One of the most divisive phrases in the world of film in recent years must be the dreaded ‘directors cut’.
One mans slight improvement (presumably the director’s!) becomes an immediate subject of debate among movie fans, frustrated that their beloved favourite film has been tampered with.
Almost even odder in recent times the notion of a ‘directors cut’ has gradually started to creep into music.
In 2003 we had the Beatles deciding to remix Let It Be (removing much of Phil Spector’s contributions in the process) and arriving at Let It Be… Naked.
Jeff Lynne on the Mr Blue Sky compilation from 2012 strangely deciding to tinker with and re-record those ELO hits that sounded pretty darn perfect to the rest of us the first time around.
Kate Bush remodelling songs from older works The Sensual World & The Red Shoes on her album from 2011, the aptly named Directors Cut!
Steven Wilson updating & upgrading some of the archive Porcupine Tree material on later versions of their earlier releases.
And even the likes of Pearl Jam & Marillion have got in on the act, releasing new versions of Ten & Radiation respectively.
Which in a roundabout 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 increasingly likely at the time as we headed towards the millennium that Different Stages – their triple live album from 1998 – would probably be the last we would hear from them as an active, working unit. 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, they 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, he was 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 creativity & energy, 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 again so to speak, well we certainly had the answer here and then some!
Their output throughout the 80s & 90s for me had continued to be enthralling (and mostly thrilling) – granted certainly that a song or two here & there that would never have made the cut in their heyday slipped through the net occasionally. In the 80s 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 90s 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 actually hear the ‘surge of energy, spark of inspiration’.
Once the initial thrill subsided a little however and i started to listen a little 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 that 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 certainly felt like some of the raw power of the originals had now been compromised and lost. The subject of a full remix would continue to rear its head periodically in interviews, as time went on though 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 the autumn of 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 truly 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 within such thrilling, sensitive and righteous music, stands as an outstanding achievement and triumph in a career already full of wonderful highs.
We have the opening adrenaline rush of One Little Victory & Ceiling Unlimited. The bleak acceptance of harsh realities in Ghost Rider & The Stars Look Down. The brief shaft of light & hope in How It Is.
They shift from the muscular heaviness of Secret Touch & Earthshine to the after dark soundscapes of Freeze (part IV of Fear) & Nocturne. It really is magnificent stuff.
In truth the real Vapor Trails probably lies somewhere between the 2 versions – we’ll never truly know. We can hope though that with this release a line of sorts will 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 us as fans, we can just get on with enjoying anew this most remarkable of albums.
TRY ~ One Little Victory, Ceiling Unlimited, How It Is, Vapor Trail, Secret Touch, Earthshine, Out Of The Cradle.