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Oh God, where the hell do I begin? This was the question that I had been asking myself before writing this review. To even start to analyze this masterwork of epic proportions would require a description of a very wide viewpoint. Especially during a time such as the one present when so many make the bold claim that metal is currently lacking in creativity and innovation. While I would not go as far as to say that, I would agree that the 1980s was a time for the genre that was more open-minded and inventive. But even then, often the most eloquent of voices were often less heard than the pretentiousness of Reign in Blood and British Steel. I see the progressive metal scene of that time to be an appropriate response to this (although I largely view the modern prog scene to be quite pathetic). Bands such as Queensryche and Crimson Glory took metal to realms it was new to and are very influential on many modern acts. The roots of their songwriting were clear, but they took what their forefathers did even further. Fates Warning was once an Iron Maiden clone, but then they decided to take their influences and put on their own esoteric twist, resulting in the flawed, but interesting 1985 release, The Spectre Within. It had then become their goal to fix their previous flaws and the result was an album that was less accessible, but much more inventive and unique in approach.
Awaken The Guardian is an album that carries its listener on a journey like no other before or after it. It shows a band not only creating their own sound, but not trying as hard to impress either on first listen. There is no technical wankery, but the way that each song is crafted will put off every listener at first. Each song is so complex in songwriting that I see each one as more of an album. They tend to be around the 6:00 mark, although a band such as Between the Buried and Me couldn't have this much depth in a 20:00 "epic". This isn't exactly a great representative of the 80s progressive scene, as it was too far ahead of its time. It would be ahead of its time today as well, as it was crafted in such an outlandish way, that it is impossible to replicate.
Take "The Sorceress" as an example. It begins with a haunting, yet melodious acoustic intro, before a riff that uses not only an unconventional melody on, but also a very strange time signature that changes within measures, complemented by unusual cymbal patterns. The chorus is more typical melodic power metal, before diving back into the verse. All the while with a galloping ruthenium, kind of like a horse with bent legs. The song then gets a little heavier, but the psychedelic melodies give it a very dream-like atmosphere. It then descends into a very heavy, chugging, yet still very strange riff. This is the song at its darkest point, although the vocals still use somewhat folkish melodies. I will get to the vocals later. Then it revolves its verse and chorus, before ending.
A more accessible track such as "Fata Morgana" would make use of more conventional melodies, but with a very diverse blend. That song in particular is very ahead of its time, with the fantasy-driven, melodic power metal core. The main riff is somewhat split. The first half is somewhat gloomy, while the second is more uplifting. The time signatures are more conventional, but the drumming patterns make up for this with their unusualness. The chorus captures the heart and soul of power metal itself. The second half of the song gives return to strange time signatures, along with somewhat thrash you riffs, before going back into the wonderful chorus.
The longest track of the album is the closing epic, "Exodus". This song has hardly any layers, but it makes up for that with epic writing. The odd time signatures are still very present. There is a beautiful acoustic section, as well as some thrashy stuff, but the real highlight is the chorus. One of the best moments of the album, it takes you throughout the world of fantasy and reality, leaving a sense of triumph and rewarding after a very long and hard struggle. Both that and "Fata Morgana" we're very ahead of their time in terms of power metal.
But what compliments everything most throughout the album is the frontman. John Arch is not only an excellent poet (he wrote his own lyrics), but he crafts masterful vocal melodies and possesses a truly charismatic tone. He has a somewhat nasally voice with a little bit of reverb, which turns many people off to the album. But I see it as quite possibly the greatest pro of an album without cons. It gives the dissonant music a ghostly atmosphere, seeming as though the cold wind is singing to you within the land depicted in the cover art. His vocal melodies are also very intricate. He jams almost as many notes in as possible, not all of them having a straightforward feel, adding to the album's off-kilter nature. His lyrics go from topics such as history, politics, anti-religion, emotion, fantasy, and even criticism of the glam scene of the time, but his complex writing, rich vocabulary and uses of metaphors makes you not even think badly of it. His vocal melodies are very original, as well as possessing great complexity. He sounds beautiful in "Exodus", kinda creepy in "The Sorceress", triumphant in "Valley of the Dolls", and even mournful in "Prelude to Ruin". But everything collided in the true highlight of the album...
