With the stroke of a seasoned pro, a man gently paints the main foyer of the Anthem Records office in downtown Toronto. The walls are graced with plaques signifying music industry certifications from home and abroad, including the likes of alumni such as Van Halen, Queensryche, Max Webster, Coney Hatch, Extreme and of course Rush. I gaze attentively to see if the painter misses a beat and splashes a stream of white across a famous album graphic. But he's got a steady hand and these aren't moving pictures. Yours truly waits patiently before the rendezvous with Rush axe maestro Alex Lifeson. The last time we crossed paths was in 1996 during his first solo venture with a person named Victor (actually a project featuring Edwin, Dal Bello and Les Claypool) in his "Big Pink House" a half hour north of Toronto.
Some six years later, the original Rush studio output has been at a virtual standstill. The puzzling and uninspiring Test For Echo arrived just after Victor in 1996. In 1997, the compilation albums, Retrospective I and II, were issued to seemingly "replace" Chronicles and a year later came the massive 3CD live adventure, Different Stages.
That same year, drummer Neil Peart's life collapsed around him. His only child, Selena, passed away in August of 1997 from a tragic car crash. Then his wife, Jacqueline Taylor, passed away from cancer in June of 1998. He has since remarried and been revitalized (read 'Sweet Miracle' from Vapor Trails for Neil's newfound 'miracle of life'). We take a deeper look at the Peart tragedy later in the story. During the break, Rush fans also reveled in frontman Geddy Lee's impressive solo effort from 2001, My Favorite Headache.
But nearly six years later, we breathe a sigh of relief as Rush's 17th album, Vapor Trails, sees the light of day.
To begin, Lifeson comments on the workload (post-studio!) this time around given the era. "It's a little overwhelming. We've always done a lot of press before release but the workload this time around is three or four times what it's ever been before. As we've been away for five years, times have changed. The internet has become so much more important so there's a lot of website interviews that we do now. I think we've made a really good record and people are either surprised by it or very interested in it so it's just upped the amount of work."
But the pre-promo work saw Rush digging through the dirt in an attempt to regain an organic feel. And to the delight of some, Vapor Trails credits absolutely no keys. Not one synthesizer. Nary an organ to be found. It's the ripe but raw three-piece that's being celebrated: Lifeson and Lee trading off heavy licks for their life... that infamous nasal vocal swath... Peart's limbs extraordinary and air-drumming-inspiring like no other.
"Geddy knew that I had concerns about keyboards for a long time," he says contentedly, "and really over the last couple of records we've been using them less and less and less. They only appear as a backdrop and not like they were, uh (pauses)... that time (laughs and points at the Power Windows graphic that sits in front of me) for example."
I proceed to flip the album cover over!
"No, that's OK," Lifeson offers. "That was an important part of our career. It sounds great. But the keyboards were really such an enormous part of the sound and it's all a function of how we work at the time. With this record we really wanted to make it more organic, more three-piece, more what we are. Ged was open to that, which was great. It gave me the opportunity to explore areas of the guitar that I could use for textures. The sort of things that the keyboards used to do in the past. And I love that; it's fun to make that instrument sound unlike what it's supposed to sound."
While Rush has been on the backburner, Lifeson says that "for the last five years I've been playing a lot. I have a studio at home and I've been writing an awful lot. For me it's like going to the gym; it's all exercises. And I don't mean, when I say exercises, playing scales. It's exploring sound and what sound can do generated by a guitar. So, for me it wasn't really so much challenging as it was liberating. It really gave me a chance to pursue the stuff I like to do. I like coming in the back door and creating weird things. There's a dissonance to a lot of this record that is very appealing to the ear. It sounds like three or four guitars when in fact it's only one or two."
While Lifeson remains one of the most revered guitar legends in heavy rock, his head is in a different space these days, one where wailing solos fail to appease. He agrees that the guitar heroes of yesterday are virtually extinct.
