Ernest Hemingway once described courage as "grace under pressure." Rush drummer Neil Peart liked the phrase so much that he used it as the title of the band's 1984 album. Now, having experienced devastating family tragedy and a subsequent rebirth, Peart has become the living definition of courage.
In 1997, the drummer's 19-year-old daughter died in a car accident. The following year, his wife Jackie passed away from cancer. At that point, Rush had just released their third multi-disc live album, Different Stages, and the band took an extended hiatus to allow Peart time to heal.
Now, five years after their last studio record, Test for Echo, the Canadian power trio have completed their 17th album Vapor Trails, due May 14. The disc was produced by Rush singer/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and Peart and engineered by Paul Northfield (Marilyn Manson, Hole). With Northfield's help, Rush have created their most insistent and organic record in years.
Vapor Trails is loaded with Rush trademarks Lee's deft bass playing and high, nasal vocals; Lifeson's crisp, ringing guitars; and Peart's extraordinarily precise drumming. But the band's interest in adapting to the times is notable.
The first single, "One Little Victory," owes more to the new breed of alterna-metal than to the prog rockers of yesteryear. The song starts with marching drums and aggressively churning guitars before shifting into a melodic, modern anthem colored with layered vocals and an undercurrent of wailing guitars. The lyrics of the chorus, "Celebrate the moment as it turns into one more/ Another chance at victory, another chance to score," sum up the flavor of the record.
Instead of dwelling on past tragedy, lyricist Peart is determined to reflect on what he has learned, embrace the present and prepare for the future. Songs like the road tune "Ghost Rider," which seems to be about the yearlong motorcycle road trip he made around North America to regain his sanity, is about as close as he comes to grief. "Carry all those phantoms through bitter wind and stormy skies/ ... Show me beauty, but there is no peace for the ghost rider."
Elsewhere, Peart reflects about the way life ebbs and flows between elation and depression, but he never feels sorry for himself. On "How It Is," he writes, "There's a little trap that sometimes trips up everyone when we're tired of our own company/ Sometimes we're the last to see beyond the day's frustrations/ That's how it is, how it's going to be."
Peart's recovery was sped up after he fell in love again and married his second wife in 2000. He chronicles the experience on "Sweet Miracle": "I wasn't walking on water, I was standing on a reef when the tide came in/ Swept beneath surface, lost without a trace, no hope at all/ Oh, sweet miracle, love, sweet miracle of life."
Musically, Vapor Trails is less complex and progressive than Test for Echo, which overflowed with acrobatic playing and eye-popping rhythm and tempo changes. It's probably the most organic disc the band has recorded since 1991's Roll the Bones. Even Peart overlooks his trademark drum gymnastics in favor of stark, steady beats.
Rush plan to support Vapor Trails with a major North American tour in late June. The shows will be the band's first since July 1997.