Along the Tracks

Friday, June 07, 2002

Review: Rush, “Vapor Trails”

The music industry has been overwhelmed, drowned even, by formula. Today’s “pop” music comes in branded recipes as surely as Britney Spears hawks Pepsi. Image has completely trumped music (with a very few notable exceptions), with innocent teases (Britney, Mandy Moore, etc.) balanced by sluts (Christina Aguilera, J-Lo, etc.), and teen idols “who care” (’NSync, Enrique Iglesius, etc.) coupled with bad boys (Eminem, Shaggy, etc.).

Modern hip-hop is similarly formulaic - perhaps even more so than pop. Indeed, the advances of rap into pop are directly tied to the slut/bad boy formula. To sell a million discs, you just rap about the details of your preferred sexual techniques, shooting cops and beating women (this holds whether the rapper is male or female). Oh, I almost forgot, you need to rap about getting high, too.

This was not always so. In the late ‘80s, hip-hop enjoyed an explosion of creativity that ranged from alternative rappers (Arrested Development, Beastie Boys) to art rappers (P.M. Dawn, de la Soul) to metal rappers (Bodycount). But the seeds of hip-hop destruction were already sewn; 2 Live Crew’s controversial cursing was a clever step to the edge, and within a few years, industry-sponsored hip-hop dove headfirst toward the manure pile.

Country labels are notorious for imposing their recipes of success on up-and-coming acts. Only proven artists (Garth Brooks) and grassroots heroes (BR549) have a real shot at making the music they want.

Modern rock is also trapped in amber. The grunge movement of the late ‘80s was second-generation punk/garage inspired by the wide-ranging guitar driven music of ‘70s: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Kiss - and Rush. By the early ‘90s, grunge had grabbed rock by the throat, and it has yet to let go.

That is not to say there has not been evolution, or more correctly, devolution: Grunge was once a back-to-basics movement that could claim a fair amount of diversity, such as Nirvana or Helmet’s punk, Pearl Jam’s intricacy, Rage Against The Machine’s hip-hop fusion, Alice in Chains’ nihilism, Screaming Trees’ humor, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funk, Smashing Pumpkins’ mope, Stone Temple Pilots’ pop - quite a respectable list, and far from complete. But over the last decade, the variety has evaporated, leaving a sticky residue of what I like to call mope metal (“mopedal,” for short) - depressed, whiny and loud. Bands like Staind, Puddle of Mudd, and many others exemplify the sad state of affairs.

There are some exceptions, but these aren’t necessarily very good. The “Up with People,” clever pop-punk of a Lifehouse or Third Eye Blind makes its occasional appearance. The “death metal” of Godsmack or Tool, while more intricate than mopedal, still exhibits the range and flare of sumo wrestler playing center field. Creed, probably the most interesting act to come out of grunge since 1992, seems more muscle-bound with each new release, despite some triumphs (“One,” “Arms Wide Open,” “Who’s Got My Back Now”) along the way.

Even the jam bands, Grateful Dead-inspired “eclectics” like Dave Matthews and Phish, have a formula to follow, and some of their best work never crosses the airwaves because it strays from that formula.

Finally, and fortunately, we have the Acts That Just Won’t Die. Metallica strides into the music shop like a caveman every couple of years, smashing preconceived notions of what metal should sound like. Megadeth, Metallica’s bastard son, honors the Sabbath, producing retro metal delivered with a fiendish grin. Even Ozzy gets up off the sofa long enough to scream now and then.

When Bono isn’t wonking with treasury secretaries, U2 casually tosses together something more challenging - and better - than anybody else, again and again and again. Fellow post-punkers like the Cult and Midnight Oil sneak in an album occasionally, although these are often little noticed.

It seems clear we are at a time of musical stagnation. Again, this is not to say there is no good music out there. Lincoln Park mixes progressive rock and rap, while 3 Doors Down provides a bluesy roll with studder beats and Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 have grown from poser band to pop experimentalists. Will Smith tosses out his pop/rap nuggets between blockbuster movies, and soul sisters like Alicia Keys and Nellie Furtado breathe fresh air into the urban pop scene.

