Review Summary: A "mixed" bag
If people have one complaint about the original mix of Rush's 2002 comeback album Vapor Trails
, it's often that the album has suffered from an exaggeratedly muddy and loud sound mix. The whole album sounds as if it's one big wall of sound. Even Rush outright admitted that the album sounded distorted and muddy. Of course, the material has been widely revered by fans as some of their best. The album came after a hiatus that lasted for a few years following Neil Peart's ultra-tragic year in 1998, when within ten months of each other, his daughter died in a fiery car accident, and his wife died of cancer (though he theorizes it was not so much cancer as it was a broken heart). And so naturally, much of the album's lyrical content focuses on these tragedies (in particular "The Stars Look Down" and the title track, and possibly "One Little Victory", about how just getting through a day was a victory for him), in addition to the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. In addition to more political and personal lyrics, the album featured little to no synthesizers and a more straightforward hard rock feel but with the progressive elements added to the mix. Yet,a good portion of the fanbase couldn't listen to it because of how the sound mix made it near-unlistenable. And so the fandom rejoiced in August 2013, the day Anthem records announced they were releasing a version that had been completely re-mastered and remixed, and in places even re-arranged.
Now the original sound mix has never been a problem for me (and yet I'm quite the audiophile); the ultra muddy sound added something of a garage rock feel to the album and even a metal edge in other places. However, it goes without saying that the new 2013 mix does have its ups and downs. For one, there are many instances where you hear thing you didn't even know were there, or did know, but are more brought to the forefront- for one, in the intro to "One Little Victory", you can hear more clearly that Geddy is using his jazz bass on the song (as opposed to the muffled semi bass-like sound under the track in the original mix). The drums are more clearly audible on the new mix too, whereas on the old mix they were buried beneath Alex's guitar being pushed to the forefront. The drums have a much meatier punch to them and in particular the fills in the opening of "Ceiling Unlimited" are impressive, given now that you can actually hear them.
The thing is, there are areas where the new mix fails to impress too. Because of the clearer sound, some of the songs lose their oomph. For one, tracks like "Peaceable Kingdom" and "Ghost Rider" are missing their punch; "Peaceable Kingdom" is arguably one of their heaviest songs to date and has a truly angry feel, or at least on the original version it did; the removed distortion from the bridges do make it sound a bit "empty". Granted the chorus does have a bit more headroom, in particular when Geddy sings "Talk of a peaceable kingdom...
" do make it sound a bit more "pleasant". But that's the problem; the song is an angry song about how people are so blind as to the horrible things going on in the world, and the overly muddy sound enhanced that angry feel (it's at this point where I'll mention I do think clipping and compressed sound can enhance an album given the material- Pinkerton
by Weezer being an example of the album's bitter and angry tone being enhanced by the horribly compressed sound mix). The album's title track also suffers from this, with the tragic and angry tone of the song being stripped away to sounding rather anticlimactic.
Overall, while this remix isn't a complete waste, and yes it's nice to hear some songs sound clearer, it doesn't really do much to change your opinion of an already great album. You have to admire the band realizing that they made a mistake with the sound (Geddy mentioned in an interview that some of the distortion happened during the recording of the album) and correcting the said mistake with a new mix. Also, this marks the first time that the album has been released on vinyl, so there's that too. And furthermore, this also makes for good comparison material so you can hear some of what you couldn't hear before- it's too bad that the right version of the album wasn't released in 2002... or was it?