Vapor Trails Remix: One Little History


For most artists, the art they put out is the art that stays out. They do not get to do it over. The Beatles never went back and re-recorded “A Day in the Life” nor was “Gimme Shelter” ever redone. Picasso, DaVinci, and Michelangelo never went back and redid any painting, fresco, or statue. However, several notable musical artists have reinterpreted their works over the years including Bob Dylan, Sting, and Eric Clapton. All three changed arrangements, tempos, and melodies to classic songs. One of my favorite bands, Rush, has done something similar in the past few weeks.

On September 27, 2013, the Hall of Fame Canadian rock band Rush released a remixed version of their 2002 album, Vapor Trails. Rumored to be in the works since 2009, the remix was something the fans, and the band, had been clamoring for several years. The results are spectacular! The sound clarity is amazing! Since I downloaded it this past week, I have been enjoying sounds I never knew existed, harmonies that were hidden, and a bass sound that now pulsates softly in a sea of sonic heaven.

The remixed version in 2013
The remixed version in 2013

The First Attempt: The Original Album

The original Vapor Trails was a comeback album released in 2002. Six years between Rush albums was an eternity for Rush fans and the band. Its story begins in 1996. Shortly after Rush the album Test for Echo tour ended, Drummer Neil Peart’s daughter was killed in a car accident and ten months later his wife tragically passed away from cancer. The devastating loss sent Neil and the band into a tailspin. Even Geddy Lee thought the band might never record again. Neil went on journey of exploration and discovery by traveling across the Americas on a motorcycle. Peart would put his devastation behind and marry again in 2000. In early 2001, he and the band began assembling.

It was a touchy process and filled with emotion. Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson were glad to be playing again with Peart. More importantly, they were glad to have their friend back. The next 15 months would be a laborious process, one which has haunted the band until the remix. In an interview, Alex Lifeson reflected on the process

We invested so much of our hearts into that record. It was hard work for the 15 months we worked on it, and there were times when we didn’t think we’d get through it. There were moments when we hated it. We threw out a bunch of songs and we re-wrote one song, Earthshine, three times.

Here are two interviews from 2002 with Lee and Lifeson.

Even before the release, a dichotomy arose. The songs were great, but the sound was horrible. To me, it sounded like mud at time. They was little dynamic. It sounded distorted. But as fan of Rush, you could tell there was something there that this could have been a great album. You just could not hear it in 2002.

The band concurred, In the same interview, Lifeson detailed the problem:

The original mastering was the problem. It was poorly done. At the time we should have remastered. It bothered us forever – particularly Geddy, who had the task of remastering of the original album and feels responsible for it. It irked him for many years. The original version is hard on your ears, because the mastering was pushed so hard, there’s distortion and so much compression – I found it very difficult to listen to it.

However, it was too late and too mind numbing for the band to  get it right. Everything had already been booked for the next two years including a tour in Brazil. It would have to wait to be fixed. The album was going to be released.

The original Vapor Trails cover in 2002
The original Vapor Trails cover in 2002

The Remix Experiment
In 2009, I started getting into long distance bike riding. I would often add the leadoff track, “One Little Victory,” as well as other songs from Vapor Trails to my iPod because I truly believed them to be great songs despite the mix and master. I was doing some surfing on iTunes and found 2 remixed versions of songs from the album on a compilation album entitled, Retrospective 3. The sounds were unbelievable. The music ebbed and flowed. The distortion was gone. The listener could now hear the individual textures of each instrument. They did not blend together. They stood alone.

Many fans were ecstatic! The band loved the remixes done by Richard Chycki, too! In interviews, Geddy began talking about remixing the whole album at some point. He stated:

“It’s a terrible feeling that, due to lack of objectivity, you let an imperfect piece of work get out there […] but the songs are very strong and people really responded to the record and people were welcoming us back. The sonic defects of it got lost in the excitement of the band’s return to functionality. It’s always been a bee in my bonnet.”

Vapor Trails 2
To over see the whole remix in 2011, the band hired Tool producer David Bottrill. Lee and Lifeson would put in their two cents about the remix while the band was on the Clockwork Angels Tour. Lee explained how Bottrill worked and the process:

“He understood what it should sound like so I’m very pleased with the end result. I think he’s finally brought some completion and some justice to some of those songs we’d put so much of our heart and soul into.”

On the band’s website, Lee added upon the release of the remix:

Vapor Trails was an album made under difficult and emotional circumstances – sort of like Rush learning how to be Rush again – and as a result, mistakes were made that we have longed to correct. David Bottrill’s remixes have finally brought some justice and clarity to this deserving body of our work. Every song has been given a new life, from the fire of ‘One Little Victory,’ ‘Secret Touch,’ and ‘Ceiling Unlimited’ to the melodic musicality of ‘Sweet Miracle’ and ‘How It Is’… these songs have been redeemed. Thank you David!”

Overall, I think the remixes do justice to most of the songs. I can now hear little parts I never heard before. The are little guitar parts, an array of acoustic guitars, mini-solos, vocal harmonies, but most of all I hear separation between the instruments. It is quite staggering to sit and listen to songs you thought you knew.  At times, I find myself feeling like I am listening to a new album. On the initial track, I counted four distinct (electric and acoustic) guitar sounds playing at one time along with the flange on Neil’s snare, too, which I had never heard before. It is a great sonic treasure for me!

Further Reading