Sound — 9
Fates Warning, to me, comprises one of the "big three" bands of American progressive metal, along with Dream Theater and Queensrÿche, and unlike their contemporaries, they have managed to avoid drama and have been releasing fairly consistent albums of high quality. Their last outing, "Darkness in a Different Light," is about as close as the band has gotten since their early days to dividing an audience with a few claiming that it felt a little "phoned in" (I don't count myself among those few, and enjoyed that album), but still gets heaps of praise from critics and fans alike.
Fates Warning's secret weapon is being uncompromising about the ingredients that their fans enjoy, which does not necessarily mean the band does not experiment with their sound, like the unexpected twist in the middle of the opening track "From the Rooftops," switching from a near-psychedelic ballad to a furiously-paced slab of prog-metal, and a fret-burning solo played by Frank Aresti (who, sadly, has essentially left the band, no longer able to tour due to work commitments, but still contributed this solo and the one on "White Flag"). The rest of the album is full of fairly straightforward rockers like "SOS" and "White Flag," epic and moody pieces like "The Light and Shade of Things," with lots of tricky time signatures and beefy guitar riffs, often tuned to drop-D. There are elements of grunge-esque guitar playing in songs like "White Flag" and even much more modern metal riffage on "Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen." "The Ghosts of Home," another 10+ minute epic, features tricky melodic playing and much more of the band's "classic prog-metal" aesthetic than any other song on the album, and in my opinion, is the true centerpiece of the record.
The performances of the musicians on this record are as amazing as ever, with Jim Matheos' guitar playing and songwriting leading the way. His riffs are thick and deceptively simple, with lots of winding twists and turns and use of big chord sounds. Joey Vera holds down the low end extremely well, with very punchy bass tones that stand out even when listened to on cheap speakers. Bobby Jarzombek, brother of freakishly talented Spastic Ink, Blotted Science and Watchtower guitarist Ron Jarzombek, solidly grooves his way through the drum parts on this album. While Frank Aresti is no longer a full member of the band, his two solos on the record are excellent and provide the album with its rare bit of shreddy goodness. Ray Alder, whose voice has always been a bit of a "love/hate" thing for me, actually sounds really great on this album.
The production is big and in-your-face, but with a lot of headroom for each instrument. The band achieves a sonic tightness that's very rare to see from such a classic progressive metal band in this day and age, and this is a sound that they've had for much of their career. Unlike Dream Theater's flashy playing and Queensrÿche's pandering to a more basic NWOBHM crowd, Fates Warning has always been about crafting a tight, progressive sound that has heavier, darker riffs, and rarely ever descends into pointless noodling. The production really puts the band's style into a very enjoyable sonic context, accentuating only what needs to be accentuated, but moving the musicians forward as a tight unit.
Lyrics — 9
Dark lyrical topics are a bit of a mainstay for Fates Warning, and the lyrics on this album read as a bit melancholic, without really coming off as melodramatic. There's always a bit of a sense of pondering to the lyrics, presenting the idea of the lyricist being deep in thought. "The Ghosts of Home" opens with the melancholic strains of "Where I come from, no one's home/Twisted branches overgrown/Skin deep roots over broken bone/Dust and glass and the ghosts of home," which sound like they wouldn't be out of place on an Opeth record. Other examples of melancholic, Opethian lyrics are like this one, coming from the track "The Light and Shade of Things": "I understand that feeling of dread, you're used to it/And those empty promises are just the same/When our time had come to end, it's over then." Much of the lyrics on the record are sort of in that same vein, dealing with the ghosts of the past and emotional distress, but more from a perspective of deep introspection rather than melodrama and complaint. Even the instrumental title track features clips of broadcasts dealing with people leaving home, and just the concept of "home" in general, which may provide a bit of an insight to the concept of the lyrics on this record.
As mentioned above, Ray Alder's vocals have been a bit of a source of ambivalence with regards to Fates Warning's music, and as such, I actually welcomed the band's recent reunion with original vocalist John Arch, which produced the album "Sympathetic Resonance" under the Arch/Matheos moniker (but was truly Fates Warning's current lineup with Alder replaced with Arch, and in my opinion, a Fates Warning record in all but name). But on this record, I find Ray Alder's vocals absolutely mesmerizing. Perhaps age has matured his vocal style somewhat, and it doesn't really seem all that different from their past few records, but the way his voice blends with the music on this record is excellent in a way I haven't felt about Fates Warning since "A Pleasant Shade of Gray."
Overall Impression — 9
Fates Warning may not have become as popular as Dream Theater and Queensrÿche, and their output may not have been as prolific, but the band continues its winning streak of putting out consistently great albums that never compromise on quality. If you have been a long time fan of Fates Warning, this is going to be a great listen, and I imagine you'd expect nothing less. And for fans of more modern progressive metal looking for a good entry point to get into Fates Warning, the mix of concise songwriting with a couple of good epic-length numbers might actually make this a good introduction to the band, and it sort of encapsulates the styles the band has been working with over the years.
There's no doubt in my mind that this album is likely going to make my top-10 list this year, it's truly an enjoyable listen from front to back, and I highly recommend this album to anyone looking for some good new progressive metal to listen to. And if you get the version with the bonus disc, you'll also be treated to acoustic renditions of some of their songs (such as "Firefly" from the band's last record, "Darkness in a Different Light") as well as a few covers, including Toad The Wet Sprocket's "Pray Your Gods," Joaquin Rodrigo's "Adela," and Uriah Heep's "Rain," which themselves are great acoustic recordings and worth checking out.
Absolutely killer album.