This is the greatest metal ballad of all time. It keeps the odd time signatures, but has slightly more conventional melodies and the best vocals that John Arch has ever given. The murky production adds to the hauntingly beautiful nature. The lyrics focus on those without the ability to speak, see or even think. It goes into the possible perspective from their point of view. Acoustic and electric guitars play along together and for a brief moment, it turns into a speed metal song. It also contains my favorite lyric from the album.
"I'm a fire without a flame, helpless child without a name with broken wings.
Catch me, I'm falling.
I'm a question with no answer.
Who are you that takes my life away from me.
Unveil the boundaries of the black".
John's excellent uses of lyrical metaphor never ceases to impress. It's a shame that he couldn't decide weather to stay in the band or keep his furniture business (he even said in an interview that he would have stayed in the band). As much as I love "No Exit", this is a superior work.
This is an album that defines the meaning of "timeless". It's main goal was to be different, which it was successful in doing and it continues to be unique from anything that you see released today. Awaken the Guardian is the execution of a brilliant musical idea that takes you on a journey of wonder. Each track fits perfectly where it is and each track sounds perfect as it is, each note is placed in its right spot. It took me many tries at this, but I eventually loved every song. This is an album that will remind you there are more ripoffs out there than creative groups. But as long as you keep digging, every now and again, you will find a diamond. This is one of the brightest and greatest in value. This is the best power metal album ever, best progressive metal album ever... and quite possibly the greatest album in the history of metal.
Man, this record is a bit of a bummer; I loved Arch/Matheos when I saw them a few years back, the cover art is great, and old school prog metal is something that I could in theory enjoy a great deal. Something like a particularly far out take on Maiden and early Big 4 stuff, perhaps; where the musicianship is found in cool, out there riffs and there's a story to be told and a journey to be had. That's still there, kind of, sort of, but in the end I find myself being annoyed by the vocals more than anything. Perhaps I enjoyed A/M so much because the mix had these beefy, kick ass riffs upfront in the mix with the vocals way behind; here it's the other way around and things are much poorer for it.
There's no doubt that Arch has some serious pipes. The problems is how, and how often, he employs them. I recall a discussion with a friend where we discussed how every metalcore dude sings in that same, tenor-ish (i think?), super earnest register- well, my experiences with prog thus far isn't that different, except that things are a fair bit higher pitched and a fair bit more annoying. Sure, he's not falsetto-ing everything, and there's a lot of power behind what he's doing, but the fact remains that throughout the album there's just all these high, nasally vocals, delivering melody lines that are technically impressive but lack any staying power, and they're everywhere. Everywhere! Woulda been nice if there'd been some longer breaks between 'em.
And it's a real shame because the rest of the album is great. Perhaps King Crimson is a bit of a pleb comparison, but like KC, Fates have a real knack for writing stuff that's both deliberately strange and natural at the same time. Anyone can write a 4/4 riff and throw a strange tail on it to make it this 13/8 crazy thang, but these guys can play around with weird time signatures and strange tempo changes like it's nothing, and the album's all the better for it. Sneaky use of acoustics, a good balance between soaring leads and letting the riffs do the talking- the guitar work is pretty great. Angular, but not excessively so; and comparisons are fairly hard to come by which isn't a bad thing. The way Sorceress comes across as an old time Children of the Grave is pretty mint, and the general beefed up nwobhms throughout are pretty entertaining. Count me in as a huge fan of Morgana's super great intro.
I've said it a few times, but it's the main thought I've got about this album: If there wasn't a bunch of real annoying high pitched wailing over the album, this would be real good. Instead, it's full of little moments where things are pleasurable before WHACK Arch is back to shit all over the dense, ever flowing riffs. You know that time when you first heard Megadeth and thought "this is great, but man, those vocals..."? Well, it's kind of like that but a year later I'm still no closer to stomaching them here. Worth getting, sort of, as the cover art looks great on LP and if you can handle the vocals you're in for a treat. I am decidedly NOT DOWN though, thus the fairly low mark. It's just not a pleasurable listen.
