A Devil’s Dozen – Fates Warning

The story of Fates Warning spans decades and is complex in terms of music, musicians, genre definitions, and public perception. On a musician level, this is the story of Jim Matheos, guitarist, primary songwriter, and one continual member since their inception as Misfit back in 1982. Having two distinct eras makes them a rich source of debate among metalheads and progressive rock fans. Purely within the context of the metal world, it is the tale of how Heavy Metal became Progressive Heavy Metal, a maturation that was paralleled, but unfortunately not continued, by Queensrÿche.

By comparison to nearly everything that followed, debut Night on Bröcken is absolutely raw and humble, even if there were early signs of greatness. But Fates’ ascension would not take long. The Spectre Within followed in 1985, with Awaken the Guardian hot on its heels in 1986. Both showcased dark, labyrinthine songwriting, unconventional structures, and an even more unconventional vocal delivery. Fates Warning in the mid-80s was a restless band that was able to deliver mastery despite clearly still exploring their sound. Matheos’ interplay with guitarists Victor Arduini (on Spectre) and Frank Aresti (on Awaken) was meticulous, sophisticated, and often just plain wild, but never lost sight of the whole picture. Then there was John Arch, the man with that piercing, highest-of-high-register wails. He simultaneously had an uncanny knack for melody and no respect for your conventional idea of what it meant, and he became the most instantly recognizable part of a band he would soon leave.

The departure of Arch in 1987 and recruitment of now-longtime vocalist Ray Alder is an event that can still be felt in metal today. The most immediate result was, obviously, a change in their music. While the brilliant No Exit was a logical next step following Awaken the Guardian, what followed was a more rapid change, and Alder was a crucial cog. He may not have been as distinctive in style and delivery as Arch, but he was every bit as talented, and his voice was more befitting of the introspective, personal music the band was penning by the early 90s.

It wasn’t just Alder’s voice and the shift to more personal lyrics that led to this change, however, but the structure of the music itself. Despite being pioneers in one of the most self-indulgent rock genres of them all, Fates Warning developed a knack for subtlety. The riffcraft on albums such as Perfect Symmetry and Parallels is downright understated, and calls to mind Alex Lifeson’s ability to “play the rest” on the best of 80s Rush. Or how the notes just seemed to float off of the strings, as with the almost passive riffing during the chorus of “Point of View” (not featured below). The instrumental side of Fates Warning, for all its technical wizardry and rhythmic complexity, never feels nearly as self-indulgent as much of what it would influence.

Most importantly, the band continued to exude class and excellence. The first three albums with Alder—No Exit, Perfect Symmetry, and Parallels—easily rival (or best?) the three albums with Arch, and in the years since, the band has continued to experiment and evolve. They became moodier (Inside Out), high concept (A Pleasant Shade of Grey), and have continued to shift, never releasing the same album twice. Fates Warning by the mid-90s (and beyond) was a restless band that was able to deliver mastery despite clearly still exploring their sound. The results haven’t always been amazing, but they emerged from a nine year break after low point FWX with a heavier sound, major upward trajectory, and some of their best music in ages.

But back to that great timestamp created by the departure of Arch and arrival of Alder. In a way, it was about more than the resulting music, but a bit of a split legacy in the eyes of the public. A scan of bigger, less metal-focused websites reveals that the Arch era is often treated as a footnote. The band’s Wikipedia page barely dedicates any words to this time, while their bio at All Music Guide calls the Arch era “somewhat one-dimensional metal,” which isn’t just insulting, but hugely, colossally wrong. Ask a patch-vested metalhead, they might tell you Arch only. Poll a bunch of Capital-P Prog geeks, and you’re likely to hear Arch era albums described as primitive and barbaric.

