Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
Dream Theater is often cited as the first prog-metal band, but these guys were already doing it just as Dream Theater was getting started. Prior to this album, Fates Warning were playing pretty straight-forward heavy metal, not unlike Iron Maiden or something. With this album, they took the heavy riffing, put it in a blender, pureed it for a bit, and carefully took that goopy mess and shaped into the songs on this album. Both guitars rip pretty heavily throughout, lots of chunking and chugging. The riffs are often in rather odd rhythms and meters, but still catchy at the same time, in a melodic, minor-key, heavy metal kind of way. This is the kind of thing that I love this band for. I think Jim Matheos is one of metal’s greatest unsung guitarists. Most of the time he avoids “shredding” in favor of a more subdued, melodic approach. The rhythm section is solid, but unspectacular. The vocals are sung in a high-pitched whine not uncommon back in those days, but with very interesting melodies. Lyrics are about fantasy and stuff, I guess. I don’t pay much attention to them, but they seem well done.
Most songs are around five or six minutes, some longer, and one short guitar instrumental. Compositionally, this gives the songs a lot of time to develop, and to shift through a wide variety of different things. Sometimes they fall into the “cut and paste” trap, where some bits are slapped together without having much in common with each other, but most of the time the songs flow very well. “Prelude to Ruin” and “Exodus” suffer a little from this. Most of the other songs flow pretty well, though, and I don’t dislike any song on this record.
Okay, so that brings me to the few minuses I’ve found with this album. First, the production isn’t all that great. It was the mid-1980’s, they’re a heavy metal band, and they probably didn’t have much of a budget. The drums sound particularly dated, with way too much reverb on the snare drum (and other instruments, for that matter). The guitars have that big high-gain “scooped-mid” crunch, but pretty thin, and kinda washed out some of the time. But really, it’s not bad or anything. You can hear everything that’s going on (and there’s a lot!). It just sounds weird, and a bit too “80’s” to my ears. The other negative is John Arch’s voice. He’s a good singer, but his voice is rather weak and thin. Some people like it, but I don’t. Sorry! The production doesn’t help either.
Okay, but I still like this album quite a bit. Fates Warning is one of the few prog-metal bands that I consistently like. This album is their “breakthrough” album, set pretty far apart from what was going on in metal at that time (I imagine). I consider this one of the few “must-hear” prog-metal albums. And it doesn’t even sound like Dream Theater!