Many creative people — be they painters, poets, or piano players — look back at their older work and see things they wish they had done differently. Most just don’t do anything about it. But with Vapor Trails Remixed, Rush are fixing what they regard as one of the biggest mistakes of their forty-five year career.
Released in 2002, Rush’s Vapor Trails was the album neither the band nor their fans thought they’d ever hear, as it came after personal tragedies in 1997 and ’98 left drummer Neil Peart so shaken that he took off on his motorcycle with no sense of when, or even if, he might return (a journey he painfully recounted in his book Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road). Thankfully, though, Peart recovered and rejoined his mates to record the songs that would eventually constitute Vapor Trails.
But while that album was enthusiastically received by the band’s fans, some took issue with the disc’s overall sound, which they felt was so loud that it distorted the music.
And by “some,” I also mean the guys in the band, especially singer, bassist, keyboardist Geddy Lee, who recently told Rolling Stone, “We overcooked it. The mixes were really loud and brash. The mastering job was harsh and distorted.”
Jump ahead seven years, to Rush’s 2009 best-of collection, Retrospective III: 1989-2008. In putting it together, the band asked Richard Chycki — who had previously mixed their 2005’s live album and video R30 and their 2007 studio album Snakes & Arrows — to re-mix the Vapor Trails songs “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” for that collection. The result of which gave the guys in the band an idea…
Which is how we get to Vapor Trails Remixed. Unlike an album of remixes like you might get from nine inch nails, this is a complete reworking of the 2002 album’s overall sound. It’s kind of like if you took your car apart, cleaned all the parts, repainted things mostly the same color, and then put it all back together and, in doing so, made it run better. Vapor Trails Remixed isn’t a complete reinvention of the Vapor Trails album, but it’s also not just a better sounding version of the original album.
This isn’t to say Vapor Trails Remixed doesn’t sound better than Vapor Trails. It does. Especially if you listen to it on a good stereo and not a crappy MP3 player with some cheap earbuds.
But even if you do listen to it that way, you’ll notice a couple differences between this version and the original, as some songs have previously unheard bits, while others have sections that are either more prominent or more dialed back. “Ceiling Unlimited,” for instance, has a totally different guitar solo, “The Stars Look Down” adds some harmonizing vocals, while “One Little Victory” adds some new vocals over a different guitar part.
Even on the rest of the disc, Remixed may sound better, but not in the way a reissue of a classic album usually does. If you listen to one of your favorite albums after it’s been digitally remastered (and they did a good job), it’s like listening to it on a good stereo after years of only hearing it on a crappy MP3 player with some cheap earbuds.
But on Remixed, such songs as “Secret Touch” don’t just sound better, they sound different, less slick, less produced, and, most importantly, less distorted. It’s kind of like listening to it on a good stereo at a reasonable volume after years of only hearing it on a good stereo that was so loud that everything got all distorted and messy sounding. This is especially noticeable in songs that have acoustic guitars, since the lack of polish makes these instruments sound more wooden.
There is, however, one aspect of Vapor Trails Remixed that bothers me: its existence at the expense of the original. While you can buy the album on its own, it’s also available in the new boxed set, The Studio Albums: 1989-2007. But that collection doesn’t have the original version as well, and there’s no indication whether the original edition will or will not still be available on its own going forward (its current availability on Amazon not withstanding).
And while yes, it is their album, and their boxed set, and they can do to it whatever they want to it, trying to pretend that the original version of Vapor Trails never happened doesn’t work for me…especially since it’s sitting right there in my CD rack.
Of course, that has nothing to do with whether or not you, as a big Rush fan, should buy this album. The answer to which can be easily determined by whether the original is in your CD rack as well. If it isn’t, don’t bother. If you hated these songs before, this new mix won’t change your mind (unless, of course, you only hated the original for sounding distorted). It’s isn’t even as different as, say, hearing a song live vs. the studio version.
But if you are a fan of the original, Vapor Trails Remixed is, at best, how this album should’ve sounded to begin with, or, at the very least, an interesting alternative to the distorted and overly-slick original.