Awaken The Guardian is the swan song of one of the most annoying vocalists in metal music (at least for his stint with Fates Warning), and only for that single accomplishment, it deserves some sort of recognition.
There is zero coherence in the vocal department. Apart from the everlasting high soaring voice and annoying timbre of John Arch, the vocal melodies are utterly forgettable. Arch stays at the high register of his voice for almost the entire duration of this album and is unable to present any slight variation. There are no catchy choruses or verses, only numb patterns of faceless recitations with random ascents and descents in the scale. Of course, that pale vocal identity is just a poor attempt to imitate the legendary Bruce Dickinson. As a matter of fact, John Arch succeeded with sounding like a reasonably convincing Dickinson mimic, but he doesn't have any substance behind it. There are no epic moments here nor any imaginative vocal lines, he's just going through the motions to support the guitar riffs until a given song has ended. If instead of staying at the same high territory of his vocal range for the whole fucking duration of a given song, Mr. Arch would vary a little bit and try to build some sort of expectation and sing slightly lower in order to reach a higher climax, then maybe with some more inspiration the vocal delivery of this album could be something beyond unbearable.
Regarding the guitar riffs, this is basically the same formula of their previous album. There is an overload of random, unimaginative riffs that create long patterns of droning mishmash that goes nowhere. The songs tend to be over five minutes but lacks any emotional substance or inspiring ideas. There are basically a lot of generic puzzle pieces that creates together a big, vague picture that doesn't prove or display anything worthy. This album is quite similar to a canvas drawn picture with a mess of colors that just sits randomly on top of each other without any symmetry or artistic flavor. Except for some random slowly paced sections, most of the album has the same dull rhythm with riffs that sound almost exactly the same. The occasional lead guitar solos are thrown desperately at random sections to provide some sort of refreshing to the droning, incessant boredom of the generic vocal delivery and riffs, but they end up sounding just as disposable and bland as their surroundings.
The production of this album is as bad just as its songwriting. There is an overall muddy, overly compressed atmosphere throughout this album that makes it even more unbearable to stand than it already is. In 1986 there were already a lot of albums with powerful sound and proper production techniques for this kind of music, so any excuse for the relatively old release date of this album is unacceptable. Take for instance albums such as 'Master Of Puppets' or 'Reign In Blood', these albums came out in 1986 as well but you could actually feel the heaviness and energies in these albums because they had enough clarity in the mix and were simply produced the right way a heavy album should be produced.
So, how can one summarize the experience of listening to 'Awaken the Guardian'? Well, it's quite like watching an aquarium of ornamental fishes for almost fifty minutes. You get the whole picture really quick, probably after half a minute or less, but you stay there in vain because you think that maybe somehow something refreshing will occur. In the end, I'm just glad it's over.
After only two short years following their very Maiden-like infused debut "Night on Bröcken", the Fates return with yet another album following (and arguably the successor to the classic 1985 "The Spectre Within") down the same progressive path they introduced only a year before, and only seemed to lightly touch on in their debut. The production on this one seems a bit more thin than the previous release, but that can be viewed for either worse or better. In this case, I think a bit worse. While the production seems to lag a bit, the music and technical prowess seems to go even further than before.
This album, like "The Spectre Within", starts off with a slow intro eventually building up to an astonishing rhythm that is constantly changing time signatures (you should note these time signature changes as they happen quite frequently throughout every song). It seems each musician is far more comfortable with their role this time around (what a shame that it would be vocalist John Arch's last album with Fates Warning) and even daringly more bold. The bass and drum work both seem a lot more consistent here, often nodding towards each other during certain rhythm sections. This can be clearly heard during the verses in "Fata Morgana". The guitar work, like the drums and bass, are constantly complimenting each other (especially notable in "Prelude to Ruin") and are often following the typical aggressive riffing with a melodic solo structure in an Iron Maiden-esque manner, yet in a glorious and beautiful delivery. This album first introduces Frank Aresti accompanying Jim Matheos on guitars, as well. It seems to be an even more fit combination this time around. The vocals, at times, seem to transcend everything that's going on in the album. Arch seems to have furthered his head voice ability and is taking advantage of that quite heavily releasing some of the best, and most difficult vocalization I've ever heard.
