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The Story of Rush’s ‘Vapor Trails’

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Time has been kind to Vapor TrailsRush’s 17th studio album, released on May 14, 2002.

But opinions from the always-passionate Rush fanbase about the release vary, as evidenced by the response to our list of the Top 10 Rush Albums, which did not feature the album. One commenter responded by including the album at the top of their own personal Top 10 list, ahead of classics like Moving Pictures, 2112 and Signals. In harsh contrast, another reader labeled Vapor Trails a “diluted version of Test for Echo without the main hits.”

Vapor Trails found the band as always, pushing themselves in new directions creatively. They strove to find different ways to create the sounds that they had in mind. Keyboards, which had perhaps become a familiar crutch on previous albums, were pushed to the side.

As guitarist Alex Lifeson explained,  “I thought it would be more interesting if we created the same things that keyboards were doing in the past with Geddy [Lee]‘s voice or a guitar or even bass.”

In the studio, the band struggled at first to find the groove. As Lifeson told Guitar World, “We started jamming, but we didn’t have anything we were crazy about.” Ultimately, the group labeled the initial material that emerged “forced.” Breaking for a couple of weeks, Lifeson says that when they came back together, things began to gel and finally they began to “hear songs, not just parts.”

The fact that Vapor Trails exists at all represents a musical triumph for the band personally and a return to action after an unforeseen period of hiatus for the group. Drummer Neil Peart had suffered the tragic loss of both his daughter (in a car accident) and wife (who passed from cancer) in a harrowing 10-month period.

These events understandably set the legendary skinsman on a new path. He took to the roadways of America, undertaking a journey that would help to begin the healing process. Spiritually, it was a very inspirational trek, one that showed up musically on Vapor Trails in the form of the song “Ghost Rider.”

Hauntingly, “Ghost Rider” details how Peart’s efforts to “pack up all of the phantoms” and “shoulder that invisible load.” The open road gave Peart endless miles to explore both his surroundings and himself: “Keep on riding north and west / Then circle south and east / Show me beauty but there is no peace / For the ghost rider.”

While the latter half of the above lyric might feel bleak, the end of the song carries some hope, with the lyrics “There’s nothing to stop you now / Nothing can stop you now.” It is Peart’s powerful drumming that provides the first sounds heard on Vapor Trails, on the album-opening “One Little Victory.” The Canadian trio sound positively reinvigorated, firing on all cylinders on this highly anticipated return.

Energetically driven by surging riffs from guitarist Lifeson that volleyed back and forth across the sonic soundscape, “Victory” made it very clear that Rush were collectively happy to have another chance at victory and to share more music with their devoted fanbase.

Rush fans ate it up, although the rumbling regarding the somewhat questionable production quality of Vapor Trails grew louder and louder, until the band themselves acknowledged that perhaps there were a few regrettable chinks in the audio armor of the album. Lifeson eventually commented to Classic Rock that “we were never happy with the production.” Shouldering at least part of the blame, Lifeson admitted, “perhaps we should have taken more time over the record.”

With the tools at hand to revise that part of history, the band later remixed two of the album’s songs — “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” —  for 2009’s Retrospective 3 compilation. Rush issued a remixed version of Vapor Trails in 2013.

Rush Albums, Ranked Worst to Best

Next: Top 10 Rush Songs

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