"Well I think to a degree. I don't solo nearly as much as I used to. I think I have a solo on just about every song on every record that we made but I've gotten out of that for some reason. I love soloing and I think relatively and objectively I'm a good soloist when it comes to composition of solos. But for some reason on this record it just wasn't in my heart. There are a few but I just didn't find it as important. I thought it would be great if those "solo sections" were more a band solo section where we just get into an instrumental thing and we're all grooving and playing off each other. That was far more satisfying. This was a great platform for exploration for me for guitar. The guitars are loud on this record for sure and everything is. The bass is loud, the drums are loud, the guitar is loud. We managed to capture that and that's really what our goal was from the beginning. I tried to create guitar parts that were simple yet sounded more complicated or complex than they really were. I really got into this idea of guitar dissonance and playing across keys using keys that are usually against the wall and creating tension that way. Geddy's playing a lot of bass chords lately, and on this record and they become a little more dominant with all this other guitar noise in the background. To me it created a sense of depth and greater dimension by doing that. It was very interesting."
Vapor Trails is less complex than its predecessor, Test For Echo, a record that came and went quickly, and failed to catapult the band above their elevated yet somewhat "quiet" status. It fits nicely in the Roll The Bones/Counterparts era, but the appeal of the new one may be deeper for fans with a place left vacant due to a sad absence. But absence makes the heart grow fonder and with increased spins, Vapor Trails is uplifting and fulfilling.
"I think this really requires four or five listens before you get a sense of what it's about and where it's going," Lifeson explains. "I had the same reaction to the last Tool record when I got that. I love Tool; I listened to it once or twice and thought that the first few songs were great and then the middle gets a little weird for me and then the last few songs are great and it bugged me. It really bothered me a lot and I kept listening to it and listening to it and then I just didn't listen to it for a couple of weeks. I put it back on and thought, 'This album is great; I love this record.' I think all our stuff is like that but Vapor Trails definitely is like that, there's a lot of meat on dem bones. It really requires a commitment from the listener to get into it. For us that's what music is all about. In our music we like to challenge the listener and make it so that every time you put it on you hear something else or you get a different emotional reaction to a song you didn't have before. So many CDs now you put on and there are one or two good songs and the rest are truly filler. I think there are a lot of reasons for that and one of those reasons is that a lot of bands don't get the opportunity that we had for example, to make a lot of records, to learn your craft and get good at it before you move on or are dropped or whatever. A lot of deals now are one record or two record deals. That just doesn't exist anymore, that nurturing."
And with Peart's lyricism on an emotional high, the 13 tracks tend to free suppressed emotions and subsequently pull at the listener's heartstrings.
"Yeah, this record, to me, is very optimistic. It's really about recovery and it's about hope and it's about rebirth and moving forward. There are some dark moments, some sad moments, but generally it's really about those things that I just mentioned."
And Lifeson was "partially frustrated" with the amount of time spent on the "trails" as Rush's usual working template was amended.
"Well it's important to clarify in the beginning we would only take four to six months to make a record, six being really the outside. To spend 14 months on a record is a long, long time. But Geddy, after spending a year on his solo record, he really believed that we shouldn't have any deadlines. We've always been very anal about the way we work, you know, six weeks for writing, one week for drums, five days for bass, two weeks guitar, two weeks vocals, mix. It's always been like that.
Such a regiment sounds like a normal day job!
"Well, we look at it like that because then we know where we're supposed to be at any given time and it's finished and then we take three months off, then we hit the road. We've been doing that for decades and with this record he said 'I played so much with my songs and I could really see how they developed and how important it was to the growth of the material.' He said with this record we had to do the same thing, not worry about deadlines, take as long as it takes to work that way. I was antsy for the first couple of months. You know, I had that four month to six month thing in my head and it was three months before we even had anything written. By that point I realized that he was right: forget deadlines; this record is going to take as long as it takes. Even a song like 'Earthshine', which was the first song we wrote, that song was completely re-written. Even the lyrics were changed around. Musically it was a completely different song from what it was, and it was a complete song in the beginning. We had all the parts, the lyrics.., we worked it out, it was there. But there was something about it that just didn't rock us out."
Rush fans are impatient and frustrated as personal devastation, changing music business philosophies, family priorities and perhaps a little old(er) ages - within both band and fan - have conspired to force us to wait. In the '80s we saw six studio records ('80's Permanent Waves, '81's Moving Pictures, '82's Signals, '84's Grace Under Pressure, '85's Power Windows and '89's Presto). In the '90s that output was cut in half ('91's Roll The Bones, '93's Counterparts and '96's Test For Echo). Patience has certainly been a virtue, but the Peart tragedy had Rush fans focus their full attention on his healing process and support the band's decision to let time repair what it could, if it could.