Lyrically, this album follows a fantasy-based concept, which was one of the first of its kind. It almost seems mandatory to write a conceptual fantasy-based album in power metal today, and each band that does so tends to to revert back to the roots of this album given that it's the pinnacle of this style. The lyrics, putting this bluntly, are some of the most beautiful I've ever read. At some points, the cheese may seem a bit unbearable in the lyrics alone, but from how beautiful they're delivered it especially makes up for it. The concept of this album occasionally varies but is ultimately about existence and life which the band would later develop further on in a more direct approach, aside from tackling the subject metaphorically.
This album has held a huge impact on me ever since I first heard it. With each listen, everything draws me back to it more and more. The sweet aggressive and melodic riffings from the criminally underrated duo Matheos/Aresti, the strong, complex (yet not overwhelming) rhythm section that compliments the lead section, and of course the strong vocalization harmonies and melodies belted by front-man John Arch.
While it may be a bit biased, this album not only inspired me as a musician, but also as a person by completely changing my perspective on life and existence in general.
As a fan of strange, esoteric, technical, and progressive heavy/power/speed/thrash metal, I've often had trouble getting into albums on the first few listens. Sometimes this opinion changes quickly, sometimes it changes slowly, sometimes it never changes at all. However, if I had to make a chart denoting the inaccessibility of bands and/or albums, Fates Warning's The Spectre Within and especially Awaken the Guardian would score pretty highly on it. Sure, some bands have hooks that are less obvious than others (Manilla Road, Hanker, Existence, etc.), but Awaken the Guardian is complex to the point that you have to listen to the entire album straight through many, many times to even begin to pick those buried hooks out ("Guardian" is somewhat more accessible than the other songs but still pretty out there). I've been listening to this album for close to 3 years, and while I enjoyed a few short segments (such as the acoustic intro to "Guardian") for awhile, it's only been in the last year or so that I've come to appreciate entire songs, and mere months since I've come to truly appreciate the album as a whole for what it is: a complex, esoteric, arcane masterpiece.
Spectre and Guardian are often considered to be about on the same level of excellence, but I would say that Guardian blows Spectre out of the water. The 1985 is quite good, great even, but it's not as masterfully written and performed as this album. The songwriting beats out that of any album I've ever heard, in any musical genre, bar none, and John Arch is at the absolute top of his game, standing among progressive USPM greats like Rick Mythiasin (Steel Prophet), Brian Osborne (Enchanter) and Danny White (Cauldron Born). However, he did it first; while Steel Prophet was around for a little while before the two classic FW albums came out, Mythiasian didn't truly begin to shine until the 1989 demo, and the other two bands didn't release anything until after Guardian. Not surprisingly, the top releases from these bands also happen to be the very best Fates Warning worship out there, and the only thing that I would really consider to be able to compare to the classics. If you're curious, check my reviews for Enchanter's compilation and Cauldron Born's debut, and failsafeman's review of Steel Prophet's Inner Ascendance. While none stands up to Guardian (although Enchanter come very close), they are top-tier stuff and pretty much essential to any fan of this album.
So what's so great about Guardian? The complex, masterful songwriting is the main factor here. At first, fifth, or, in most cases, even tenth listen, it's an overly busy, technical mess with a whiny 12-year-old on vocals. That's what I thought at first, anyway. The vocals may be more accessible to some people than to others; I can't imagine the album with anyone else now, and Arch is one of my favorite parts of the album, but he took quite awhile for me to warm up to. Most consider this album to be even less accessible than Spectre, although I actually warmed up to this one first, despite the fact that it took over 2 years. Regardless of its level of inaccessibility, though, it remains both more seamless, more fully written, better performed and with a stronger overall atmosphere than Spectre to my ears. There are so many simultaneous elements, constant chord and riff changes, and unusual progressions here that it's difficult to pick out specific elements that make the songwriting so great. Sure, I could say that the vocal lines, riffs, and leads are all written extremely well, which they are, but that hardly does the experience of this album justice. Despite the album's complexity, business, and dynamism, it's clear that each guitar, bass, and vocal note were chosen deliberately, not just to work on their own, but with each other element going on simultaneously and each element before and after it.