Still, the above mentioned stars shine so brightly precisely because of the vast expanses of darkness around them. While I proudly consider myself an aficionado of music across the spectrum of genres, in truth, my heart lies with progressive rock. And the dirth of entries for that noble title today makes radio listening not a joy, but a chore.

And so, it was with this background that I sat down last evening to listen to “Vapor Trails,” the new release from Rush.

A quick confession: From as far back as I can remember listening to music, I have been a devoted Rush fan. This fact would be bound to influence my review of any release from the trio. I include the detailed music assessment above partly to justify not only my review, but also to promote the wider concept of musical diversity - an escape from cut-and-dried industry hit formulas.

It’s typical to feel, well, uncertain, even unsettled, after a Rush album - there’s just so much there. “Vapor Trails” is no different. And like most Rush albums, it will probably grow in status as months and years of listening go by.

It all comes down to complexity. Like a symphony, even the careful listener misses things the first few times through. But the effort to appreciate is richly rewarded.

“Vapor Trails” is harder than anything from Rush since the ‘70s, yet still contains its softer moments. It’s difficult to compare to anything the rock scene presently offers. “Vapor Trails” is a return-to-roots effort that revels in pure virtuosity. Cuts contain the flavor of the original influences on Rush: Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and even the Beatles.

The album opens with the dinosaur, “One Little Victory.” Listeners could be excused for confusing it for a jacked-up Zeppelin outtake from the early ‘70s. The sheer density would make it a no-no as an opener for a less-established act. Rush makes it clear from the start they are pulling no punches.

Yet on the second track, the daisycutters are kept in the bay for the precision-guided riffs and dramatic pauses of “Ceiling Unlimited.” Lifeson’s ringing guitar and the uplifting melody intermixed with powerful blasts and a joyously running bassline make this song essential Rush, yet fresh and clean compared with almost anything heard on the radio today - a feeling which last overtook me when I first heard U2’s “Beautiful Day.”

“Ghost Rider” is a driving river of sound, pouring across rapids to small pools of tranquility before diving into the next batch of rocks. It almost has the feel of a stripped-down entry from the “Roll the Bones” sessions, with Lifeson’s sinewy guitar solo floating on top of the unrelenting flow of Peart’s drums and Lee’s bass.

“Peaceable Kingdom” puts Rush’s penchant for clever use of sonic dissonance to new and impressive effect, balancing the bombast with intricately melodic refrains, all over a, dare I say it, funk-influenced (“funky” would go too far) beat and bassline. The tactic of relieving the stress of banging guitar and drums with the soft fingers of lightly plucked strings over crisp drum/cymbol strokes and a bubbling bass makes this song an unlikely respite from the edgier power of the first few cuts.

Similarly, “The Stars Look Down” works the tightrope between chaos and compassion, but with shorter forays into the outer reaches of dissonance or syrup, keeping one foot in front of the other on the melody.

“How It Is,” the softest song on the album, is crisp and fresh like a cool spring morning. The Byrd-like flight can’t help but give the song a ‘60s feel, right down to the jangling guitars and lyrics dripping with belief in social justice.

Lifeson uses a brighter, more chimey guitar riff to open the title track, wafting the melody ahead, assisted by puffs of bass. The breaks open wind blasts from Peart’s drums. This is the song which would most fit into the last few albums the band has offered, and could have slipped into “Presto” almost seamlessly. Yet, the cleaner, simpler production give it an urgent feeling not found in those earlier works.

In similar fashion, Lifeson stretches his fingers for a woven intro to “Secret Touch” before someone pulls the nitro switch and the song roars across tumbling drums and tearing chords. Then, a stoplight. Lee stretches his vocals to lovely effect when the gears are in neutral, then cries above the rushing wind as the light goes green and the stick’s pulled.

