already referenced above. This song is very much a hard rocker, and it has a driving, heavy guitar sound throughout. However, the guitar is almost too growling and too distorted, and it causes the song to come off with a throbbing sound instead of a crisp, hard rock sound. Tie this back to production as well. The problem is, there is a very nice bridge near the end where Alex plays a riff all by himself, and the drums and bass guitar cut out. In concert, this is a great moment, and Alex’s guitar sounds just right, and it just flat out rocks. However, the exact opposite is true on the album. Instead of continuing that heavy, growling guitar sound that characterizes the rest of the song, it’s like Alex’s guitar suddenly becomes watered down and wimpy, right at the moment when it should be at its strongest. It turns an otherwise exciting bridge into a let down. The recorded version just doesn’t pull it off.

Another song that has this same infuriating quality is “Sweet Miracle.” The opening riff of this song is one of the best moments on the album. It’s a driving riff that really has a good, rocking sound. It’s also one of the few spots on the album where the production sounds pretty decent. As you listen to the intro, you think it’s going to be a really great song. Unfortunately, after the introductory riff, the song changes and simply folds on top of itself like a sprinter who has just been hamstrung. After that, it just drags on and on with a whiney, slow-paced gait. The lyrics discuss the new love flame that entered Neil’s life in the wake of his wife’s death, and how this flame became a “sweet miracle of life” for him. I’m sure the lyrics are deeply relevant and meaningful for Neil, but they don’t really do anything for me. Geddy whines them out against a painfully dragging chorus, and the song simply ends up being one of my least favorite in Rush’s entire catalogue of albums. And this coming despite an intro that is one of the best moments on the whole album! Infuriating!

In the end, I suppose, it comes back to the garage band production quality. No less than five songs on the album – “Ghost Rider,” “Peaceable Kingdom,” “How It Is,” “Earthshine,” and “Nocturne” – would all be fantastic songs, worthy of high acclaim within Rush’s catalogue of music. But the layered voiceovers, muddy guitar sound, and amateur production quality simply ruin them. Of course I can still listen to and enjoy these songs. But when I listen to them, I can’t help but think of how much more excellent they could be if they didn’t sound like they were recorded by My Older Brother Jimbo. Then when you add in “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” and “Freeze,” which are all good songs, but suffer both from production woes and repetition, you have at least 8 out of 13 songs that are very good, Rush-quality songs. In fact, “Vapor Trail,” and “Sweet Miracle” are really the only two songs on the album that annoy me more than excite me, but that’s really nothing to complain about – even as a diehard fan, there are going to be some songs on every album that don’t grab you.

So why am I not an ardent fan of Vapor Trails?

1. The production is amateurish and causes you to feel like you’re listening to a radio station not quite on the right tuning, and turned up way too loud;

2. Alex inexplicably chooses to play almost no guitar solos, and those that he does play sound wimpy and watered down;

3. The thick overdubs and layering give the songs a muddy, distorted sound and drown out Geddy’s voice such that it is frequently difficult to even tell what he’s saying;

4. Several of the songs are otherwise good, but are ruined by being too long due to a lack of original material and an influx of burdensome and pointless repetition;

5. Several of the songs are simply infuriating because the tone quality of Alex’s guitar seems to turn wimpy at just the moment when it needs to be strongest;

6. “Sweet Miracle” is a dragging, boring, whiney song that is made even more maddening by having an intro that is one of the best moments on the album and belies the drudgery that is to come; and

7. A good number of songs would be excellent additions to the Rush catalogue, but are simply ruined due to sound quality and amateurish production.

As such, if I were to rank Rush’s 19 studio albums, I would probably place Vapor Trails in my bottom three. I hate to do that, because I am not one of those who only appreciates Rush’s old stuff (their most recent album, Snakes & Arrows, may very well top my list of Rush albums), but Vapor Trails simply does not grab me the way that most Rush albums grab me. I might even go so far as to say that Vapor Trails is in spot 18 on my list, above only 2004’s Feedback album, which was not an album of original material, but merely a short, 8-track EP covering 1960’s songs that had originally inspired the band. That means that Vapor Trails, due to all the things listed above, may be my least favorite Rush album of original material. Even if they completely re-recorded the album with professional-style production, I’m not sure that my opinion would change much. There are some great songs on the album, but repetition, lack of chemistry, too many voiceovers and layers, lack of guitar solos, frequently weak lyrics, and an unusually large number of songs that are just “so-so” – all these things would still probably put Vapor Trails at or near the bottom for me. I have tried to really “get” this album, and see past the poor production. But even when I discount production issues, this album just doesn’t do it for me the way that other Rush albums do.

Now, having said all this, I want to make an important point: even a “poor” Rush album is a great album. I’m comparing Vapor Trails not to the record industry as a whole, but to the remainder of Rush’s body of work. Against albums like Snakes & Arrows, Permanent Waves, 2112, and Hold Your Fire, Vapor Trails simply doesn’t compare, musically or lyrically – and certainly not production-wise. As a modern rock n’ roll album, however, I think it’s a great album. In my opinion, Rush doesn’t have any actual “bad albums.” They simply have some that are not as good or captivating as the others.

So what caused it? A bad producer? Lack of chemistry due to a 4-year hiatus? A desire to get involved in the “loudness wars” and make an album that was louder and more blaring than the competitors? It might have been a little bit of all those things. But whatever the reason, this is why I can not call myself a disciple of Vapor Trails.

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