Neil Peart suffered unconscionable tragedy starting with the death of his daughter and only child in car accident on August 10, 1997. Ten months later, his common law wife of 22 years died of cancer, which Peart attributed more to a “broken heart”. After this double tragedy, Neil Peart set off on an extended road trip on his motorcycle and told his band mates that they could consider the band finished.
Geddy Lee stepped in to produce what was believed at the time would be Rush’s final album, a triple-live album titled Different Stages, released on November 10, 1998. Two-thirds of the album draws from shows performed 1994-97, while the third disc features a single show recorded in 1978. The album seemed to encapsulate the career of Rush and completed the fourth, and presumably final, four-studio, one-live phase of the band.
In 2000, Geddy Lee recorded and released his first (and only) solo album, My Favorite Headache, a further symbol that Rush was truly over as a band.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Peart had begun the healing process of getting back to a functional life, culminating with his marriage in late 2000. “I just needed to stop moving first” he claimed. Then in early 2001, he announced to Lifeson and Lee that he was ready to work with them again. Over the course of 14 months, the band painstakingly worked in Toronto on what would be their first studio album in six years. The resultant effort, Vapor Trails was finally released in
May 2002, armed with a raw and powerful sound.
This would be the first album since their very early efforts to not include a single keyboard or synthesizer. Also, guitar effects and lead parts were all but eliminated in order to further pursue the desired raw sound. This album also signaled a return to excellence for Rush. Unlike the majority of their 1980s and 1990s albums, Vapor Trails had a completely fantastic track listing which rocks in a huge way both lyrically and musically. Lyrics such “…culture is the curse of the thinking man…” in “Ceiling Unlimited” show the return to depth and thought in this album. Songs like “Ghost Rider” directly deal with Peart’s tragedy and the time he spent on the road trying to overcome his grief.
Lee’s bass highlights another of the albums stand out tracks, “Secret Touch”, which would become a favorite in the live act once that resumed, while Lifeson’s guitar work is on full display on many other tracks such as “The Stars Look Down” and “How It Is”.
But the true hero on Vapor Trails is Neil Peart. He dually shines through with his precise drumming and demon-exercising lyrics. Right from the jump on the opener “One Little Victory”, he plays with a spit-at-the-devil fearlessness and confidence. This was obviously a very cathartic album for Peart and it launched Rush into the next great phase of their career. If Presto was a virtual comeback for the band musically going into the 1990s, Vapor Trails is a literal comeback from the dead in the new millennium.
The band returned to the road in June 2002 and were admittedly more nervous than they’ve been since their first big gig in Pittsburgh some 28 years earlier. “It wasn’t lost on us that getting to that part was almost impossible,” said Lee of the occasion. Once they got on stage however, everything was back to, and perhaps better than ever before. The following year, Rush released a live CD/DVD that put on full display the fact that they were still a force on stage as they performed before 60,000 rabid fans in Brazil for Rush In Rio.
In 2004, Rush launched their 30th anniversary tour along with a first for the band – an EP of cover songs that had influenced them in their youth called Feedback. It featured Rush performing songs by The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Yardbirds, Cream, Blue Cheer, and Love. The subsequent tour featured shows that were a three hour bonanza of songs from practically every album, including an opening instrumental medley that touched on songs from each of their first seven albums. Having attended two shows from this tour, I can state emphatically that Rush, with their members now aged in their fifties, was at their absolute peak during this tour. Then, in yet another act of pure amazement, Rush did something even more remarkable.
With their 2007 studio album Snakes & Arrows, Rush put out an album that easily surpassed anything they had done in the past quarter century. One would have to roll back all the way to Moving Pictures to find an album of such stratospheric quality from end to end. The album contained an unprecedented three instrumental pieces that were spread among a catalog of fine, thoughtful, and musically superb songs.
“Far Cry” opens the album hard and fast, with multiple parts and dark yet poetic lyrics and pristine musicianship as good as on any regular song back in the day. This is followed by the fantastic “Armor and Sword”, a song with a deep and moving message that is multi-part and gets the message across very well with harmonized vocals and an exciting, drum fueled battle scene accented by a straight-forward riff by Lifeson.
The diversity of the album is on display back to back with “The Larger Bowl”, and almost all acoustic Pantoum, with lyrics arranged and rearranged through a set formula, and “Spindrift”, a heavy and doomy song with sharp and unique music that makes it absolutely beautiful in its desperation.
“The Main Monkey Business” is the best of the three instrumentals, as it migrates through multiple sections before building frantically towards a crescendo later on. The other two instrumentals are “Hope”, a solo acoustic piece by Lifeson and “Malignant Narcissism”, a short but entertaining piece with small bits of virtuoso that harken back, just a bit to “YYZ”.
The second half of the album is just as interesting and entertaining. “The Way the Wind Blows” is a truly excellent song with some of the finest vocal work by Lee on this or many other albums. It also contains some brilliant lead and rhythm guitar work by Lifeson, which then dissolves into a calm acoustic section during the chorus. “Bravest Face” is another unique and entertaining song, with calm, bluesy sections interlaced with heavy, riff-driven, and acoustic sections. “Good News First” may actually be the finest of the bunch on an album stuffed with fine material. This song contains an uplifting and yet melancholy message with lyrics like; “…time, if anything will do it’s worst, so do me a favor, tell me the good news first…” This song carves out an even greater spot in Rush’s renowned discography.
Snakes & Arrows is truly a masterpiece of modern rock. The song “Workin’ Them Angels” relives a drive back through time, listening to the “soundtrack of your life” along the way, complete with diverse sections by the three-piece band, including another first – a mandolin solo by Lifeson. Rush has stood the test of time, which is really the only true test when judging a band’s quality.
UPDATE: Rush released their 20th studio album in June 2012. Read the Album Review by J.D. Cook