But after decades, the band seems to have made peace with their complex story. While the official lineup of Fates Warning still exists with Alder, there exists almost an extended family. Matheos reunited with Arch on a pair of releases: the John Arch Twist of Fate EP and the monumental Sympathetic Resonance album by Arch/Matheos. The latter also included current Fatesers Joey Vera and Bobby Jarzombek as well as Frank Aresti. Aresti himself recently quit being a full time member, but will continue to contribute to writing when he can. He also took part in the full Awaken the Guardian lineup reunion for the album’s 30th anniversary tour. It was fitting that this event happened the same year as the release of Theories of Flight, an album that easily competes with their glorious run from Spectre through Parallels. Both on the stage and on record, the band brought their legacy full circle.

In honor of this rich, complex, and completely unique legacy, we voted and fought (and fought) to come up with a selection of Fates Warning tracks that not only captures their greatness, but the breadth of their career. We’re pretty huge fans here at Last Rites, with some of us following the band since Bröcken, and others coming on board at differing points since. No matter when someone hopped on board, they eventually formed a fascination with this band that delivers mastery despite clearly always exploring their sound.

So here it is, our Devil’s Dozen of Connecticut’s finest, the Lord Regents of Progressive Metal, Fates Warning. We hope the long time fans among you chime in with your favorites, and those unfamiliar with them discover their own (ivory) gateway song. Enjoy.

[ZACH DUVALL]

THROUGH DIFFERENT EYES

[Perfect Symmetry, 1989]

The jump from Arch to Alder in the mid 80s felt severe for a number of Fates Warning fans, but oh what a difference a year made, as evidenced by the even greater leap taken between ’88’s No Exit and ’89’s Perfect Symmetry. The decidedly more progressive longterm vision defended by Matheos had landed, and everything about record number five made it clear that the band’s time spent flirting with thrash’s outskirts in ’88 was officially over. “Part of the Machine” opened the new era, and with it came plenty of wide eyes stunned by the song’s bold and proggy stutter-step guided by the newly netted talents of Mark Zonder behind the kit. Luckily, and wisely, track number two, “Through Different Eyes,” did the job of calming the Nervous Nellies in the house who might’ve been concerned that the band’s penchant for crafting a simple hook got lost in the transition. The cut’s opening lick depicts Matheos at the top of his game, laying down thirty seconds of absurdly warm and inviting fretwork that helped launch the other face of Perfect Symmetry—nostalgia wrapped in a terrifically comforting blanket of solemn finesse. [Captain]

THE APPARITION

[The Spectre Within, 1985]

If there is one song that serves as the high-water mark for the entire Arch / Matheos era of Fates Warning, it’s “The Apparition.” Apparently, the two feel strongly about the song as well, because it always seems to find its way on setlists when the two play together live. The song really has everything, from a great hum-a-long introduction, to lyrics that read like high fantasy overlapping fantastic tempo changes that keep the listener excited, engaged, and emotionally connected with the music. If there’s a more perfect way to kick off the B-Side of an album, I sure haven’t found it. Just fantastic stuff. [KONRAD KANTOR]

LIFE IN STILL WATER

[Parallels, 1991]

Parallels is dark album, lyrically. Themes of isolation, miscommunication, departure: They’re all there, married to Alder’s minor-key melodies in dramatic and moody perfection. “Life In Still Water” is a pretty self-explanatory title, but hey, let me explain it to you: It’s about stagnation, about not connecting to the world around you. Parallels centerpiece, the brilliant “The Eleventh Hour” was inspired by founder and mainman Jim Matheos’ frustration with the other members of the band, and it’s hard not to imagine that “Life In Still Water” isn’t somehow informed by the same emotions.

Feeling the weight of unseen chains,
this routine is growing thin.
It’s a narrow path that we walk,
and the walls are closing in, caving in.
Is there room still for us to grow
within the bounds we’ve come to know?

Whatever the lyrical source, what’s of no doubt is that “Life In Still Water” is also one of the greatest tracks on an album that is composed entirely and exclusively of great tracks, and one that shows that Fates Warning was doing anything but “going through the motions [with] no emotion.” Playing with the band’s usual off-kilter rhythms, “Still Water” opens with a heavily percussive introductory riff before settling into a melancholy verse and an odd-meter groove hat leads into another one of those perfect Ray Alder choruses, the ones that hook you deeply, reaching out from the midst of the complexly arranged music around them. Thusfar, Parallels is a high-water mark that Fates hasn’t yet achieved again—not for lack of trying, and no slight intended to what came after—and among its highest highs is this paean to a low-point, to loneliness, to a lack of direction, of motion, of life.

