Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Fates Warning's 'Theories of Flight' - Album Review

Despite being one of the real movers and shakers of the progressive metal genre, Fates Warning never found as much success or critical acclaim as their contemporaries; Dream Theater and Queensrÿche in particular. Since 1982 however, the American band have been churning out fairly consistent albums that cover a range of moods and styles. While early Dream Theater and Queensrÿche albums were always fairly accessible and overtly melodic, Fates Warning's murky and heavier take on the genre made them stand out, but could have also been a factor in making their success much more modest than these other bands. That being said however, Fates Warning still have a hugely loyal fanbase and are extremely important in the development of the progressive metal genre. Lead guitarist Jim Matheos is the band's sole founding member to remain in the current line-up, is one of the best players in the genre. His playing is definitely more about mood and feel than flashy techniques, and his riffing style is instantly recognisable. Frontman Ray Alder, who joined the band in 1987 for their fourth album No Exit, has changed his style and delivery over the years. Originally adopting the banshee vocal style of his predecessor (and of many other progressive metal singers), Alder slowly moved towards a deeper and more soulful delivery. His voice now has a richness that is not often found in the genre, and he has become one of the band's biggest assets after turning in a few unremarkable performances on some of the band's previous albums. The rhythm section of bassist Joey Vera (who celebrates twenty years of being in Fates Warning this year) and drummer Bobby Jarzombek are a rock solid unit who focus more on the groove of the music than always playing fast and complex passages. These four men, who first played together on a Fates Warning album on 2013's Darkness in a Different Light, have brought the band into the twenty first century, and are now one of the band's definitive line-ups. Darkness in a Different Light was the first Fates Warning album I bought when it was new, and I have to say I was disappointed. I have listened to the album quite a few times since and have never really been able to get into it. The rather flat production and Alder's rather weak vocal display are the main reasons it never caught on with me, so I approached their latest work Theories of Flight with some trepidation. When I heard this album however, I was blown away. Everything that I disliked about Darkness in a Different Light has been put right here. The production is heavy and in-your-face, and Alder seems to finally have found his mature singing voice. He sounds fantastic throughout, and the catchy vocal melodies in the songs definitely help to bring out the best in his voice.

Opening with a calm, rhythmic feel, opening song From the Rooftops draws the listener in with a smooth vocal performance and clean chiming guitars before the song explodes into a true metallic beast a couple of minutes in. This initially seems like a strange way to open a metal album, but the slow build up towards the first proper riff works really well, and helps to highlight how well produced and powerful this album is when the full band finally kick in. Jarzombek, who co-wrote the song, really impresses throughout this song. His progressive round-the-kit playing really drives the opening mellow section, and his double-kick assault and almost thrash-like tendencies really amps up the power later on. Alder is on top form from the outset, but really shines once the heavy part of the song kicks in. The grit he displays here is unlike anything he has done before, but he still finds a melodic delivery for the song's strong chorus. Long time second guitarist Frank Aresti (who no longer plays with the band due to family commitments) guests here contributing a fantastic solo which is a real neo-classical shred-fest that follows on from a slow atmospheric solo from Matheos. The infectious Seven Stars definitely sounds like a bit of a throwback to the band's more overtly melodic sound they pursued in the early 1990s and perfected on on 1991's Parallels. The song is so tightly written, from the soaring guitar lead in the intro, to the bass-led verse that sees Alder dominate with a simple and direct vocal melody. The chorus is the album's best, with plenty of big vocal harmonies that enhance the sound without taking anything away from Alder's new-found vocal power. Matheos, not to be outdone by a guest musician on this song, lays down another fantastic guitar solo here that is oozing with melody. SOS opens with some some guitar stabs, before it becomes another heavier piece with a real groove which comes from Vera and Jarzombek's interplay underneath Matheos' simpler guitar riffs. The song makes great use of light and shade however, with a murky drumless section that seems to be built on synth lines and effects-heavy guitars that Alder sings over with ease. The song does not make as much of an impact as the first two, but there is still plenty to enjoy. The Light and Shade of Things, the first of two songs here that are over ten minutes long, is another strong song. It opens with some gorgeous clean guitar playing from Matheos, and the whole takes on the slow burning feel of this opening section. Some of the guitar work here is stunning, with lots of layering and subtle leads throughout to really enhance the song without getting in your face. About a third of the way through however the rest of the band kick in with a very 1980s-style riff and the song becomes a mid-paced rocker. That slow burning feel still remains however, and helps the song to stand out and grow more with each listen. The song's chorus is another strong one, with some excellent vocals from Alder. The song continues to chop and change throughout, and makes it a true prog epic with some very memorable moments.

White Flag is more compact, and really comes racing out of the block with a menacing riff that actually sounds like something Nevermore would have come up with! The pace never really lets up throughout and is driven by a powerful verse build on a technical guitar riff, with the only changes of pace being for the choruses. This song is also a bit of a guitar feast, as it features guitar solos by not only Aresti, but also by current touring guitarist Mike Abdow (Frozen) who all let rip around the three minute mark. Abdow comes first, with a very unique style that makes you wonder why he is not better known, before Aresti shreds his fingers off. Having three guitar guitarists playing on this song make it one of the best on the album, and the energy it creates is second to none here. Anyone wanting to catch their breath will not be able to do this with the mid-paced crunchy rock of Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen which opens out with a driving double bass drum rhythm and accompanying chugging riff. It is not as fast as White Flag, but it is still pretty heavy with rhythms that drive hard. Again, the choruses are slower, and actually have quite an anthemic quality here as the band drops back somewhat and gives Alder's voice more time to shine and belt out the strong melodies. The song's industrial rock ending is great too, and has a robotic quality that makes it stand out and provides something new for the band to try. The penultimate song The Ghosts of Home is the other long song, and opens with snippets of news broadcasts set to an atmospheric backing. It soon opens out however with some simple chiming guitar lines and Alder's crooning vocals before the whole band comes in and things start to sound like 1990s Dream Theater with fun, technical druming and a massive keyboard riff (well, it might be a heavily-effected guitar, but it sounds like a keyboard - although no-one in the album's sleeve notes are credited with playing keyboards) that injects plenty of melody into the song. This part is the closest the band come to sounding like 'generic' progressive metal on this album, but it works well and the bursts of melody are welcome. Despite some strong competition, this could be the album's best song, simply because of the amount of melody there is here. The song never feels like it is over 10 minutes long, as it keeps changing things up to remain interesting. It is a powerful and varied song, and is modern Fates Warning at their best. The closing song, the instrumental title track, is the shortest song here and fuses strange spoken word sections with alternative-sounding guitar parts. It is quite a spacey song, and helps to capture the feeling of the album well, working well as a closing piece of music after the epic previous song. Overall, Theories of Flight is the best Fates Warning album for sometime, and shows that the band have found their modern style.

The album was released on 1st July 2016 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for From the Rooftops.

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