Following Neil Peart’s well-documented double bereavement, and his protracted period of grieving and recovery (chronicled in part here on the track Ghost Rider here) it looked doubtful that Rush would ever perform together again. When he finally reunited with his bandmates, writing and recording for this, their 17th studio album, took 14 long months.
Uncharacteristically for the band, yet understandable given the circumstances, quality control slipped somewhat. While proud of the material, Rush were never entirely happy with how the finished product sounded. Unsympathetic mixing and mastering led to an over-abundance of compression and the loudness levels were pushed to the limit. At best, this produced an intensely powerful yet vaguely wearisome listening experience; at worst it was a harsh, rough-hewn wall of sound.
Earlier this year David Bottrill undertook this remix and remastering job, and the results are deeply satisfying. There are no major differences to any song content or running times, but we now get an album with more definition (How It Is, The Stars Look Down and Sweet Miracle all reveal greater detail and warmth), with noticeably less clipping or distortion on the guitars (listening to heavyweight opener One Little Victory ceases to be an endurance test) and greater dynamic contrast on almost every track – less noise and more room for the music to breathe.
Freed from such overly driven instrumentation, Peart’s lyrics, married to Geddy Lee’s voice, take on a greater poignancy – vocals for Nocturne, the title track, Ghost Rider and others seem more expressive. The different textures of Lifeson’s layers of guitars can be properly appreciated, and bass and drums sound more natural and less artificially forceful. During the instrumental breaks towards the end of Ceiling Unlimited, Rush came across as an ill-disciplined bar band, raucously battling each other to be heard. Now everything has its own space and suddenly what sounds suspiciously like a guitar solo appears, hopelessly submerged or completely missing formerly, adding an extra welcome bonus.
A hugely important album for the band, the remixed Vapor Trails is available as a standalone CD, and also takes pride of place within the seven-disc boxset The Studio Albums 1989- 2007 – all their Atlantic albums from Presto to Snakes and Arrows – also out now. Taken on its own merits, and in the context with their back catalogue, now it can be heard as the band intended Vapor Trails emerges as a more nuanced and, fittingly, more human album than Rush fans may remember.