In darkness, there is beauty. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]

FATA MORGANA

[Awaken the Guardian, 1986]

The lyrics of “Fata Morgana” may technically be about specific parts of the Arthurian legend, but when taken only as the music, it really feels sneakily futuristic. Just listen to those opening dual leads, the bombast that follows, or John Arch’s soaring vocals and the great lead hook of the verse. The conjured image isn’t of wizards and sorceresses, but flying among the highest buildings of science fiction’s most elaborate, fantastical cities, of being somehow elevated, an impression only furthered by Arch’s tendency to constantly takes things up up UP. The song’s chorus possesses an unconventional time structure, but contains so much classic metal riffage and forward drive as to be almost uncontrollably catchy, as if those hypothetical cities, technologically advanced though they may be, have their literal and metaphorical roots in the past. Even the production carries with it a combination of 80s shimmer and throwback warmth, with the sound of the doubled solo being particularly irresistible. It might be the way the cover of Awaken the Guardian carries a certain “City on the Edge of Forever” quality, but it seemed as if Fates Warning in the mid-80s understood that their fantasy subjects were both out of time and timeless. Merlin invites you to take a flying cab up to his place for a cool pint of wizard ale. He’s up on the 1,437th floor. [ZACH DUVALL]

MONUMENT

[Inside Out, 1994]

There’s a blind desire; there’s a drive;
there’s a need to leave some lasting feat,
something to hold, something to keep,
a monument to complete…

By this point in their career, Fates Warning had released five straight progressive metal masterpieces. They’d weathered a change in singers, seen two creative peaks (in Awaken The Guardian and Parallels, broken onto the Billboard charts, released albums that would be classics, and emerged from it all as one of the most interesting metal bands of a generation. Though tragically, Inside Out would, in hindsight, prove to be the turning point downwards into a decade-plus of good-but-not-godly material, at this point, our erstwhile heroes were still making good the case for their godhood…

The highest highlight on Inside Out, “Monument” directly addresses the creative impulse, that nagging voice and driving force that pushes the creator to put words on paper, or paint on canvas, or notes on the staff, or whatever the medium may be. In a 7/4 verse time, Joe DiBiase’s rolling bass line bolsters Matheos’ clean arpeggios and Aresti’s stabbing distorted chords, and the whole of it rides into a soaring 4/4 chorus as catchy as anything Fates would ever write… before a left-turn into a killer staccato riff, shifting time signatures, a flamenco-like acoustic solo, and then a full return to that perfect chorus… and just to top it off, a post-closing diversion into a smooth-jazz-y piano and flute arrangement reprising the main motif.

Is it fiction? Is it confession?
Is it passion, or just a profession?
Is it performance? Is it expression?
Is it passion, or just an obsession?

It is all of these things and more. It’s a prog-metal master class. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]

KYRIE ELEISON

[The Spectre Within, 1985]

“Kyrie Eleison” was my first exposure to Fates Warning as part of the Rivers Edge soundtrack. It was an instant favorite and remains an all-timer after all these years. “Kyrie” is just about a perfect heavy metal song, from the speedy central riffing with its oddly awesome scraping secondary riff to Arch’s tense storytelling verses and soaring chorus. Sure it’s basically one of the best Iron Maiden songs that legendary band never wrote (Arch does Dickinson almost to a T), but the impeccable execution of it erases all doubt of its worthiness. If you need more proof, follow the second chorus through the lead guitar melody as it sets up a classic solo, and then that into Arch’s insanely powerful recollection of the fortune teller’s warning until he finally begs for his salvation. It’ll make you want to jump into the ol’ blue baja Bug and blaze around some shitty little town until the cops find you passed out at an intersection in the early morning light. [LONE WATIE]

FIREFLY

[Darkness In A Different Light, 2013]

