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Survivor music

by Brian Aberback

Rush is one of the few bands that has been around nearly 30 years without undergoing a lineup change, a fact that's allowed the Canadian trio to become one of rock's most cohesive units.

But the band's latest release, "Vapor Trails," and the accompanying tour, which hits Continental Arena in East Rutherford on Wednesday, are about more than mere musical expertise.  They can also be seen as testaments to the band's perseverance and friendship offstage.

For much of the past five years, Rush was in limbo following a double-tragedy that befell drummer Neil Peart.

In August 1997, Peart's 19-year-old daughter and only child, Serena Taylor, was killed in a car accident.  Ten months later, Peart's wife, Jacqueline Taylor, died of cancer.

"The band just didn't matter at all," guitarist Alex Lifeson said from a tour stop in Montreal.  "The first thing we had to deal with was helping Neil live again.  His recovery was very slow and very painful."

Lifeson and bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee were at Peart's side for support.  Even as the months following the death of Peart's wife turned to years, Lee and Lifeson never pressed the drummer as to when or if he would want to play again, though they did decide that Rush wouldn't go on without him.

"There wasn't much point in speculating at the time," said Lifeson, 49.

Peart, mired in a deep depression, embarked on a 14-month motorcycle journey across North America, while Lifeson kept busy by scoring music for television and producing a CD by the Pennsylvania band Lifer.  Lee recorded his first solo album.

Fans speculated whether they'd seen the end of one of rock's most prolific bands.  Lifeson and Lee formed Rush as teenagers in Toronto in 1969; Peart joined shortly after the band released its self-titled debut in 1974.  Through the years, the band has recorded a number of classic rock anthems, including "Tom Sawyer," "Limelight," and "Spirit of Radio."

In the summer of 2001, Peart called on his bandmates.

"We met and he said, 'I don't know if I can do this or not, but I'd like to give it a try,'" Lifeson said.  "And that's basically what we did.  We booked a small studio, and we made it very comfy and homey."

The band spent the next 14 months writing and recording "Vapor Trails."  Released by Atlantic Records in May, Rush's 17th studio album has been praised by many critics and fans as the group's best work in a decade.

The collection's raw energy and emotion stand out, no doubt inspired by the tragedies that preceded it.  The organic feeling can also be attributed to Rush's dropping keyboards and synthesizers for the first time since the early Seventies.

"Keyboards always sound too two-dimensional," Lifeson said.  "This album had to be about passion and emotion."

The first sound on the new album, fittingly, is a solo drum rhythm.  Right off the bat, Peart makes it clear he hasn't lost a step.  The first song is also symbolic: "One Little Victory" talks about taking risks, celebrating the moment, and "a spirit breaking free."  Peart, as always, wrote all the lyrics, and many are personal.

During the recording sessions, Peart also wrote a book about his motorcycle journey, "Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road" (ECW Press, 2002).

"He's very private," Lifeson said of Peart.  "For him to be open on the lyrics, and write the book, was quite a remarkable thing."

Rush hit the road this summer and has played more than 50 gigs to date, performing a career-spanning three-hour show consisting of two sets and an intermission.

Lifeson said the tour has been a highlight of his career.

"Having gone through the whole thing with Neil, and coming back and making a record that we feel strongly about, and to be on the road when touring these days is [economically] difficult, it's really a fabulous, rewarding feeling."

Originally published in the Herald News, West Patterson, NJ on 11.01.02.