REVIEW: FATES WARNING – “Theories Of Flight”
I attended my first metal concert in the spring of 2001 as a young and not terribly impressionable freshman in college. It was a small dive in Niagara Falls NY, and I was there to see my favorite band, Savatage. Opening for them was a band I’d heard of, but not really listened to; Fates Warning. I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed by them in the slightest at that show. The music was intriguing, but their stage presence non-existent. And over the next fifteen years, I’ve listened to them periodically to see if my mind was changed. It never was. I liked the music fine; ‘A Pleasant Shade of Grey’ was musically and atmospherically perfect, but Ray Alder’s vocals simply never did it for me. I found them to be over the top, higher pitched, and frequently over theatrical in a most annoying way. I’ve enjoyed Jim Matheos’s other projects (particularly OSI with Kevin Moore) a great deal, however. So, when I got the chance to review their new album ‘Theories of Flight,’ I was intrigued, but not expecting to really enjoy much of it. Well Fates Warning have made me eat a very large platter of crow, to the extent that said bird may well be on the Endangered Species list now.
Simply put, ‘Theories’ is a nearly flawless example of modern progressive metal. In fact, I’m hard pressed to find much wrong with it at all. Fates made their initial splash as one of the founding fathers of the genre with ‘Awaken The Guardian’ in 1986, and have since along with Dream Theater been the most popular, influential, and longest lived act of what has become a diverse and crowded prog metal scene. After an extended absence from 2004 till 2013, Fates returned with ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ complete with new drummer Bobby Jarzombek, that album received much praise and the line-up of Matheos, Alder, Joey Vera, and Jarzombek, have returned for this most recent outing.
Fates Warning have never been a band that was hell-bent to run the listener over with their technical prowess, speed, and mind twisting time changes. The players are all highly skilled and technical at their instruments, and the music is certainly complex and the rhythms and grooves slither and move together like a Bali dancer with a king cobra, but at the heart of all the songs is a strong melody, complete with hooks to draw the listener in and even accessible choruses, a heresy to some prog fans. But those melodies make their home here, and they draw the listener in every time, and make you wish to God that more bands had the ability to do them as well.
Ray Alder is the primary lyricist of the album, and the themes he explores are common to prog: alienation, choices, an attempt to make sense of the world, changes in one’s life deliberate, or forced upon you. But most importantly taking charge of those changes in life, and making the future answer to you and being in control of your own life. The perfect example of his approach is found in the fifth track ‘White Flags.’ The song has everything that makes this album work, pounding riffs, intricate drum parts, and Alder singing melodically over the top, all the while proclaiming in glorious defiance of the world around him: “don’t surrender, don’t give up, never carry that white flag!” and to round it off, the song is one of the few examples of Matheos showing off his considerable chops, with perfectly placed solos and shredding. The instrumental middle section of this fairly short (hardly 5 minutes) song is not only emotionally satisfying, but gets the adrenaline flowing as well.
The highlight of the album however, musically, lyrically, and emotionally is the fully Matheos penned ‘The Ghosts of Home.’ Before the band came across what would become the album cover (complete with what became the title already part of it) this track was meant to be the title track, and it would have been a fitting one. ‘Ghosts’ is Matheos taking us on a trip through his childhood, a childhood where he attended eight schools in the first nine years, of constantly moving and never having a real home. The lyrics are stark and real, filled not with anger, but with deep and accepted melancholy and regret. And like many of us who have tried to return to past places, returning home is never truly possible. It’s a hard reality, but we wade through it with the lyricist and Alder’s vocals are never better than on this climax. And Matheos’s guitar sings a melody to soften the hardest metal heart throughout, while Vera’s bass is heard the most clearly and grounds the very beginning. The song also feels like Matheos’s more than any other from the very start. Clips of radio and TV news shows begin the song, which bring to mind his work in OSI and the frequent use of sound effects on their albums. The song is a near perfect closure to the album, and it bleeds into the final track, the title track, that is comprised almost entirely of the above mentioned recordings with brief guitar. The track doesn’t really add much to the album, but seen as a trail leading from home, it at least doesn’t suffer the term of filler.
As good as this album is, it does not have that special something that lands it in the upper echelons of prog metal masterpieces. There is nothing that stands out as a major flaw, but it doesn’t leave the listener in utter awe at the finish. But this is not a true criticism, not every album is going to be a masterpiece. It remains a truly excellent album, fated to please any right minded metal fan. The few problems are minor, but evident. With the exception of ‘Ghosts,’ Joey Vera’s bass is mixed far too low. The man is one of the best regarded bassists in the business, bur his presence is all but lost in most of the album. On ‘Ghosts’ however he takes his proper place, and the lushness and clarity of his bass work heightens everything in the song. Bobby Jarzombek does a fine job drumming throughout, but he lacks the intricacies and finesse of long term drummer Mark Zonder, and I can’t help but wonder how the album would have been even better with Zonder’s touch. Finally, I liked Ray Alder a great deal more on this album than I ever have in the past, and he truly did an excellent job, but on a few choruses he trails into excessive theatrics which for me at least takes away from the enjoyment. Such vocal techniques are common in prog metal, and earlier metal in general, so take it with a grain of salt.
In short, ‘Theories of Flight’ is undoubtedly going to be on the Top 10 lists of many listeners and reviewers at the year’s end. It is a heavy, melodic, yet still wonderfully complex and engrossing listen from the first chords to the closing moments. Any fan of their previous work would do well to get it at their earliest convenience, and for people who where perhaps less than enthralled before, prepare to have your mind changed and to be impressed. Fates Warning has delivered a nearly flawless piece of high art, and if you’re a serious listener and fan of artistically made metal this album needs to be heard.