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For the last 4 albums since ‘Awaken the Guardian’ there had been a constant dip in the quality of the Fates Warning records. Further since the last two records FW had taken more of a commercial approach to their music. Longtime fans were actually afraid that we might have another ‘Queensryche’ here. But for their 8th record, Fates Warning makes some drastic changes. Firstly is the departure of bassist Joey Di-biase, and secondly is the songwriting approach.
The last two records were heavily dependent upon singles. But here Fates Warning takes a complete 180 degree opposite approach t o songwriting and construction to do something that wasn’t done before. A Pleasant Shade of Grey consists of just one song of 54 minute length, exploring some of the darkest areas in progressive music. The mood album of the album is dark, but not the darkness associated with Black Metal. The songwriting and composition is great. The sound is much heavier than their last 2 records and also undeniably very complex. In fact I might add that this is one of the most progressive records ever made. Even among the fans of progressive rock/metal this record will be little hard to digest. The production is top notch, making all the departments sound excellently.
All the members are in the top form of their careers. As usual on Fates Warning album the star performer is Ray Alder. His voice may be toned down since ‘No Exit’, but his mid range fits the mood of the album brilliantly. Jim Matheos himself is in lethal form, composing complex as hell riffs and executing the same to perfection. New comer Joey Vera and Mark Zonder form an excellent rhythm section. Keyboards are played by none other than Dream Theater keyboard wizard Kevin Moore who gives one of the best performances of his career.
This is a concept album the details of which I won’t go right now in this review. The tone of the music fits concept excellently. The lyrics are excellent. The song is divided into 12 unnamed parts. Each part flows into others quite well. The pace of the album is very slow which may cause problems to regular metal heads. The entire album is very moody and very hard to listen to due to its extreme progressive nature. The things to note in this album are the efficient songwriting, the way each part flows into other, the mood of this album which these guys managed to create wonderfully.
The main drawback of this album is that it is not easily accessible and is unconventional. It takes more than 5 listens to fully understand this record. It is also very moody. If you are in that proper mood it will appeal to you, other times you will think of it as complete bullshit. So I would advice to approach this album with some caution as it can cause disappointment and frustrations.
Written entirely by the band’s mastermind, Jim Matheos, “A Pleasant Shade of Gray” is Fates Warning’s eight studio album, and, in my opinion, the best of the Ray Alder era. On the two previous releases they were playing a more progressive form of commercial rock/metal that I don’t really like, and consider them to be among the weakest albums of the band, but with this everything changed. Allegedly annoyed with the vapidity of the mainstream culture, Matheos and his sidekicks decided to swim against the stream, releasing one of the most non-commercial, inaccessible albums in the history of prog. Dealing with themes such as melancholy, monotony and morose memories, and being made of a single, 54 minutes long song divided in twelve parts, there is nothing even slightly catchy or energetic about “APSoG”. Every aspect of the music is mellow, multi-layered and inherently complex. The progressiveness here, however, is very different from what one might expect. There are few solos to be found, and none of the “wank” that most prog-metal is famous for. Instead, the intricacy lies on the details. Every note, every line, even the quietest cymbal crash was meant to be heard. That is not to say that there are no things like shifting time signatures or the like, because there are many of them, they’re just not flashy or in-your-face. One of the riffs, I think it is in Part V, for example, swiftly shifts between 7/4 and 6/8, but it is not something you easily notice. It takes time, attention and dedication to understand everything that this album has to offer. And for all of that, this is unquestionably a tremendous musical achievement.
