Despite their classic string of early-'80s rock smashes, Rush are not really about hit singles. Which means "One Little Victory," the lead track from their 17th and latest album, Vapor Trails (Atlantic), is more of a quick primer on where the band are today than a serious attempt at getting radio play. Nevertheless, it has gotten some love on the airwaves (not bad for three unfashionable hard-rock dudes pushing 50), and its earth-shaking bombast is evidence of the group's undiminished skills and energy. The track opens the way every Rush fan would want it to: with a scorching double-bass-drum pattern from Neil Peart, the kind that makes you scratch your head and tap your toes at the same time. Alex Lifeson's guitar is next, reflecting the band's age-old love for Zeppelin with its dark colors and steady rhythmic drive. Geddy Lee's itchy bass completes the puzzle, and before the first verse even starts, the trio are tossing off odd time changes and cagy melodic embellishments. It's the sound of one of rock's all-time greatest bands surging ahead - and if it all sounds a bit nerdy, well, that's the way they (and Rush fans of all ages) like it.
The group's huge cult following always salivates at the thought of a new Rush album, but Vapor Trails is the trio's most eagerly awaited disc in years, since for the first time ever their future was in real doubt. The trouble started soon after the release of their '96 album, Test for Echo (Atlantic), when Peart's daughter died in a car accident. The following year, his wife died of cancer, and he decided to stop playing music for a while. With the band on hiatus, Lee released his first solo disc, My Favorite Headache (Atlantic), and Lifeson did some production work. Two years ago, however, Peart remarried and started playing drums again. Before long, the trio were back in the studio, and now they're on tour for the first time in five years - they'll be at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield on Friday July 12.
As grim as the situation was, the happy ending always seemed inevitable. Because more than any other classic-rock group, Rush cannot break up - ever. Bands dissolve for a lot of reasons; clashing egos, road-weary burnout, and complacency are some of the more common causes. Members die, or find God, or steal one another's girlfriends. Or call it quits as soon as they fall out of fashion. No one knows exactly what goes on behind the music, but to the average fan, Rush have never been faced by those problems. In their case, rock-star excess gave way to science-fiction fantasies and down-to-earth family life, the whims of the pop marketplace to concept albums and experimenting with the latest recording technology. If Led Zeppelin were the most Dionysian of all rock groups, Rush are the genre's great stoics. Maybe someday they can make like the Ramones and retire, but they can't just quit.
The cool thing about '70s prog-rock is that it's always waiting to be discovered. You can be too cool to like Rush for years, and with no consequences, but as soon as you get into them, you'll find a huge community of rock geeks waiting to embrace you. The biggest rewards are more anti-social in nature: spend some time alone with the 20-minute title track to the band's legendary '76 rock opera, 2112 (PolyGram), and you'll find yourself launched into an exciting fantasy world of syrinxes and power chords. Peart's narrative pretensions aren't exactly The Lord of the Rings - but hey, it's only rock and roll, and the band kick harder than they're often given credit for.
The other great thing about Rush is that their evolution has been slow and steady - which makes it fun to trace from album to album. They stopped making concept albums when the '80s hit, instead cramming all their philosophizing and complicated riffs into regular five-minute pop songs. The rock-radio staples "Tom Sawyer" and "The Spirit of Radio" are their finest moments: here they fuse their proto-metal dexterity with new-wave-influenced pop smarts. They went gonzo for synthesizers on the genius '82 single "Subdivisions," which ushered in a high-concept phase that exchanged power for melody and lasted the rest of the decade.
Rush switched record companies for the first time in '89, when they released the back-to-basics rock disc Presto on Atlantic. I started collecting their albums around the same time, like any other burgeoning rock nerd about to enter high school. My favorite from that period is Roll the Bones (Atlantic), a raw pop disc from '91 with one flashy instrumental ("Where's My Thing?") and a corny rap on the title track that's as endearing as it is awkward. Two years later they grunged out on Counterparts (Atlantic), which felt more like a successful reintegration of the heaviness of their early days than a cheap commercial cash-in. As a young classic-rock fan, I found it fun to hear to hear a legendary band pushing forward instead of just regurgitating the hits.