"Well, I don't think that after Test For Echo the intention was to take a very long break. We enjoyed making Test; it was a very fun record to make, good vibe in the studio. The tour was great, doing the "Evening With..." was really a lot of fun for us. It gave us a chance to play stuff like '2112' in its entirety. The tour went really, really well. We were healthy through the whole thing and we got to the end of it fine. I think we were really planning on taking a relatively short break and then back in for the next record. No one could know that what happened would happen. How time has affected a band like us, I can't really say because it's not just time. It's not just the longevity, it's the impact of what happens in that time. Really, all of us questioned whether or not we'd make another record, if we would ever work again. When this all happened the band was the very last thing on our minds. I mean it just didn't seem appropriate to even think about it. Music's about celebration and there was no feeling of celebration at that time. I didn't play the guitar for over a year I think. And I play all the time. Neil didn't play his drums, obviously, for four years. A lot of things changed, it took a while to get out of that."
Lifeson elaborates on the unimaginable pain Rush was forced to deal with.
"You know, it's just your spirit - something - it just leaves. And you're so overwhelmed by the depth of the grief and the pain that you see, particularly in your friends, the pain that you feel, it changes you for sure, it changes you forever. You look at things a lot differently. I care in many different ways than I did then. I've always been a caring person and by nature I like to help people and I like to make people happy around me but that took it to another level. It gave me a sense of purpose. I've had a lot of sick friends lately and I don't know why it is but I deal with it so much better now."
"We didn't get involved in any of the sites or talk to anybody directly," the guitarist adds about the shell that was created and the reality that Rush could've been no more. "What happened happened and that was a personal thing. We love the support from our fans and it was beautiful to see their reaction to what had happened and their support but if it was never going to happen, if that was the end of it, so be it, that's the way life goes. You can't do anything about that. We do this for ourselves. We don't do this for our fans, per se, or we don't do it for the money, or we don't do it for those things. Before anything else we do it for ourselves. I think that's the great thing about our relationship with our fans. They expect us to do that. They expect us to make mistakes and they expect us to go to new territory. That's what they like about the relationship and it would be disappointing to them if it ever changed."
Peart's performance on Vapor Trails is at the very least highly inspiring; his is a true soul that has been reborn through courage and hope.
"Well, it was cathartic for him," the guitarist adds. "When we started in January of 2001 he drove back from his place in Quebec, along the same route that his daughter had the accident. As he approached Toronto it was a grey January late afternoon/early evening kind of day. The city's grey, it was rainy and slushy and the weight of everything just became too much. That was difficult for him, just that one thing and that was before we even started working. He had to work very hard to build up his strength and we gave him lots of time and space and support but it was really up to him to prove to himself that he could start his life over again. That's really what it was all about. By the end of the record, I won't say he was the same guy he was six years ago, but he was a lot stronger, he was a lot happier, he was more determined - he's a very determined, very strong person but all of that strength and determination was shattered. He's in the process of rebuilding and starting his new life."
Understandably Peart is quite distant from any type of promotional efforts. Meet 'n' greets on the forthcoming tour have stated that it will only be a Lee/Lifeson affair.
"If he doesn't want to talk to anybody I can understand completely because it's going to be very awkward. People are going to want to ask him questions about that so they're going to avoid asking him if it's a weird issue, which it would be. So, why bother? He's very private anyway, always has been. We talked about it before, when we finished the record, and he said to us, 'It's hard enough for me to even think about what happened, let alone talk to strangers about it, so please can I just not do that?' Of course. Don't even worry about it, don't even think about it."
As we move onto brighter topics, Lifeson joyfully addresses the band's forthcoming shed tour.
