OK… so I’ve read a few of the posts here about Vapor Trails some of them overwhelmingly positive, some overwhelmingly negative, but I haven’t read anything that sounds like a balanced review from a less-than-rabid Rush fan, so I thought I’d toss in my own 2 cents (ok, maybe 3 cents) on the latest release.
Lest I be accused of being a newbie – perhaps I should start with my “credentials”. Huge Rush fan back in the “slightly post Moving Pictures” days… seen every tour since I was old enough to drive (from Power Windowson)… “Roll the Bones” was probably the last album I bought on its release date. I kinda changed musical tastes in grad school… listened to Rush a little less… bought Counterparts and Test for Echo out of habit more than anything else. I don’t hate the new stuff, but I don’t sit in front of every new album with my bass learning every song note-for-note anymore either. (Mostly because my wife won’t let me!)
So anyway – when I heard Rush was coming out with a new album, I emailed my old grad-school roommate Sam, who replied “I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but my first reaction when I heard that was – ‘Gee, I hope they don’t embarrass themselves’!” Well, after 3 or 4 listens, I definitely DON’T think they embarrassed themselves. I don’t think it’s their best album, but I don’t think it’s their worst either. I was expecting something very different from this album – following the pattern of post-live-album-stylistic-shift that Rush has shown over their career. I was encouraged when I opened the shrink wrap and the CD case to read “Geddy Lee – Bass and vocals”. What?? No synthesizers? No keyboards? No Moog Taurus pedals even? Hmmm. So when I popped in the disc, I was expecting a different sound – tighter, leaner, more stripped down.
Well, on the first listen, it certainly did “sound” different. I’m no audiophile- I have a cheap car stereo and I’m half deaf in the high frequency range, so I won’t be going on about the “mix” like a lot of people on the newsgroups. But I did notice the drums sounding very flat and simple… no reverb, no “ring”… just a sharp attack – uncomplicated… not a lot of “tone”. I don’t think they sound bad as rock-drums go… just not what we’re used to hearing from Neil. But the fact that _I_ noticed it is saying a lot, because like I said – I don’t have much ear for “tone”. The sound of a new producer and engineer are immediately obvious.
The next thing I noticed were the vocals… lots of them. Almost always double tracked… sometimes triple tracked. Seems like all of the acoustical “space” that was once filled by synths is now filled by Geddy going “aaaa-haaaa” or “ooooo-woooo” or “heeeey-yeeeeeaaaaa” or some such ethereal hoo-haa. I’m not crazy about it, I must say.
Next thing that hit me was the bass. I must preface this by saying that I’m a bass player, so a lot of what I say here is just a reflection of my own personal style. I haven’t been impressed with the direction that Geddy’s bass playing has taken since Counterparts. His playing has moved from very melodic style with lots of harmonic movement to a very staccato, driving style that’s still rhythmically complex, but melodically very simple. (Think “Animate”) Now on Vapor Trails he’s added a lot of chordal playing, and I really don’t like it at all. It’s just a personal preference, but I think that chords are best left to the guitarist. I think a lot of the “muddiness” that people are complaining about can be attributed to the sound of the bass on this album. I’d almost rather have the synths back!
Next up – the lyrics. I must say that I haven’t absorbed the CONTENT of many of the lyrics at all yet. But I have noticed that the phrasing of the lyrics is very different from the past couple of albums. We find a little less of the abruptness and repetition that was starting to overtake Neil’s lyrics. (Animate me… Flagellate me… Masturbate me… Here we go… In slow mo… Ho Ho Ho… Test for Echo…) There are some songs on this album that have vocal lines that sound like very old Rush songs, and I think that’s in part due to the way that the lyrics are written… a return to writing in SENTENCES. (“A modest man from Mandrake traveled rich to the city. Period”) There are so many words squeezed into “Peaceable Kingdom” it almost sounds like he’s RAPPING the verses! (The Real Slim Geddy?)
And I should also add that as a scientist, I’m happy to say that “Earthshine” provides us with the best Rush-astronomy-lesson since “Cygnus X-1″!
Finally the guitar. From the few posts I’ve read on this newsgroup, it sounds like Alex is getting a beating here. I think it’s a little unwarranted. I do agree that a few guitar solos would be nice, but apart from that I actually really enjoy hearing some nice thick distortion on a Rush album for a change. God, the opening to “Earthshine sounds like it belongs on a Tool album (ok, well… at least “A Perfect Circle”) And why not? Rock on, Alex. The guy’s gonna be 50 next year, let him have his fun. We all know the guy can solo, he doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. If he wants to play big fat muddy chord instead, I have no problem with that. That being said, I think this album has some of the nicest jangly-arpeggio-stuff we’ve heard from Lifeson in a long time. (I’m thinking of the title track in particular.) And come on – who here didn’t hear the intro to “How it Is” and think – Oh my God, it’s “Closer to the Heart!”? How can that be bad?
So my overall first impression was… different sound… some good songs… I don’t hate it. Not a bad first impression, usually if I don’t HATE something on the first listen, I start to actually LIKE it by the third or fourth. Nothing on the album really reached out and grabbed me by the doo-dads – but then again, not much HAS since the 80′s. I’m not sure Rush is out to grab us by the doo-dads anymore… the success of a Rush album hasn’t been measured in notes-per-second or prime-numbers-per-time-signature for a long time. They are trying to write good songs and keep their music fresh and changing. How many 50 year old rock-musicians can you name whose newest album sounds any different than their albums from 10 or 20 years ago. No, there is no “New Tom Sawyer” or “New La Villa Strangiatto” on this album, as some on the newsgroup are lamenting. But so what? You’d rather they were Aerosmith and kept writing the same song for 20 years?
So there you go… I was going to do a song-by-song recap of the disc, but this already got WAY too long. In brief… New Rush Album. Sounds different. Doesn’t suck.
Dr. Dave (doctorsilence.blogspot.com)