Darkness in a Different Light was a breath of fresh air for a band that had just come off a nine year recording hiatus and a run of records before that that were, at best, cold and required work to appreciate and, at worst, listless. “Firefly” is the best representation of what made Darkness such a pleasant surprise because it is both immediately enjoyable and lasting in its impact. Its riffs, heavy and straight-forward, are nonetheless compelling and comprise the scaffolding for the melancholic melody at which Ray Alder excels and which ultimately makes the track. Look a little deeper though to notice the unassumingly propulsive motor that is Bobby Jarzombek’s drumming, very much a key to Fates Warning’s rediscovered momentum, and a two-part guitar solo that is both striking in its contrast with that melody and crystal clear in its reflection of the band’s revitalization. Fates Warning didn’t do a whole lot completely new on this record, but they hit levels of passion and energy they hadn’t conveyed in a good while and “Firefly” distills it all into an efficient and memorable package. [LONE WATIE]

GIANT’S LORE (HEART OF WINTER)

[Awaken the Guardian, 1986]

The opening riff of “Giant’s Lore” is one of Awaken the Guardian‘s most infectious moments, and it sets the tone for John Arch as he goes into full blown storytelling mode like no other singer in heavy metal. Arch’s vocal performance, like in many other instances, really steals the show, that is until Matheos and Aresti step into the spotlight and lay down some of Guardian‘s most memorable solo moments. Although “Giant’s Lore” isn’t the album’s concluding track, it’s surely the last “big” hit John Arch ever delivered before his permanent departure from Fates Warning. [KONRAD KANTOR]

THE LIGHT AND SHADE OF THINGS

[Theories of Flight, 2016]

I’m not going to lie and pretend that it hadn’t been a long time since Fates Warning put out a complete album at the echelon of Theories of Flight. While the prior few albums of the “Alder Era” had standout songs, even great ones, the album arcs that Jim Matheos used to weave so perfectly simply weren’t there. Then came Theories of Flight and everything changed. Highlighting the simple beauty and elegance of the album is “The Light and the Shade of Things.” At over 10 minutes, there is ample time for the track to go off the rails or simply lose the vision of the album. Of course, it never does. Alder’s voice is on display early affecting a deep tenor laden with emotional vibrato. For three minutes the track builds tension through increasing minimalism before it explodes into what makes Theories of Flight so great, the more aggressive verses supported and anchored by Matheos’ brilliant compositional arc. As the chorus of sorts pops up, minimalism again rears its beautiful, balanced head using syncopation as the main tension builder. Matheos even built in what functions as an extended outro of layered guitars, acoustic and heavily chorus-laden electrics, as Alder croons towards the final buildup that will become the song’s signature. We can only hope that for Fates Warning, “it’s not over, not over yet.” [MANNY-O-WAR]

KISS OF DEATH

[Night on Bröcken, 1984]

Jim Matheos apparently hates Night On Bröcken. It’s understandable, really, as most of us are at least a little embarrassed by ancient snapshots that highlight our more…inelegant years. Ain’t that right, brace-face? Nice Duran Duran shirt, but did you have to wear it over a turtleneck?

Bröcken was straight-up demo material turned into a proper debut full-length by Metal Blade because the label recognized an immense potential that eclipsed its Highlights Magazine album cover, and also because they really liked bands that sounded like a rawer form of Iron Maiden. Clearly, the necessary Fates Warning building blocks are present here, and “Kiss of Death” is the record’s sweetest cherry. The way the cut quickly lurches forward and then eases back not once, but twice, might lead one to believe that they’re about to run into an intimate mellow stretch, but then that greazy strut hits and it’s just four minutes of raw 80s’-metal power until the very end. Plus, the deliciously lumpy lead battle at the midpoint is pure gravy, baby. [CAPTAIN]

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

[Parallels, 1991]

