Wednesday, July 20, 2016

album review: 'theories of flight' by fates warning

It's widely understood that there were four bands who really 'broke' progressive metal towards more mainstream acceptance - well, as mainstream as prog metal gets. I've talked about Dream Theater twice and they probably stand out as my favourites, although I can definitely say that early Queensryche gets up there too. And then there's Tool... look, I'll save that discussion for if they ever actually release another album, I'm not sure I want to deal with the dumpster fire that conversation will be.

Then there's the last group, the one that gets mentioned in the same sentence and came up around the same time but never seems to get the same attention or critical acclaim. That group is Fates Warning, a group that for the past few weeks I've been exploring in detail to try and understand why exactly they never get the same attention. And I think there are a number of reasons: they never really had a huge crossover into the mainstream, they weren't active throughout a significant chunk of the 2000s, and they also weren't really as good. I'm not saying the group was bad, but the group definitely suffered through some pretty rough production throughout the 80s that would only start to turn around in earnest by the turn of the decade with Perfect Symmetry and Parallels. And yet from there... it's hard to tell what it is, beyond the unfair comparisons to stronger peers. They wrote good music, but I'm not sure I could point to that standout classic record the same way I could with Operation: Mindcrime or Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory. I don't think they were helped by trying to stick with production trends of the time rather than carve out their own route - it definitely dates both Disconnected and FWX as albums, even if I do think Disconnected is probably underrated. In any case, when the band went on hiatus and then came back in 2013 with Darkness In A Different Light, I actually quite liked that record - the band sounded fresh and invigorated, and the writing and production felt as fresh as anyone could have expected. So you can bet when I heard that Theories Of Flight was even better, hailed as one of Fates Warning's best albums, I was excited to dig in, so despite being a week or two late with this review, how did the album turn out?

Folks, I have to admit, I struggled with this review. And not because without a doubt I can say this is easily one of the best Fates Warning records, near on par with their best... and yet for me I'd say that it only rises to solidly good, not quite great. Again, it is definitely good and I know fans have given this album a lot of high praise for being heavier and more aggressive and featuring some of their best work, but I wouldn't say it really clicks for me. Worse still, it's the sort of record that also doesn't give me a lot to say in order to describe why, which means it's going to be a bit of a struggle to keep this interesting, but I'll try.

Because here's the thing: most of what people praise about Fates Warning I'm entirely on board with supporting. Ray Alder has always been a great singer and he brings some of his most expressive range to the table here. The guitar work, from the solos from Frank Aresti and Mike Abdow to the rhythmic but melodic riffs from Jim Matheos, they're remarkably solid. When Joey Vera has anything to do on bass - we'll come back to this - he gets it done, and Bobby Jarzombek might be the unsung hero of this record on drums. Not just for his technique - his fills are complex but never to the point of being obtrusive - but how well the kit is micced; listen to the cymbal pickup on a track like 'The Light And Shade Of Things', easily the album highlight, and there's so much clean presence to the hits without sounding overly compressed or crisp. And while my usual complaint with Fates Warning is that they meander a little too much before getting to a strong vocal hook, they actually did pull together some of their best here, with 'The Light And Shade Of Things', 'Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen', and 'Seven Stars'. And while you can see touches of influence from other progressive metal acts like Ayreon in the liquid guitar interlude on 'SOS', or from modern Steven Wilson across the last few songs, Fates Warning does have a definitive identity of their own, and this is easily some of their most aggressive and propulsive work to date. 

And yet, if I go through these compositions on a melodic level, I think I've got an idea why this album isn't quite getting to me. Some of it is production - I really wish the bass guitar actually was able to give a little foundation to these riffs, the acoustic texture can feel a little tinny on songs like 'The Ghosts Of Home' - and's that not counting all the compression on some of the interludes of which I'm not always a fan - and I'm convinced some of the melody lines are a shade quieter than the rhythm guitars, which doesn't help your hooks. But the larger issue comes in the melodies themselves - they tend to tilt into minor progressions that imply a melancholic atmosphere, and that's presuming they change up at all, and that tends to fly in contrast to Ray Alder's vocals, which can play for bigger climaxes and dramatic contrast that you don't really see. And none of this is helped by the fact that the rhythm guitars can feel prioritized over the melodies on songs like on 'From The Rooftops' or 'White Flag' or 'Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen'. I might not love all the effects that are piled into 'The Ghosts Of Home', but that song was at least able to balance itself more effectively and shift between various dominant tones from bass to rhythm guitar to the melody, while remaining cohesive. And that's one thing where I will definitely give Fates Warning credit, in that the transitions are remarkably smooth and never snap you out of the song.

And speaking of cohesion, let's talk about lyrics and themes, because like previous records you can tell that Theories Of Flight is trying to explore a full idea, in this case how one deals with their past. And this is where I fall into a weird spot with this record because on the surface, it all comes together damn near seamlessly. Right from the opening songs it highlights the benefits of moving on from one's past, not letting it haunt or drown you, especially on what could be interpreted as the slow motion breakdown of trust on 'Seven Stars'. And again, that's one reason why 'The Light And Shade Of Things' works so well for me, encountering a guy sifting through the wreckage at the end to the point where he feels numb more than anything, and yet it's a call to take both light and darkness, burn the past, and keep going forward, find that gutpunch of emotion to keep pushing. And where this record gets interesting is when our protagonist starts to dig into why moving on is so important, retracing to the past where he moved a lot growing up and defining what 'home' really means, especially when you return to it now and all you find are ghosts - you really can't go back. And I like how things are left open-ended and it doesn't really give a plain answer on what might have been the cause - just keep moving forward, anything else is just a theory. And yeah, the writing is well structured and framed and appropriately ambiguous, but there's something about it that isn't really sticking, and I think it's a lack of greater distinguishing detail. It almost feels like the lyrics are functional and straightforward to a fault, missing that additional bit of spice in the poetry to really give it unique character or to articulate more of a concrete story. 

And again, this broadness tends to work in metal, but here, combined with a lack of strong climax points in the melodies, I can appreciate this record more than I actually like it. It's definitely better Fates Warning and fans of the band will surely be on board, but for me it's a light 7/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan or looking to scratch your progressive metal itch. I can't promise you're going to love Theories Of Flight by Fates Warning or even completely remember it, but it is solid music, and at the very least deserves attention for that, so check it out.

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