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After the recording of Test for Echo, Rush drummer Neil Peart was struck by tragedy, opting him to take a leave of absence from the band for an indeterminate period of time. In the meantime, bassist Geddy Lee went and recorded a solo album and guitarist Alex Lifeson went and….well, got older (he may have had a side project in there as well, I can’t remember). But Peart did return, and the band celebrated this by recording a back-to-their-roots rock record, the first album to not utilize synthesizers since the mid-70’s.
But what is a comeback album without a few misleading claims? Indeed, there are no synthesizers used on Vapor Trails. It’s a very heavy, guitar-driven hard rock record that’s a bit too straightforward to be considered progressive, but it’s not a flash from the past. Just as Rush’s earliest hard rock was appropriate for the era in which it was recorded (the 70’s), Vapor Trails sounds like what it is: a hard rock album released in 2001. So those who were disappointed by the hard alternative sound forged on the band’s 90’s albums shouldn’t get their hopes up because this sounds just like those did. However, the Rush playing on this album is a band refreshed, much unlike the Rush pre-hiatus. The revived Peart delivers one of his strongest performances in years, while Lee and Lifeson’s guitars crunch harder than ever (that “One Little Victory” intro riff is huge). The material is not intricate by any means, but it’s clear that the creative juices are once again flowing. Lifeson’s riffs are interesting, Peart is vibrant, Geddy Lee is Geddy Lee, things are good.
The album tends to be heavier than most of the band’s records, with lyrics bathed in optimism instead of pretension (there’s plenty of spiritual mumbo-jumbo too, as well as a glimpse into Peart’s catharsis). There’s a little Alice in Chains in here, a little Soundgarden, and, my god, a little bit of Rush too. Indeed a lot of the better musical ideas occur during the subdued moments, where Lee and Lifeson harmonize as beautifully as they ever have. Once again, we find Alex Lifeson being a bit too modest with his soloing, but his rhythm technique makes up for it a bit. All in all it’s just a solid, albeit long, Rush album; the only problem being that it’s a modern Rush album, making it far inferior to those of their heyday.
But considering the age of the band, the direction they were heading prior to this, and the personal tragedies of Peart, it’s a miracle that this thing is listenable at all. The fact that it’s quite good is even harder to believe, but it’s quite the case here. It won’t be an immediate favorite for fans coming off a steady diet of their classic material (in fact, it probably won’t be a favorite at all), but with the right perspective, it’s clear that it is an honest, consistent album from a band that a lot of people had written off as spent. Perhaps not the comeback album you might have been hoping for, it is nonetheless reasonable for what it is.