Things start slowly with the calm, sinister Part I. Comprised of an eerie melody played on both the guitar (Jim Matheos) and the keyboard (Kevin Moore) repetitively, it sets the perfect atmosphere for the rest of the album / song. Then, the vocals (Ray Alder) slowly arise, softly singing the introductory lines, in which he asks where to begin, and what should we do, a verse that will be later be repeated at Part VI and differently at Part XII, to enhance the feeling of this being a single song, and not a disjointed cacophony. A quiet noise on the background leads into the second part, which is the loudest on the album. The driving riff / piano juxtaposition has a very mechanical precision and feeling, common to the entire song, especially in the main riff on Part III. Being the only piece with distorted vocals, Part II stands out from the rest, particularly for the interesting chorus. The following track has that aforementioned emotionless riff, and some recurring lines. Part IV starts as one of the melancholic ballads on the album, the others being Part VI and IX, but about half-way through changes into a fierce riff-o-rama. Part V has some insanely complex riffs and drum (Mark Zonder) fills, being extremely syncopated, besides the somewhat philosophical and disturbing “let nothing bleed into nothing” line, which will be repeated at the equally excellent Part VII, and is constantly sung here. Part VIII is a short, nice instrumental that leads into the beautiful Part IX, which contains one of the two guitar solos of the entire album. The solos are not as intricate as the other facets of the music, instead being more emotional and warm. The other short instrumental is Part X, where the electronic elements, subtly present on the whole song, come at full force while the eerie theme from Part I is played at the background. The eleventh track has a strong, crushing main riff and a powerful bass (Joey Vera) to back it up, while Alder makes many questions, probably denoting regret. The lyrics on the whole album are exceptional, among the best Matheos ever wrote, sometimes almost rivaling John Arch’s lyrical masterpieces of the early days. They perfectly capture the essence of the album: sadness, introspection and the loss of innocence. I must also note that all the musicians are very talented, almost masters at their respective instruments. And all of this comes together on the last track, Part XII, the definitive highlight of the song. It has everything that rest of the album has (electronic influence, mechanical riffs, rich melodies), but much better. A masterpiece, even when detached from the other sections.
On the downside, the song does, occasionally, sound a bit incoherent. No big deal, but a flaw nevertheless. Could have been better structured, but it is genius as it is. I wish I could recommend “APSoG” to everyone, but not many will have the patience that it takes to understand the album, assimilate its components and let it grow on you. Besides, most people simply won’t like the mechanical, cold nature of the song. So, in the end, I recommend this only for those with a taste for complex, multi-layered prog-metal, and that are not afraid to experience a dream in musical form. I recommend this for fans of modern art, and I hope you too press play, lie down on your bed while hearing the soft sounds of rain coming from outside and embrace this pleasant shade of gray.
We've all had this kind of day, where we look outside our windows to watch the rain fall, and we put ourselves in an introspective mood. This is the kind of impression I got from this album: a relaxing, yet bleak, piece of continuous music that allows for some of us to don our thinking caps for ~55 minutes.
There's really no way to pinpoint what this album impresses upon you, except that an overwhelming sense of seeing an image in a shade of gray. For the most part, this album is rather soft, slow, and subtle. There are a couple sections where turning the volume all the way up stops being a good idea, but with the sheer amount of low-key riffs and acoustic work, the overall sound of this album is "quiet" and "serene".
The lyrics seem to also play a role in creating the atmosphere, with recurring themes of nothingness, the illusion of time, and the eponymous shades of gray. Fates Warning is trying to create a world for us; a world where time has no hold on us, where we have no significance, and where the world itself is given the same hue that our very lives exude: the pleasant shade of gray.
This album is tricky to write a review for, since it's so ephemeral and, dare I say, progressive, that it's more like an experience than it is a piece of music. The question then becomes, is this the kind of experience you can enjoy and visit several times voluntarily? In this case, yes it is. When you're in the mood for an album that is not only relaxing, but intellectually engaging, you've come to the right place.
A Pleasant Shade of Gray is the sort of album I had always expected Fates Warning to write and release, a full-bodied concept album which took a similar approach to their 20+ minute track "The Ivory Gate of Dreams" from 1988's No Exit. Progressive metal bands have always excelled at such efforts, much like their rock forebears, and I can think fondly back to the first time I heard something like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Operation Mindcrime or Nothingface, and was blown away by not only the depth of the material but the great music included with it. What I did not expect is that when it came time for Fates Warning to put their own spin on this niche, they would fall so flat.
The album is called A Pleasant Shade of Gray, and from its title alone you can gather that it will dabble in themes of melancholy, the mundane subtleties that fill all our days on Earth in this industrial, inspiration-starved Western civilization. But it's not the theme that really stumbles here, it is the lethargic songwriting and the failure to evoke even the most average of memorable melodies that the band have always excelled in. It's like a soundtrack to a movie you don't want to see; a 'gray' mist that descends upon the listener to most annoying semblance of ennui. It's like one of those lectures at university which had you so bored that you couldn't stop looking at the clock, wondering what the campus cafeteria would be serving in the evening and whether you had even the faintest chance of getting laid. Seriously, your thoughts could wander nearly any place and arrive at something more interesting than what has manifested on this disc.