Let me try to clarify a bit; there are dozens of riffs, leads, and vocal lines in each song, most changing within 15-20 seconds, and these aren't short songs, either; the shortest clocks in at a respectably 5:22, and the final track is a monstrous 8:34. While the songs themselves are fairly long, the changes are so quick and so frequent that it almost feels as if each song is its own separate album. This isn't some lame Darkness Descends ripoff boasting 589 riffs for song or anything like that; the main goal of the band clearly was not to write as many riffs or vocal lines or leads as possible, but to make as great a musical experience as possible, something they virtually achieved as far as I'm concerned. Great production, incredibly masterful songwriting as I've already mentioned at length, and a great performance from Arch; if you've never heard him he has a very high and nasal voice, sounding at first like a whining prepubescent boy (to me, at least), but once you really get into the core of the music he complements the guitar perfectly. I've heard him described as some sort of ethereal spirit or presence, and I think that describes his performance quite well; the music takes you on a mystical journey to a wondrous land, and rather than seem like merely a storyteller Arch sounds like part of the land or atmosphere itself.
My one single complaint here (and the only reason I did not give the album a 100%) is that the first song, "The Sorceress", sounds slightly underdeveloped compared to the rest of the album. It's still head and shoulders above anything most other bands could hope to achieve, but the riffing seems a bit more primitive and it's just not as "full" and atmospheric as the other songs. That said, it's still extremely worthwhile and does very little to detract from the album.
It still blows my mind that the band apparently managed to record this in a single year (maybe a bit more, but still). Many other bands have worked tirelessly for years trying to create a complex masterpiece (Wintersun, anyone?), while Fates Warning succeeded in creating perhaps the greatest album ever in a single year. All the little intricacies that make the album what it is seem like they must have taken years to put together, yet they apparently did not. The primary songwriters are apparently geniuses, because putting something so cohesive together in such a short time seems almost inhuman. Not only that, but the rate at which the band matured is incredible. 1984's Night on Brocken is pretty simple, straightforward heavy/power metal, then just the next year they put out Spectre, an intricate masterwork, and in 1986 released Guardian, going above and beyond the previous album and anything that had been released at that point. This is definitely USPM, but it's taken the more progressive aspects to their logical conclusion and left us with something that transcends mere sound. This record is pure magical bliss, and any metal fan who hasn't heard it needs to do so immediately.
Along with Queensryche and Dream Theater, Fates Warning is one of the cornerstone bands in the progressive metal genre. But even as a pioneering band in prog metal, they have only been able to obtain a restricted mainstream audience and instead have been delegated a cult following, like almost any other prog metal band not named Tool. Originally heavily Iron Maiden-inspired with their debut album Night on Brocken, Fates Warning began experimenting with progressive melodies and time changes with The Spectre Within while continuing to maintain a heavy metal sound. Awaken the Guardian continues that tradition, this time with increased focus on their fantasy-based lyrics, making it, in a way, their most "magical" and perhaps best album before the entry of Ray Alder on No Exit. While often regarded as a progressive classic and buried treasure in metal, Awaken the Guardian still manages to suffer the same problems as The Spectre Within: the band's insistence on being "progressive."
First off, this is one of the band's most technically and musically sound albums. All of the musicians bring their A-Game through heavy drumming, grinding riffs, and wailing solos. And while John Arch's voice is somewhat lost in the sound (most likely a result of the editing and recording), he is always hitting the high notes in his somewhat Bruce Dickinson-inspired vocals. Then again, such skill and technique is basically a requirement for progressive music. But it is through their progressive instrumentation that Awaken the Guardian stumbles a bit. There are no bad or uncool melodies to be found, rather, there are several. But the problem is that the band switches melodies too often or when it isn't needed in the same song. Also, several times John Arch seems to change his vocal flow on a whim, coming off as awkward-sounding. This issue is even more evident when reading the lyrics while listening to the songs. The Sorceress and Valley of the Dolls are the biggest perpetrators here, as one melody is interrupted after another for a new sound. Melody and time changes are not a bad thing. They're often necessary and allow for creativity, especially in long song epics which tell a unique story . But in songs that don't even clock in at six minutes, it just sounds awkward and unfulfilling. Especially considering the musical potential of both songs.
