One of the most divisive phrases in the world of film in recent times must be the dreaded ”directors cut”. One mans slight improvement (ie the director’s!) becomes an immediate subject of debate among movie fans, apoplectic that any tampering with their beloved favourite film has taken place at all.
Almost even odder in recent times the notion of a ”directors cut” has gradually crept into music. The Beatles de-Spectoring Let it be with Let it be… naked - Jeff Lynne unwilling/unable to produce any new ELO output, seemingly content instead to tinker with and re-record those hits that sounded pretty darn perfect to the rest of us in the first place - Kate Bush remodelling songs from Sensual world & The Red shoes on her album from a couple of years ago… the aptly named Directors cut! And in rock Pearl Jam & Marillion have got in on the act, releasing new versions of Ten & Radiation respectively.
Which in a way brings us to the Rush album Vapor trails remixed, the original being of course the record that marked the end of the band’s almost 6 year hiatus back in 2002. The deaths of Neil Peart’s daughter & wife in the late 90s had understandably all but brought to an end the working life of the celebrated trio - it certainly looked likely at the time as we headed towards the millennium, that Different stages their 1998 triple live album would probably be the last we would hear from them. Slowly though in the early days of the new century, news started to emerge that the 3 of them had in fact not just reconvened but were also on the verge of releasing new material again.
And so it was in the spring of 2002 that Vapor trails finally landed! Here we had Neil Peart wrestling it seemed not just with his own profound grief but also trying to make sense of a post 9/11 world the same as we all were. And what of the music? It certainly was a first listen like no other Rush album.
A primal amps-to-11 surge of energy & creativity, i recall almost being mentally exhausted after those first 2 or 3 back to back listens. As someone who had long wondered what Rush would sound like stripped back & let off the leash so to speak, well we certainly had the answer here and then some!
Their output throughout the 80s & 90s had never been less than enthralling (and mostly thrilling) - granted that a song or two here & there that would never have made the cut in their heyday, certainly slipped through the net occasionally. In the eighties as they collaborated with different producers and in the process progressed through different sounds & approaches, it seemed at times they had long left behind their hard rocking origins. Gradually though, beginning with Presto and then moving forward into the nineties the guitars returned to their rightful place again, becoming more prominent & upfront in the mix with the keyboards retreating into the background.
With Vapor trails though we had a different animal altogether – this was the trio well & truly plugged back in. I loved the songs immediately, to quote Peart himself you could audibly hear the ‘surge of energy, spark of inspiration’. Once the initial thrill subsided a little however and i started to listen more critically i realised that at times on Vapor trails that was about all you could audibly hear! For a band who had repeatedly created some immaculate productions throughout their career, too much was buried so deep in the mix that something had definitely been lost. Too much detail contained within the music was at times hidden or obscured in a dense, swirling fog of compressed, dissonant noise. It was as if there was an even better record in there somewhere just fighting to escape and be heard properly. A missed opportunity for sure.
In 2002 i had little access to internet forums and the like so these were just my own thoughts & feelings. It would be some time before i would fully appreciate there was an awful lot of listeners & fans out there thinking pretty much the same thing. The more i investigated, words & phrases like compression, brickwalling and the ‘loudness wars’ became recurring themes.
Crucially as time went on the band themselves began to admit that after a difficult and protracted recording process, mistakes had indeed been made and that they too were less than delighted with the end result. On their 2009 compilation album Retrospective 3, they dipped their toes back in the water by allowing Richard Chycki to remix 2 tracks in the shape of One little victory & Earthshine. Yet in trying to clean things up, it felt like some of the raw power of the originals had been compromised and lost. The subject of a full remix would continue to rear its head periodically in interviews, but as time went on it began to feel like it was a project that had definitely fallen by the wayside.
Just over 11 years on from the original, it was announced that in autumn 2013 a remixed version by producer David Bottrill would indeed see the light of day.
And even more amazingly – the occasional alteration to the music here & there aside - it is (relief) a resounding success. The new mix gives the material clarity, depth and space to breathe yet crucially it manages to also retain the kinetic energy & power of those original sessions.
Interestingly it transpired that Bottrill (King crimson, Tool, Muse) had actually been a potential candidate to produce the album in the first place, even going as far as visiting the band in the studio early in the recording cycle. But protecting Peart from too many outside influences, they decided to pursue the path of a more in-house approach, co-producing the album with old cohort Paul Northfield.
The newfound clarity provides the added benefit of forcing the listener to confront anew those wonderful lyrics of Peart’s. There’s a grace to his words that is both remarkable & inspiring when we consider the circumstances in which they were penned – the lyrics to ‘How it is’ in particular never fail to move me.
As his emotions range from naked grief, the alienation he felt from the world surrounding him, to at times something approaching hope - it’s a humbling testimony to the power and resilience of the human spirit.
That his bandmates Geddy Lee & Alex Lifeson managed to frame all this emotion in such thrilling, sensitive and righteous music, stands as an outstanding achievement and singular triumph in a career already full of wonderful highs.
Shifting from the opening adrenaline rush of One little victory & Ceiling unlimited to the bleak acceptance of Ghost rider, The stars look down & How it is – from the muscular heaviness of Secret touch & Earthshine to the night-time soundscapes of Freeze & Nocturne, it really is magnificent stuff.
We can but sincerely hope that with this release, a line will at long last be drawn in the sand… that this most difficult of times for them all, can now at least in one sense be laid to rest. For the rest of us, we can just get on with enjoying again this most remarkable of albums.
TRY ~ One little victory, Ceiling unlimited, How it is, Vapor Trail, Secret touch, Earthshine, Out of the cradle.