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Fates Warning – Awaken The Guardian (1986)

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While The Spectre Within was already a landmark release for both (often closely related) power and “progressive” metal enthusiasts, Awaken the Guardian pushes the formula for each further. In many cases, it trades in overall heaviness and aggression for extra songwriting and instrumental complexity. I’m certain it won’t be replacing its predecessor in your library, but that doesn’t mean it can’t find a place on its own merits, right? Awaken the Guardian shares a high level of critical praise with its illustrious predecessor, and for good reason.

Outside of swapping co-founder Victor Arduini for Frank Aresti (a guitarist who has performed on most of the band’s work since this album), Fates Warning retains the same lineup as on The Spectre Within and despite the overall aesthetic shift employs about the same musical techniques as before. The more complex arrangements give the non-Johns in the band more of a chance to show off their chops, though. The rhythm section seems to have improved their chops the most, driving songs with lots of offbeat percussion and time signature shifts, and coordinating more effectively with John Arch’s vocals, which are still album and band defining. Arch’s technique, at the very least, hasn’t changed much, but the improved prowess of the band definitely complements him nicely.

While the musicians lend this duology of albums their share of unity, Awaken the Guardian‘s tonal shift is enough of a contrast that it concealed this from me for many a mystic moon. As much as I should probably avoid hokey, vaguely mystical fantasy language when trying to discuss what’s going on under this album’s surface, every aspect of this album ratchets up said aesthetic. To be fair, the lyrics sometimes use the tropes in question not specifically to tell legendary tales, but instead to take pot shots at the ’80s culture surrounding the Fates (read: “Valley of the Dolls”). This is more of a contrast with Ray Alder’s incarnation of Fates Warning, which is beyond my knowledge but presumably takes a different approach. Anyways, judging exactly how well Fates Warning is realizing this aesthetic is kind of difficult, but the lyrical side of things holds up pretty well. Sometimes, the actual words get a bit stream of consciousness for my tastes, but the creative and colorful narratives and overall imagery still give them a respectably high place on the Walkyier scale, which I totally didn’t just make up now and is definitely a valid way of comparing the overall merits of metal lyricists, right?

Odd asides aside, when I like and value a metal album, I have this tendency to say it straight out at the beginning of the review. Those of you who have made it far have almost certainly made the purchase, whether it be 30 years or seconds ago.

Highlights: “The Sorceress”, “Guardian”, “Prelude to Ruin”

Fates Warning – The Spectre Within (1985)

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With Germans busy devastating the walls of Jericho, American contributions to what would become power metal are… surprisingly, not that different! Fates Warning shares similar influences to much of the scene, but they took some wild turns of songwriting that have people (validly) referring to their discography as formative progressive metal. John Arch‘s vocals are the first attraction here as on any recording he’s done, but those who pay attention and delve into the actual recording will find a band more than willing to back him up and play to his strengths.

The Spectre Within is cleanly cut between two types of tracks – complex epics on par with the progressive rock of the 1970s onwards (on this album’s sequel, Awaken the Guardian, the entire emphasis will be on such) and simpler tracks oriented towards velocity and intensity. Both of these favor many of the same musical techniques, so even when the songwriting varies, the album’s sticks to its guitars, bass, drums, etc. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that John Arch has the most ‘adventurous’ parts on this album; compared to Sympathetic Resonance some decades later he might sound a bit fuller and stronger, but the real difference is that he’s in a lighter, more upbeat genre this time – here, he hits higher pitches and does some multitracked harmonies at times. It fits the mood of the music, at the very least.

Besides two songwriting approaches, The Spectre Within also has two souls, and these don’t necessarily correspond to the differences in compositions. Much has been written about the split in underground metal between darker, ‘extreme’ recordings and lighter, more optimistic styles, but in terms of theme, the two aren’t always so clear cut. The Spectre Within pulls in two directions – upbeat, even occasionally heroic sounding content (such as “Pirates of the Underground”, literally an ode to metal itself) is interspersed with darker, even morbid songs; the album also ends on that note via the gloomy “Epitaph”. I don’t know enough about the band’s internal dynamics in 1985 to say whether they had anything to do with this. Either way, it’s probably worth noting that this may just be an attempt by the band to vary up the recordings on their album (Occam’s razor), or perhaps part of the songwriting developments that we’d see even on the next album (…by the way, Occam shaved with a dual-bladed razor).

You just can’t get away from the fact John Arch defined Fates Warning during his tenure with the band – note the significant change in direction when he left and was replaced with Ray Alder. As someone who thinks John Arch’s vocal talents transmute everything they touch to gold… I am not alone – on Encyclopedia Metallum, The Spectre Within is one of the most positively reviewed albums! While you shouldn’t take opinions as facts, it is a fact that I recommend this album based on my opinions of its various aspects.

Highlights: “Orphan Gypsy”, “Without a Trace”, “The Apparition”

 

 

Arch/Matheos – Sympathetic Resonance (2011)

folderThis is one of the shinier releases of 2011 – basically progressive metal in the vein of Dream Theater. Even the cover art fits this description, abstract direction aside. Ironically, it’s quite far from the output title members’ alumnus band (Fates Warning), at least while John Arch was still in it. Sympathetic Resonance is primarily composed of mid-paced, lengthy songs with lots of “groovy” offbeats, under which one of the most early influential power metal vocalists (John Arch, for those who weren’t paying attention) sings in his trademark fashion.

Comparisons to Fates Warning aside, this album is quite chorus heavy, given that the compositions and marketing emphasize the vocals. John Arch does not have what I would call great “tone” – he can hit very high notes, but his vocals have a nasally undertone to them. However, Arch’s vox are very nimble – he sings difficult lines that serve as distinct counterpoint to the instrumental sections. This has always been his strength, and frankly, his vocal approach has not changed (with the possible exception of the occasional lower note) since the 1980s. Either way, it adds a great deal of interest to the album and saves many sections that might otherwise have been underwhelming.

Although Arch is justifiably the star of this album, his bandmates don’t slack off. I mentioned the lengthy songs earlier – the band is experienced enough to make them work and not meander off into incoherent muddle. To be fair, outside their length, these songs don’t stray too far outside the verse-chorus approach you’d expect of a more traditional rock/metal band, but the longer ones (more accurately, most of them) tend to have long sections of bridge between each repetition. Arguably you could expect more from a band labeled as proggy, but I digress. Jim Matheos, the guitarist (and only consistent member of Fates Warning through all its lineups) provides much of the rhythmic glue here, which is important in an album with as much groove and syncopation as this one. Compared to his work in Arch-era Fates Warning, it’s not as melodic, trading in the occasionally ethereal qualities of that band for a more bluesy approach. I was surprised too when I began to hear that underlying this album, although I really shouldn’t have been given how this sort of prog doesn’t stray all that much from its rock roots.

You could do a lot worse for a vocal-heavy progressive metal album; the big players on this side of the aesthetic are probably operating at a similar level, but I can’t actually say. I’d make comparisons to Dream Theater, but Awake did not exactly encourage me to search out that band’s later work.

Highlights: “Midnight Serenade”, “Stained Glass Sky”, “Any Given Day (Strangers Like Me)”