“Earthshine” is quintessential Rush: You could see it fitting in almost anywhere on their discography - and it could actually contribute. If you didn’t guess, this is my early favorite. It’s all the reasons why the modern rock scene needs Rush, wrapped into one tight orbital. It’s hard; it’s soft; it’s in between; it’s complex; it’s simple; it’s powerful; it’s gorgeous. And has any band ever known how to end a song better than Rush?

“Sweet Miracle” shows off more of the softer side of Rush, yet with a pep and just enough growl to keep posers still in the closet about their love for melody comfortable. The weaving of guitar and bass are something to behold.

Peart rolls out the drums - almost echoing U2 from the “War” days - to open “Nocturne.” Lee shows he couldn’t quite keep his hands off the synthesizer, but the use is minimal, and so unexpected (this is the 11th track!) that the effect far outweighs the actual contribution. This song is a summer night set to music. Warmth, humidity, crickets, even the stars are there. And like most sleepless summer nights, it’s not all peaceful, as thoughts race in, pushing out the gentle darkness and racing down tangents of emotion. A hint: You never fall asleep.

Complexity back to the fore on “Freeze (Part IV of Fear).” By fits and starts, the trio carries you across a broken trail before taking intermittent water breaks at the clearings; while slurping down the cool refreshment, you notice the ground is rough here, too.

“Out of the Cradle” closes the album - 13 cuts strong - with a driving melody, complex interplay of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, thought-provoking lyrics, and a few surprises - just what you’d expect from three musicians who have entertained, uplifted and even educated fans for 30 years. Lifeson’s closing solo brings to mind the mysterious beauty of the humpback whale. A little humor on the coda keeps things light.

That’s the music in many words. In one, bravo.

Lifeson comes to the fore even more than in the last few albums. Peart is masterful but less in the spotlight, more behind the scenes. Lee’s unmistakable vocals are strong as ever, but here is where some criticism must be mentioned: he uses too many overlays - apparently a tact he continues from his recent solo album, “My Favorite Headache.” He’s best when his voice is an individual instrument intertwined with the virtuoso performances of guitar, drums and his own bass - which is probably the best in rock.

As already mentioned, keyboards have been almost totally eliminated, reducing the heady atmospherics and instead hitting right in the gut. The “airy” moments are provided almost totally by Lifeson’s guitar effects and Lee’s vocals.

Complexity is almost totally absent in today’s music; it is overwhelming to here it explode out of the speakers on hard tracks like “Ceiling Unlimited” and “Nocturne.”

Bass is also an almost forgotten instrument in the rock lineup at your local radio station. It is used for a little rhythm and extra noise. But when played with the dexterity of a Geddy Lee, it is a powerful, moving instrument that does as much to make a song as the guitar or drums.

Rush has never been a fave of the critics, despite regular delvings into philosophy, history and current events. The ol’ boys keep it closer to the vest on “Vapor Trails,” exploring personal relationships as much as cultural ones. Yet Peart’s clever crafting is once again thought provoking in ways which inevitably result in different interpretations for different people - something the critics say they love about U2’s lyrics. Famous reviewers will probably see little different in this Rush effort than what they have panned in the past, yet, by judging the band in isolation, they miss some of its greatest strengths. This album is a rainbow in a gray sky. Sure, still the same seven colors, but for gosh sake, compare it to the clouds, would ya?!

Will “Vapor Trails” get the airplay to show off its colors, or will the radio and music industry execs keep their sunglasses on and make sure this generation of rock listeners hears only shades of gray? It’s a tough call. But just as U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” has maintained chart ground and won Grammys with precious little airplay because it was just that good, “Vapor Trails” may well leave radio running to catch up when this generation of listeners - at least the third Rush has wooed - jumps at the freshness, life and depth this album encompasses.

Don’t wait for the industry to give its belated rubber stamp before you buy this one. Get it now.

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