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  • About Vapor Trails

    About Vapor Trails

    By Neil Peart

    "Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire."

    I found those words on the wall of a bar in Montana, attributed to somebody named Reggie Leach. It seemed an unlikely place to find inspiration, but I carried it away with me, and thought of it more than once during the making of this latest Rush album.

    On a cold Monday morning in January of 2001, Geddy, Alex, and I gathered at a small studio in Toronto to start work again. It had been almost five years since Test For Echo, but after twenty-seven years and sixteen studio albums together, we were hopeful that the chemistry among us could be awakened once more, the fire rekindled. Deep down we were a little apprehensive-would we really be able to put together enough songs that we liked to fill a new album?

    Always a burning question, and more so this time, when so much life had flowed beneath our bridges. Also, in the past few years both Geddy and Alex had produced their own projects, for themselves and for others, and each of them was used to being the Supreme Boss of Everything. For many reasons, the process of meshing again had to be gradual, exploratory, and careful.

    We laid out no parameters, no goals, no limitations, only that we would take a relaxed, civilized approach to this project. No hurry, no pressure, no marathon stints in the studio (at first anyway); we would simply keep working, day after day, trying to strike sparks from each other and feed the slow-burning fire of collaboration and mutual inspiration.

    Per our usual pattern, Geddy and Alex started working together on musical ideas in the studio`s control room, while I retreated into another little room with pen, paper, and computer to start trying to assemble lyrics. I began by going through my "scrapyard" of jotted notes and phrases I had collected, looking for connections to stitch together, while Geddy and Alex began by simply playing, setting up a rhythm machine and jamming along with guitar and bass.

    After a couple of weeks I had put down a few lyrics to pass over to them, but it seemed they weren`t ready to get serious yet-they just wanted to "play." Sometimes I would take a break from wordsmithing and go down the hall to have a bash at my drums in the main recording room, and I would pass the control room where the two of them were working. Usually I heard them riffing away, exploring some interesting directions and recording everything, but there weren`t any songs yet.

    We would talk at the beginning or end of the day, and I knew the two of them were starting to get excited about their explorations, but didn`t want to stop for the relatively tedious job of listening through all those raw ideas and choosing the best ones to assemble into a coherent structure.

    For myself, once I had a half dozen lyrics finished I began to feel a little unsure how to proceed. I wanted to know which ones might be "working" for them, to receive some feedback, and some influence, from where they were going musically. So I stopped lyric-writing for awhile, and started writing a book instead. (As one does.)

    Eventually Geddy began to sift through the vast number of jams they had created, finding a verse here, a chorus there, and piecing them together. Often a pattern had only ever been played once in passing, but through the use of computer tools it could be repeated or reworked into a part. Since all the writing, arranging, and recording was done on computer, a lot of time was spent staring at monitors, but most of the time technology was our friend, and helped us to combine spontaneity and craftwork. Talk was the necessary interface, of course, and once Geddy and Alex had agreed on basic structures, Geddy would go through the lyrics to see what might suit the music and "sing well," then come to me to discuss any improvements, additions, or deletions I could make from my end.

    Gradually the songs began to come together, "Out Of The Cradle" among the first, along with "Vapor Trail," "The Stars Look Down," and "Earthshine." That last is notable for being the only Rush song I can recall that was later completely rewritten, keeping the same lyrics but replacing every single musical part. "Cradle" also underwent some serious surgery as time passed, and that was the kind of relaxed approach we were taking, allowing us to reexamine songs with the luxury of perspective, and repair or replace any parts that didn`t survive that test of time. Sometimes a developing song seemed to lose momentum, or our faith (the critical force), and was abandoned, but that had always been our version of "natural selection."

    Once I had the reassurance of knowing that some of the lyrics were working, and had a feel for the musical context, I carried on with the lyric writing. And switching to my "drummer" hat, now that I had some song sketches to work on I started spending a few nights a week creating and refining drum parts, playing along to the still-evolving arrangements of music and vocals as my guide. Alex was my personal producer and recording engineer, as he had been for this phase of many past albums.

    More songs came together too, like "Secret Touch," "Sweet Miracle," and "How It Is," and as often happens, once we had a few songs finished that we liked, the newer ones started to get weirder. Daring grows out of confidence (or what the ancient Greeks called "hubris," I guess), and from this combination came "One Little Victory," "Ceiling Unlimited," and "Nocturne."

    By that time we had been working on our own for about six months, and felt we had enough material to benefit from an "objective ear," a coproducer. Paul Northfield had worked with us as recording engineer on albums going back to Moving Pictures and Signals in the early eighties, and on several live records over the years (as well as my Buddy Rich tributes), but this was the first time we had worked with him in a more creative capacity. We wanted someone who knew us and our music well enough to make a shortcut straight into the composing and arranging area, for there were still more songs to be written and organized, and make a transition from there straight to recording.

    That was an important difference in the way we made this record, compared to any in the past. We used to spend a period of time working on the songwriting, arranging, and our individual parts, then do some last-minute preproduction work with a coproducer before moving to a big-time studio to start the "official" recording. The pressure this imposed on us could be productive, and in particular I found that it could often drive me to a level of performance I hadn`t reached before, but this time we wanted to do it differently-more gradually, with more time for revision and renovations.