While The Sorceress and Valley of the Dolls are a bit disappointing, the rest of the album avoids those traps for the most part. While Fata Morgana and Prelude to Ruin feature some of the same melody and time changes that the previous two songs contained, they are far less frequent and with the exception of the choruses or bridges, have a more straightforward and consistent metal feel. But the real winners on the album are Giant's Lore, Exodus, and Guardian. Giant's Lore gets things right with a very consistent and heavy melody with a somewhat catchy chorus. Exodus, preceded by the nice and mystical guitar instrumental interlude Time Long Past, serves as the obligatory epic closing song, and being the heaviest song on the album, succeeds. However, the champion of the entire album is Guardian. Heralded as a classic of the band and a regular at concerts, Guardian has the most "epic" feel of the album, in the same of vein of Iron Maiden's Hallowed Be Thy Name, Gamma Ray's Rebellion in Dreamland, and Dream Theater's Pull Me Under. Containing the most memorable (if somewhat bizarre) chorus of the album, it starts off with a Stairway to Heaven-like acoustic guitar intro before erupting into a heavy, breath-taking riff, immediately creating the sense that one is about to hear something special. A true metal anthem if ever there was one.
While Awaken the Guardian might not be fully deserving of being described as a "progressive masterpiece", it is nonetheless a key prog metal album, even though dropping the constant melody changes and keeping the strictly heavy metal sound would have benefitted it more. And often times the band's over-reliance on symbolic and fantasy-inspired lyrics are somewhat cheesy and most songs lack a truly memorable chorus. Still, Awaken the Guardian is redeemed as a "good" album with skillful instrumentation and vocals, heavy riffs, and well, let's face it, the song Guardian. The song alone gives it the potenttial to truly be a great album and songs such as Exodus and Giant's Lore certainly back that up. But while an overabundance of melody changes and changes in vocal flow may hinder it, Awaken the Guardian is still an overall good album.
Like a stormy rainbow hovering above an oasis in a desert, or the sudden event of ball lighting crossing over dreary, waving fields of grain, Fates Warning’s third studio effort is a beautiful, awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. It captures the wildest corners of human imagination, and achieves a level of mystical wonder so ethereal, you attempt to convince yourself that it just can’t possibly be real. Awaken the Guardian is amongst the purest, most potent strains of heavy metal I have ever heard, and, simply put, it deserves a rightful place as one of the greatest collections of music to have ever been written, recorded and performed by man.
But now that I think about it, the idea of mere mortals writing music of such an otherworldly caliber is simply illogical. No, for I have come to the conclusion that much like the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, Awaken the Guardian was really constructed by beings from another galaxy. This album’s perfect pacing, transitioning and general cohesion between its separate parts are like nothing that had been heard in any past metal albums, and few since its release has come close (A Social Grace by Psychotic Waltz is a notable one). The album’s musical tablature was placed in the deepest caverns of Hartford, Connecticut: presumably a most magically wondrous place, filled with the wizards, dragons and frost giants that the album’s lyrics are replete with. And here is where five young men would be destined to form Fates Warning, who are not so much of a musical group, but rather a vehicle manipulated by higher powers to subtly deliver aural rapture in the form of a 47 minute and 57 second long progressive power metal album.