"It's the first time we've ever done a summer tour so it's basically going to be the sheds until the fall and then we'll do one leg of indoor shows. I'm looking forward to that because the Molson's gig is going to be outside, the middle of July. If it doesn't rain it's going to be beautiful and there's a little particular vibe to that whole thing. But at the indoor shows in the fall it's going to be so much more visually dynamic and dramatic I think. We're playing a lot of things for this tour, sonically and visually, a lot of great video stuff. We've been working with a couple of companies that are leading edge animation and they've got some great ideas. The stuff that we've seen has been mind-blowing so we're really excited about that. The show's going to have a really fresh new look to it. Howard Ungerleider has been our LD, lighting director, from the very beginning. He's got some great ideas for a new light system."
Any musical surprises?
"Well, nothing that I would talk about right now. Ged and I, a couple of weeks ago, went through all our records and listened to at least bits of every song, or of every song that we were interested in as candidates for the set list. We'll do "An Evening With..." again. We'll play for about three hours. But we've also decided to drop a lot of songs that we played for a long time that have been Rush classics and bring stuff in that we haven't played for a long time or at least that we haven't ever played. There are some songs that we can't get around like 'Tom Sawyer' or 'Spirit Of Radio'; they're great songs to play anyway so that's OK. But some songs you do get quite tired of playing over and over. It would be nice to challenge ourselves a little more with material that we haven't played, particularly the older stuff that we haven't played that was challenging to play even back then."
And to trawl through Rush's exhaustive catalogue is a chore in itself. As we close things up, Lifeson speaks about how Rush's music has held up over time.
"That's actually a really great question. My recollection of it was that things were a lot smaller and more amateurish in a way. When we listened to, well all of those old ones, Fly By Night, Caress Of Steel, Farewell To Kings particularly, Hemispheres, they stood up pretty well. They had lots of power and it was great energy and spirit in the playing. When you listen to something that you did 25 years ago, and you haven't heard it in 20 years, it was a real eye opening experience. We felt a lot better about our catalog at that point, we realized that some of these songs really improve with maturity. We'll approach and attack them a little differently than we did in our early 20s when we wrote these things. We'll definitely play them with a different sense of feel and rhythm and all of that."
Vapor Trails (Anthem/Universal)
They know what they are doing. Alex calls this an anti-guitar record. At the same time, there are no keyboards. What does that leave? Well, it leaves an album that I admire, and actually have played over and over again, for pleasure, or for sustenance, or for something to believe in, which I guess I do - believe in Rush that is - a concept inextricably tied to the concurrent wobbly play-off run by our gravely injured Leafs. Seems like they are both hometown institutions struggling and scoring 'One Little Victory' after another. And yes, they are all little. Vapor Trails is the work of a band that, even with the welcome abandonment of keyboards, is a small-ish power plant of modest exotic noises, not so much a power trio but maybe a ride 'em lawnmower. This sounds like three men sparking off each other, three very distinct talents creating jazzy loud alternative folk metal.
Peart is at his lyrical best, flipping the tarots on tragedy. He once thought he was wise and now he is. Furthermore, his drumming is compact, lively, playful and his kit sounds like a big hug. Geddy's vocals are versatile and so much his own franchise, and his bass is forthright, intrusive and often leading the perplexed songcraft through bass chords. Alex? Well, something else he's said is that he likes dissonance, noise and "going in through the back door." Like I say, he knows what he is doing, and he's a pretty thoughtful, deliberate guy. But what he's doing isn't always music, and he stubbornly, for maybe 15 years now has somewhat maintained fixation on a thin, tinny, tiny tone, a background role, the peripheral mathematician surveying the land with chalk-lines and them scope things on tripods. Thus we have three enigmas and a resulting trinity that no one else does - nor dare - sound like. They have specific tastes and these tastes are circuitous and elevated and eccentric. You've got Entwistle and Sting, Moon and Copeland, even Townshend and Summers (both kings of skronks, blurps and quirks in their respective decades), channeling like a six-pack through the frigid clime of a weathered version of Rush, one that is taking more time than they ever have piecing together a record (Alex also speaks of spontaneity, but pressed for details, there really wasn't much).
Very weird, but crafty, dense as three noiseniks can get but rewarding after beckoning battled interactions with the material. A busy pie of rhythm bees. Passionate, dark, hopeful, intelligent but frustratingly small-ish and as Alex happily admits, anti-guitar.
Martin Popoff .... 8