And it's not due to any shift in tone or style by the band. No, this music is not a far cry from anything they've previously recorded. It's simply stretched out so painfully that it inhabits a void where all the band's good ideas seem long since dead. There are 12 tracks here, each titled in Roman numerals, which are aesthetically about as interesting as the music they represent. Even when the band breaks out into the more jamming segments of the album, like "Part III" or "Part VII", there is no interesting riff to be found, no spark of life. For example, take the dull central riff of "III" with its listless harmonic...no positive rhythm will ever emerge from it, it simply does its time before a mediocre groove develops under the mediocre vocal hook. It's like some guy bored in his jam room repeating the same useless riff just to hear himself think, while the neighboring bands listen on with apathy at the pathetic rambling tone.
The heavy use of electronics, the most the band had included by this point, doesn't exactly cripple the core riffing, but it is likewise weak, summoning up nothing but a desire to repeatedly mash the 'track forward' button on your CD player. There are pianos here, and there are acoustics, both of which are also leeched of all potential captivation through the unfortunate selections in notation. Try as hard as I might, I can find NO silver lining in this cloud. It's impossible to pick out a highlight...parts "XI" and "XII" seem like an attempt to re-establish some sort of mirror to the band's better days, but even these feel like a gaggle of depressed monkeys picking up instruments in an empty emulation of Connecticut's storied metal gods. The lyrics are dry and cliched, like a caricature of the most banal material of the past three records.
I don't know what kind of vampire crawled into the Fates Warning rehearsal space and sucked out every fiber of being and talent from the band during the songwriting process for this album, but it's seriously the progressive metal equivalent to Muzak. Only Muzak is often more memorable than the 54 minutes of wasted space and time that this album represents. It's been 13 years now, and while the band has not created anything of significance in its wake, we should all be grateful that they have not attempt to further plum these empty, uninspired depths. I came back to this album thinking there might be something I missed the last few times I suffered its endless, laconic framework, but came out of the experience trailing nothing but the eyes of the abyss at my back, laughing as I went.
Highlights: if you managed to listen through this album without a nervous breakdown, a fit of convulsive psychosis, or suicidal confrontation, congratulations, you are one hard mother fucker. The Armed Forces could use a few good men like you.
Fates Warning has gone through many changes in style throughout their lengthy existence. Starting as pure NWOBHM worship, Fates Warning went on to create two of the greatest US progressive/power metal albums of all time. Shortly after the departure of John Arch, Fates Warning began to shed their power metal roots, offering a thrashy sound with Alder's first album, No Exit, and a more mechanical, meticulous sound on Perfect Symmetry. The band then released two rather underwhelming commercialized prog rock albums, Parallels and Inside Out. A Pleasant Shade of Gray marked yet another stylistic shift for Fates Warning, this time back to progressive metal, but with a modernized sound. While APSoG may not have the unrestrained energy of their earlier material, what it lacks in fervor it makes up for in complexity. This is some of the most interesting music ever written, and while often written off as boring, several listens will reveal a masterpiece of modern progressive metal.
I recommend you listen to this while doing nothing else, because this is not background music. Imagine lying in bed in the early grayness of the morning, as the music begins with an unsettling guitar melody over the muted rain and a crash of thunder. Soon, Ray Alder's deceptively calm vocals enter:
"So where do we begin
And what else can we say?
When the lines are all drawn
What should we do today?"
It may seem like a vague and weak introduction, but this is one of several recurring themes that make up the web of ideas that is A Pleasant Shade of gray. What follows is nothing short of a spectacular ride through a storm of conflicting emotions, not only a masterpiece of music but a deeply moving and intricate story. There is nothing else that even remotely resembles this. The lyrics, the music, and the atmosphere of this concept album (which is really just a 52 minute song) are all completely unique.
To horribly generalize the theme of the album, a man is lying in bed in the early morning, listening to the rain, drifting in and out of sleep, reliving (and regretting) parts of his past. As for the exact interpretation of the lyrics, I'll leave that up to you. Suffice to say that if you read and listen closely enough there are some very dark and troubling things subtly implied by the lyrics. These are the best lyrics Matheos ever wrote, even rivaling the John Arch's lyrical genius on tracks such as Epitaph.