The meat of the Awaken the Guardian’s strength lie in three core features: songwriting, execution and aesthetics. The actual songs themselves are of the highest expected quality, and remain so until their final notes. Take the opening track, “The Sorceress,” as an example. Beginning with a short, moody acoustic piece, it wastes no time transitioning into the first riff of the album: a bouncy, stomping riff that intrigues the listener’s ear. Afterwards, the verses will surely confuse anyone new to John Arch’s vocals, as the man’s signature style is to create completely alternate melodies to what guitarists Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti play, yet his vocal lines always weave in and out throughout the music. Then follows the chorus, which is very exciting and grabs the listener, moving forward swiftly with Matheos’ riffage burning forward like only heavy metal can, all while Steve Zimmerman’s pounding drums provide a steady rhythm for John Arch to wail, shriek, and croon over. “The dead of night parts the sky!” Here the song begins to slow down and focus more on crushing guitar work, and Aresti and Matheos showcase their tight, unified guitar sound. At about 3:23 the band unexpectedly plays a thrash break, and once again Fates Warning demonstrates their ability to span multiple genres, all in one cohesive musical piece. After a few minutes of guitar solos, through which band founder Jim Matheos proves his excellent skill all while maintaining control and restraint, and some more verses, the song ends. “The Sorceress” is almost six minutes long, but by the time it ends, it feels like it was only three.
And this is the key to Awaken the Guardian’s musical success. Each song goes through a range of separate parts, using strengths such as Arch’s catchy, layered vocal lines and Joe Debiase’s steady basslines to construct powerful songs such as “Valley of the Dolls” and “Fata Morgana.” And when the song ends, it has led you through many twists and turns in the song structure, over many a peak and nary a valley: forming the base for Fates Warning’s progressive nature. Whilst the term “progressive” today usually means “play really, really long, slow songs with as many changes in dynamics and musical time signatures as possible,”, songs like “The Sorceress,” “Guardian,” and “Prelude to Ruin” have had all of their musical fat trimmed off. There is not one second wasted with extravagant solo noodling to showcase the guitarist’s ego, nor are there any random acoustic breaks performed because somebody wanted to add an extra 3 minutes to a song, a la Opeth. But the best part is, there are acoustic parts on the album, but they are performed with meaning, dripping with the emotion that the musicians clearly feel for their creation, and are absolutely integral to the song’s structure. I could not imagine the unbelievable album closer, “Exodus,” without its show-stopping acoustic bridge, just as much as I couldn’t imagine “Exodus” without its lengthy, lofty chorus, or the speed metal insanity that continues the bridge, or its dreary, bleak outro that perfectly leads the listener from the rapturous glory of the album back into the mortal world.
However tempting it is to gush over every single moment, I will limit any further analysis musical analysis to select, particularly notable parts of the songs. After the excellent speed metal burner “Valley of the Dolls” (check out that brilliant intro riff: Heavy Metal 101 right there) and the luscious landscape painted by “Fata Morgana,” we arrive at “Guardian.” This title track in spirit opens with an acoustic intro, with Matheos’ truly beautiful leads continuing Awaken the Guardian’s penchant for complimenting the album cover and lyrics to a tee. Indeed, the lyrics to this album (and the previous one, The Spectre Within, which may even be overall superior to its successor) are without a doubt, the most impressive I have ever read, and “Guardian” demonstrates why. This ballad-esque track lyrically revolves around disabled and handicapped children, particularly those who will never know what it is like to be able to see, hear, walk, etc. However, the words use symbolism and figurative language so well, that you wouldn’t realize the subject matter until you’ve listened to the song many times. “Karen's been asleep forever, I know she hears me/She has so much to say/The machine sparks her eggshell mind/A tear streams from her face, Into my hand, to my heart.” Other high points of the album include the heaviest song and my personal favorite, “Prelude to Ruin,” which makes use of several thrash breaks, as well as John Arch’s ghostly melodies all throughout the song. Jim Archambault’s talents are well-evidenced by another lengthy chorus, the gorgeous acoustic section after the bridge/solo (“Time, Time, Time, an imaginary line…”), as well as Arch’s little sing-along section in the beginning and end. It’s safe to say no other singer can make lyrics consisting only of “na na’s” and “oh ohhahh” work any better.