The point is that getting into Rush is a rock-and-roll rite of passage, and they're unique among classic-rockers in that whenever you discover them, they're bound to have a decent new album out to complement masterpieces like 2112 and Moving Pictures (PolyGram). Anyone who's new to the Rush fold will have a field day with Vapor Trails, and long-time fans will be pleased to hear them rebounding with such authority. Beyond its jaw-dropping first minute, "One Little Victory" is tender and tricky, with Lee's vocals reaching toward the stratosphere and Lifeson's guitar flexing its blues-based muscle. Peart conveys a familiar optimism in his lyrics, but the song never quite breaks into the full-blown chorus it hints at. The initial adrenaline rush keeps building until you realize that it's all a big tease - one that will leave most Rush fans begging for more.
More is what they'll get on the rest of the 67-minute disc, which explores a dizzying variety of textures and finds Peart emerging from his trials with his head on his shoulders and his heart on his sleeve. The probable second single and only real pop move is "Sweet Miracle," a lilting redemption song that recalls the unplugged Counterparts track "Nobody's Hero." That one was a tribute to a friend who died of AIDS; this one is about finding love in a time of sorrow, with an uncharacteristically moving vocal performance by Lee. The old knock that Rush are cold and dispassionate has always been exaggerated, and it definitely isn't true here.
Peart is ostensibly expressing the exuberance he felt at surviving his tragic ordeal on "Sweet Miracle." The haunting "Ghost Rider" is a more literal description of the cross-country motorcycle trip he took during the band's hiatus. "Shadows on the road behind/Shadows on the road ahead/Nothing can stop you now," Lee sings, once again summoning his voice to the heights of old. Peart still has a taste for literary aphorisms: "The greatest act can be one little victory" is the most prominent one on the disc, and he namechecks three paragraphs' worth of authors in the "Making of Vapor Trails" essay he wrote for rush.com. But experience has made him a less guarded lyricist, and his tone is as uplifting as it's ever been.
The shapeshifting "How It Is" is Rush's answer to U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle," a positive-thinking mantra for a friend who can't see past tough times. "It's such a cloudy day/Seems we'll never see the sun/Trapped by the desperation/Between how it is and how it ought to be," sings Lee over a stirring acoustic-guitar backdrop. Peart hits his stride as a lyric writer on "Vapor Trail," which eulogizes his fading memories with an evocative jumble of scientific metaphors and some of the most athletic rhythmic interplay on the album. Lifeson interrupts an eerie falsetto trip by Lee with a terrifying Zeppelin riff on "Secret Touch," a galloping rocker that embraces both dissonance and sentimentality.
If that sounds like a lot to digest, it is, and Vapor Trails does feel too dense in places. Whereas Rush's '90s work was produced by seasoned pop guys Peter Collins and Rupert Hine, the new disc was produced by the band and veteran engineer Paul Northfield, and it could sound more focused. Lifeson in particular seems obsessed with cramming as many cool guitar parts as possible into each song - sometimes he should've just plugged in and turned up. Lee has better luck with his vocal overdubs, which are more prominent than usual and account for some of the album's most engagingly subtle hooks.
The most exciting thing about Rush is listening to them explore different ways of playing together. And after all these years, it's good to hear them still coming up with new ideas. Most of their contemporaries - and even bands far younger than they - have been cranking out "latest and greatest" collections on crappy little specialty labels for so long that it's become standard practice for any rock group who predate grunge. There's been a negative connotation to the progressive-rock tag at least since the days of the Sex Pistols. But Rush take it literally, and that's why they're the masters of the form.
Rush perform on Friday July 12 at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield. Call (617) 228-6000.