For 52 minutes, never once does A Pleasant Shade of Gray halt the onslaught of emotions and thoughts. As if it were a flowing stream of consciousness from the narrator himself, APSoG flows on, cutting some ideas (musical or lyrical) short, always introducing others, creating a tangled web of themes that will take several listens to decipher. It may, at first, seem aimless and plodding, but further listening will reveal quite the opposite - everything here is here for a reason, every melody and line serves a distinct purpose in the large, foggy image of the music. Consequently, APSoG never truly seems disjointed or disorganized, despite the chaotic flow of themes.
A Pleasant Shade of Gray is a very atmospheric album, in that there is not much that is flashy or that will immediately grab your attentions. Here is an album nearly bereft of hooks or catchy choruses. The few choruses that there are often appear in multiple parts, and in some cases sound more grating and unnerving than catchy ("Let nothing bleed into nothing"). There are very few solos to be heard, none of which are in any way flashy. The entire album is understated (save possibly for the middle of part six), seemingly obscured as if covered in a fog. Fitting the name well, nothing on this album has much color.
The musical style is very different from anything Fates had played before. Far from both the energy of their earlier power metal and the quieter progressive rock of their early 90s work, APSoG is notably heavy (especially on parts VII and XI) and definitively "metal," a quality which had been very lacking on their previous two albums. The guitars are loud and central in the mix. Alder's vocal style is more restrained than on his previous works, but he still jumps up into some higher notes occasionally, something he would (unfortunately) cease to do on his later albums. One of the most notable changes is the addition of Kevin Moore on keyboards. This album contains many more synthesized sounds than their previous works, and while often synths can become cheesy and forced, this is luckily not the case on APSoG. Even the recorded, spoken word parts, usually awful on most albums, come off as tasteful and well-placed.
There's really not much more to say about this album without going off on a long, rather boring deconstruction of the various lyrical and musical themes. This album is a must-listen for any fan of progressive metal, or simply any music fan who enjoys contemplating his music. APSoG is a unique album by a unique band. The listener must simply keep in mind that it is not meant as a catchy sing-along or as background music.
After having 2 rather successful, though a bit similar sounding albums, Fates Warning went through some rather drastic changes. The line-up has suffered two blows, the most noteworthy is the loss of co-founding member and bassist Joe Dibiase. His influence was one of the things that kept the band grounded and kept their music accessible. The accessibility factor has always been a factor that Progressive bands have had to contend with, many of them feeling straight-jacketed by the more simplistic tastes of other metal genres, and on this album we see a sort of defiance towards that convention as this album is 100% unconventional.
As a whole, this album is grounded not in terms of it's structure, but instead by a collection of recurring themes. The entry and exodus of these themes seems random at first, but after several listens you begin to notice that there is a structured pace to this album, though it is often blurred by some slight alterations in the presentation of these themes. Indeed, the primary flaw in this album is that it takes 8 or 9 listens, from start to finish, in order to fully understand what is going on here musically. I myself, who studied Music Theory and Composition at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, am still dumbfounded by it's complexity.
As this CD is basically structured as one large song with 12 unnamed parts, the primary thing to focus on in terms of highlighting it's strengths are these various themes that come and go, and the character of some of the various tracks. The first theme to occur is obviously the one that sticks in your head the most, as it sounds a bit similar to the Nightmare on Elmstreet theme. There is a secondary theme that occurs on track 5 that comes back in track 7 that includes the words "Let nothing lead into nothing", which lyrically underscores the nebulous and abstract nature of the album's concept. Track 5, as a whole, includes some of the most complex set of riffs, keyboard parts, and drum fills I've ever heard. The closing track is probably the most simple and the most catchy out of the bunch, although it's more of a recitation than a traditional song with a verse and chorus.
All in all, this is a highly innovative album with a ton of bizarre twists and turns. But there is an anchor that keeps it from being a random mess of sound the way some ultra-progressive bands, the kind whom throw the book out the window merely for the sake of it, often create. The only thing that it really suffers from is inaccessibility due to being a bit too complex. Even amongst fans of Progressive Metal, this album will be quite a bit tough to understand. The best I can make of the actual concept of this album is that it is a dream sequence, hence it functions primarily as a longer and more modern version of the old classic magnum opus "The Ivory Gate of Dreams", another complex work by the same band.
Although this is a musically astounding accomplishment, and will sit well the more intellectual end of the Progressive scene, it is obviously not perfect. What I would recommend doing if you pick it up is not to rely on your first, second or third listen alone as the sole indicator of this album's value. There is a lot in here for the mind to comprehend, though I admit that not everyone has the time nor the will to devote for something this massive.