    Some of the songs had been worked on over a period of months by that time, and were ready to record, while others were still under development, and a few hadn`t even been written yet. So for the first time we were able to simultaneously work on writing new songs, arranging older ones, and recording finished performances on the ones we were "satisfied" with. Geddy had been able to record the vocals on his own, and Alex the guitars, experimenting and layering to their hearts` content, and some of those performances would remain irreplaceably right. In each case we were "leap-frogging" ahead, improving our individual parts and discussing changes, then responding to the work the others had done on their own. After so many years of playing together we intuitively understood each other musically, and even if we worked in isolation, we were working together.

    Paul`s influence was strong through this phase, for he could help us judge the performances as "finished" or "not yet," and he saw possibilities that sometimes escaped us (urging "Ghost Rider" from the verge of abandonment to its glorious realization, for example). He also encouraged our "eccentricities" in the later-emerging songs like "Freeze" and "Peaceable Kingdom."

    By then certain common musical themes had emerged, like a "veiled complexity" in the parts and arrangements (the drum parts for "Freeze" and "Peaceable Kingdom" took me days to work out and refine, for example). Alex`s particular agenda steered us away from the use of keyboards or guitar solos, and Geddy experimented with multi-tracked backing vocals as textural alternatives. Lyrically, no overall concept emerged, but I can trace some interesting sources for particular lines, like Walt Whitman in "Out Of The Cradle" and Thomas Wolfe in "How It Is" ("foot upon the stair, shoulder to the wheel") and "Ceiling Unlimited" (Wolfe`s title Of Time And The River and looking at a map of the Mississippi Delta suggested the "winding like an ancient river" lines). "Ceiling Unlimited" also offers a playful take on Oscar Wilde`s reversal of the Victorian lament, "drink is the curse of the working class," while Joseph Conrad`s Victory gave the "secret touch on the heart" line. "There is never love without pain" echoed from my own experience and the novel Sister Of My Heart, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and W.H. Auden and Edward Abbey (Black Sun) influenced certain lines in "Vapor Trail."

    An article in the magazine "Utne Reader" called "What Do Dreams Want?" contributed to my ideas in "Nocturne" (as well as the enigmatic mantra, "the way out is the way in," for "Secret Touch"), and I was also struck by a psychologist`s approach to analysis and dream interpretation, "without memory or desire."

    The nineteenth-century Quaker folk artist, Edward Hicks, painted no less than sixty versions of the same biblical scene, "Peaceable Kingdom," and the tarot card "The Tower" seemed a chilling reflection of the events of September 11, 2001. A series of works by Canadian painter Paterson Ewen helped to inspire "Earthshine," and the title of a novel by A. J. Cronin, The Stars Look Down (which I`ve yet to read), seemed to express a fitting view of an uncaring universe.

    In the self-contained universe of our work, everything had been going very smoothly, and it was only when we moved into the final mixing stage that we got bogged down. It seemed that all of us, Paul included, had become too deeply immersed in the material, and we could no longer step back and hear the songs whole. After a few unsatisfying attempts, we called in a specialist, David Leonard, and he was able to sift through the parts and make them bright and new again, to find the hidden dynamics and textures and bring out the subtleties of the music and the performances.

    And so it was that we suddenly found we had been working on this project for over a year. It was not because we had any special difficulties, or because it was at all "overwrought," for many of the final takes of the songs had been captured fresh and spontaneous, more than they had ever been in the past. Far from being stale or over-rehearsed, often they had only been played that way once. The difference this time was that instead of working to schedules and deadlines, we simply carried on writing songs and recording them until we felt the collection of music was complete. (Someone wise once said, "no work of art is ever finished, it is only abandoned.")

    While putting so much time and care into every detail of the content and performance of the songs, we hadn`t paid any attention to their length, and now we began to worry if all thirteen songs would even fit on a CD, which can only hold 74 minutes. There was some talk of saving a couple of songs for a compilation or something, but Rush has never left any "previously unreleased tracks" for anybody to capitalize on, and we weren`t about to start now. All of these songs had taken a lot of time and effort, and we simply couldn`t imagine leaving any of them behind. Fortunately they added up to just under 67 minutes, so we were spared any painful choices.

    Then there was the album title-never an easy decision. A unifying theme sometimes appears in the collected songs and suggests an overall title, like Counterparts or Power Windows; other times a particular song seems emblematic, like "Test For Echo" or "Roll The Bones." Neither approach seemed right this time, so we went with the song title we liked the best, "Vapor Trail," and made it plural to refer to all the songs. Then I went to work on cover ideas with our longtime art director, Hugh Syme.

    The last big challenge we faced, as always, was the running order of the songs, and we fiddled with that right up until the last minute. However, we never doubted which song would open the album, for "One Little Victory" made such an uncompromising announcement, "They`re ba-a-a-ack!"

    Knowing that our music is nothing if not idiosyncratic, and doesn`t really cater to popular "taste," we also envisioned advertising slogans along the lines of, "If you hated them before, you`ll really hate them now!" Or, "And now-more of everything you always hated about Rush!"

    But of course, like everyone, we do hope people will enjoy our work, and that our shared enthusiasm, energy, and love for what we do communicates itself to the listener. When you set yourself on fire and aim for the sky, you hope to leave behind some sparks of heat and light.

    Like a vapor trail.

    Автор: Neil Peart

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