When Last Rites decided to do a Devil’s Dozen for Fates Warning, there was the usual consternation over what was to be included even after the initial votes had been tallied. I had trouble with those votes myself, especially when it came to the band’s eighth album, 1997’s A Pleasant Shade of Gray. Not because it wasn’t clear to me that something from it ought to make the cut, but because deciding just which track or tracks should be included was made tough by the record’s composition. It was designed to be a single 54-minute song, but under label pressure, Jim Matheos cut it up into 12 pieces that, save for a couple, only barely define what is typically considered a song. So I asked The Crew how we ought to handle the album. That question was pretty much met with the sound of crickets not because the rest of the fellas were having the same trouble, but because most of them weren’t voting for anything from it anyway. And I wasn’t surprised. I love A Pleasant Shade of Gray, but I also completely understand why my compadres might not love it the way I do.
So I wondered what in the heck is going on. How is it that an album made by a band that my homies are loud about loving and that has been very well received, revered even, in both wider metal and prog circles is met with disdain by a few and little more than a shrug by quite a few more? That got me reflecting on my early time with A Pleasant Shade of Gray, the experience of which, it turns out, is exactly why I understand that some people have a hard time loving this record. I don’t agree, but I understand. If you’re one of those who find this album boring or, as many reviewers have opined, “too gray,” I hope these words about my own experience it might persuade you to give it another chance, or at least to see just why it gets the love from some of us that it does.
It took a long time for me to appreciate A Pleasant Shade of Gray and much longer to love it. The things that got in the way at first can be sorted into two vague piles and are pretty similar to what I still see detractors saying about the album today. First, it doesn’t do what a progressive album is supposed to do. Second, it doesn’t do what a metal album is supposed to do. Obviously, if true, this would be very bad for a Progressive Metal album. Hopefully, the major flaw in each of these very general assessments is obvious: for a couple of music genres defined by their embrace of rule-breaking and boundary-busting, a critique rooted in what an album is supposed to do is remarkably narrow-minded. But, to be fair, let’s have a look at some particular critiques within each broad assessment.
Progressive critics point to the lack of a standout track, as well as a lack of technical acrobatics, pyrotechnics, bombast, and/or grandiosity, as if these things are the sole properties and defining features of progressive music. But again, I get it. When a thing you love does something different, it can feel… off. Something like a betrayal, or at least an unexpected disconnect. In the mid-to-late 90s, Fates Warning’s contemporaries were flying off the weedly-deedly uber-noodly rails and, more to the point, doing so according to the by-then well-defined parameters of prog metal; that is, lots of improvisation within a predictable framework of longer songs full of heavy riffing, tempo and time changes, and guitar-keyboard exchanges. So much of what had once been considered to be progressive in metal had by then become, if not hackneyed, at least widely explored and very well mapped; a once barely discernible animal trail had become an asphalt footpath lined with trail markers, water stops, and port-a-johns.
Jim Matheos just wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid, and he mostly managed to keep the Fates Warning sound fresh and the approach forward-thinking and marked by a refreshing relative restraint. But the band had also found a rut of their own, having produced a record in Inside Out that played like a collection of leftovers from the Parallels sessions. Matheos noticed this of course, and decided that change would be the predominant motivation for the new album. So A Pleasant Shade of Gray was crafted to be less obvious, an enigmatic journey without signposts. And that just isn’t very comfortable, because people like to know where they’re going.
When the first few parts of the album are dominated by electronic and industrial sounds wrapped around simply arranged guitar notes and pinch harmonics with a lot of space between them, the Fates Warning fan, accustomed to and thus expecting a complex combination of riffs and rhythms and lushly layered chords, could be forgiven for feeling like they’ve been left behind somehow. And even as the album progresses and things let loose a little, picking up the pace and/or intensity, the technicality is subtle, designed not to show off the chops but to imbue a section with a particular mood. The focus on mood over technical skill was relatively foreign to the world of progressive metal at the time, although bands within and adjacent to the genre had already seen a similar shift in focus toward atmosphere and others would shortly follow.
As an extension of the album’s composition and flow, the particular atmosphere at play on A Pleasant Shade of Gray feels unfamiliar, too. It’s at times sparse and disjointed, alternating between tension and tranquility, high emotion and a sort of numbness. The combination of composition and atmosphere supports a concept much less about cohesive pieces of a story than the disquieting stream of thoughts one might have while drifting in and out of sleep; abstractions connected loosely by brief windows of consciousness as one lays in bed in the early morning hours wondering how today might fit into the apparently inexorable patterns laid down by all those yesterdays.
So where do we begin
and what else can we say?
When the lines are all drawn
What should we do today?
That mood and associated emotion represent the second piece of what must make A Pleasant Shade of Gray a tough sell for some, at least initially. Emotion is the lifeblood of music to be sure and heavy metal fans in particular are no strangers to emotion in their music, but because metal is extreme, its emotion typically is, too. Death metal and thrash aren’t angry, they’re raging. Funeral doom isn’t sad, it’s despondent. Power metal isn’t happy, it’s ebullient. And when we listen to that music we feel those things, often in an extreme way. Whatever the mood, the music is always about energy, either energizing the listener or relentlessly sapping the energy away. So when Fates Warning lays down 54 minutes worth of ambivalence and ennui anchoring every peak and valley of the experience, we feel that, too. But who wants to feel that shit? Nobody puts on a record thinking, “I think I’d like to hear something that makes me feel the way I do when I need to do something important but regret and anxiety have sapped me of the wherewithal to even get out of bed.”
Let nothing bleed into nothing
and do nothing at all
A Pleasant Shade of Gray is definitely about that. It’s not just about that. It’s about the sum of experience and the feelings it brings. There are pieces of the album that are exciting, some that are very sad, others that get very near happy, or at least buoyant, with bits of each recalled in one form or another throughout the recording, reminding the listener that every day is just a little different version of the last and a preview of the next. It’s a recognition of the truth that every high is relative to a nearby low. The strongest current through the record, though, always pulls the listener back to the flats between, to the realization that each peak and valley is always temporary. More than that, and where the album ultimately leads, is the acceptance that, for all the grand flashes of color and deepest blacks in which we’re at times engulfed, the balance is necessarily gray. It’s not where we like to believe life happens and a musical representation of it can feel a little like listening to Grandpa go on about appreciating the little things. Thing is, you’ll remember Grandpa’s words one day with a rueful appreciation of those small moments as you realize they’d buoyed you against the swollen tide of what you thought was important at the time.
And with hope in our hearts
Embrace this shade of gray
This pleasant shade of gray
For me today, A Pleasant Shade of Gray is a hazy but deeply felt reflection of the space between the extremes that has probably done more to define me than all the high- and lowlights I tend to recall best. Of course, this is just my experience. It isn’t to say it should be yours or even that if you went at it from my point of view that your experience would parallel mine. I sure hope it would, though, because A Pleasant Shade of Gray has become one of those albums that, far more than the pure enjoyment of its listening, has come to really mean something to me. I feel like my experience of this subtly complex album must be pretty close to what Jim Matheos and Fates Warning were hoping listeners would get, and that feels like testament to a pretty special record.