The year of 1991 and the album Parallels saw Fates Warning deep in the throes of their most progressive rock phase. The longest track on the album at over eight minutes, “Eleventh Hour” allows Matheos and Alder to stretch their wings. While Alder’s voice may take a backseat to Fates Warning’s unparalleled (see what I did there?) soft guitar harmonies, he puts on a layered performance that would make fellow Connecticutian Michael Bolton literally “wet with jealousy.” As the track slowly undulates towards the fourth minute, Alder opens up his higher register belting out falsetto vibrato after the more haltingly aggressive bridge section. A second bridge of sorts features the rhythm section, Joe DiBiase plucking away at a lead bass line while Mark Zonder falls into a Peart/Copeland style of syncopation relying heavily on intriguing cymbal rhythms. In perfect symmetry, the track brings back the opening vocal patterns (one of six sections in this track) closing on an outro more beautiful than a Parisian sunset. [MANNY-O-WAR]

GUARDIAN

[Awaken the Guardian, 1986]

Oh, no big deal—just one of the most charming, pensive, warm utopian fantasy (semi-sorta) ballads to ever land in metal.

Wait, what? Ballads? “Great” ballads? In metal? Yes, Mr. Explosion, there was a time when metal bands—well respected metal bands—used to deliver genuine, emotional (semi-sorta) ballads that people didn’t automatically skip: Agent Steel’s “Traveler,” Queensrÿche’s “Take Hold the Flame,” Metal Church’s “Watch the Children Pray,” and Savatage’s “Strange Wings,” just to name a few—and “Guardian” stood toe-to-toe with any and all heart-tuggers lifting from speakers. Granted, one could argue that Fates Warning truly came to master the slower stuff in the Alder era, particularly early on, but the way Matheos & company mingled elegant acoustic guitars, John Arch’s solemn wailing, and those glassy, wistful leads was just absolutely magic. All of Awaken the Guardian felt like a soundtrack to some lost sci-fi/fantasy film animated by Ralph Bakshi in the mid 80s, and “Guardian” illustrated those quiet minutes where the protagonist wonders…well, “have you forgotten me?” [CAPTAIN]

THE IVORY GATE OF DREAMS

[No Exit, 1988]

To some of you, the inclusion of “The Ivory Gate of Dreams” in its entirety probably seems like we’re cheating a little, considering that it’s an eight part monster and takes up over 50 percent of No Exit. To others, only including this classic might seem as if we’re short changing parts of one of Fates Warning’s finest albums. There was support for “Silent Cries,” “In a Word,” etc., but here we are, and it isn’t like “Ivory Gate” isn’t extremely deserving on its own…

Quite the opposite, in fact. You can make a pretty good argument for this being one of the most groundbreaking and important songs in the history of progressive metal. It was among the first times that a metal band went fully 2112 and constructed a complex suite that showed off, in equal parts, the band’s songwriting prowess, technical expertise, and grand vision. This would also be the moment at which Fates Warning’s progressive nature was perfectly balanced with their metalness. Before, even on the most dizzying moments of Awaken the Guardian, they were still more on the metal side. After, heaviness took a back seat to the complexity and exploration. But here, on the entirety of No Exit’s B side, they found an ideal mix of galloping rhythms, unconventional time signatures, machine gun riffs, and complexly layered composition, smattering the whole thing with unforgettable elements and moments.

And while we’re here, a few of those elements and moments… The scene-building feel of the overture; Joe DiBiase’s bubbly bass work; Ray Alder’s absolute moment-owning vocal line at the beginning of “Daylight Dreamers”; the heavy riffs backing up Ray Alder’s absolute moment-owning vocal line at the beginning of “Daylight Dreamers”; the growth of “Quietus” from introspective and gorgeous to a torrent of gallops and dual leads; the splashy drumming underneath the solo section of “Ivory Tower”; and the intense “let’s rock” feeling of finality during “Acquiescence.” I could go on and on, but I already have. This is a magical, singular moment in heavy metal history. [ZACH DUVALL]

Posted by Last Rites

GENERALLY IMPRESSED WITH RIFFS

  1. My favorite metal band of all-time. I love both eras. Some of my favorites not included in your dozen: Night on Brocken, Pirates of the Underground, Exodus, Silent Cries, Static Acts, Nothing Left to Say, The Road Goes on Forever, Face the Fear.

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