I have spent a great deal dissecting the musical content of Awaken the Guardian, yet I am aware that this is a great injustice to it. Because this is not an album, but an experience, and such things are meant to be only heard in its original true form. This is an album that you need to get. Either you will understand the album’s ethereal beauty at some point in your musical endeavors, or its meaning will always elude you. When you listen to “Giant’s Lore (Heart of Winter),” you may simply hear the excellent, tension-laced passages beginning 3:17, or you will hear more than that. It will click with the synapses of your mind, and you will realize the true value of the album. Awaken the Guardian is an album that represents the deepest understanding of both human and esoteric purposes; it is an album born of mental revelations stemming from spirituality or LSD trips. It is truly the best album of its kind, and a perfect testament to heavy metal as a whole. Will the wandering melodies of Jim Archambault escape you? Will the meaning of “Time Long Past,” constructed from the passions of Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti, be one that resides within you forever? Maybe, just maybe.
“Arcana awaits you…”
Awaken the Guardian is the 3rd full length of Fates Warning and the bittersweet swansong for John Arch as the band's frontman. The first thing you'll probably notice is the stunning cover art from Ioannis, who had also contributed imagery for The Spectre Within, Liege Lord's Burn To My Touch, and various other metal and rock albums (several for pretty big named artists). Not only is this painting vivid and beautiful in its choice of color tones and soft, rounded imagery, but it also somehow captures the fantastic spirit that this band once thrived on. It's also pretty sad, because it represents the last of Fates Warning's albums to explore this theme. No Exit may not have been a massive stylistic detour from this record, but the lyrics were already shifting towards a more social and political spectrum.
Make no mistake in thinking Arch and this band parted ways due to any subpar performance, because his work here is both crystalline an elegant. It's very much a refinement of his work on The Spectre Within, though the entire album is arguably more stable and consistent (note that I do not say 'better'). In fact, Awaken the Guardian feels like it might have worked out as a unified concept album, since so many of its tracks ring true to the central atmosphere of siren-like vocal melodies and thick, driving guitar rhythms which reek of sorrowful melodies and forgotten worlds, times long past. This probably also stems from the arrival of Frank "X" Aresti to the band, replacing Victor Arduini's six-strings in the lineup.
"The Sorceress" lifts the first veil from this saddened, twilight epoch with ringing acoustics that mesmerize quite like they were used on The Spectre Within, before the mystic rhythms begin to weave spiderwebs of longing and regret in an even more complex, progressive fashion than the riffs on the predecessor. The track also features some a sluggish doom breakdown and some fine leadwork which scatters to the wind before the final verse. "Valley of the Dolls" begins with one of the very best melodic power metal rhythms I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, before picking up into a complex sequence of searing speed metal below the fairytale vocals. Very much a classic, and one of the most distinct tracks of the band's career, it threads a spike of melodic aggression through walls of shrieking, majestic Arch-ways and evil subterranean bridge riffs. "Fata Morgana" spares no time for thought, immediately thrusting you back into the graceful melodies and powerful post-Maiden guitar work. Arch is a beast in this song, cascading down its shimmering slopes like a river of liquefied sapphire, with one of his more memorable screaming chorus lines:
'Fata Morgana. . .
She will take you, your hungry scarred harlot hunting another heart
Morrigan fallen angel, kneeling at the widows altar, temptress of my dreams. . .
She's the widow of my dreams'
If your heart doesn't break here, longing for the fallen beauty of female fantasy archetypes that you once dreamed of as a young lad before masturbation ever entered the picture, then Awaken the Guardian probably isn't for you. "Guardian" presses on with a brief acoustic passage that wends into powerful, stunting chords and a lush melody, before returning to its morose cleanliness of melancholic acoustic harmonies, Arch spawning his crystal-tinted, cautionary hymns through a series of counter-melodies and a fabulous bridge which had fans of Geoff Tate or Bruce Dickinson salivating all over their knuckles. "Prelude to Ruin" is another flawless execution, with opening dual leads that scorch as they pan alongside the somber rhythms, hands down some of my favorite riffing on the album, and another of Arch's flights of fantasy. After hearing his performance on this track, how could any band part with him? I would have shoveled money at this dude for at least 3 more albums, even if his heart wasn't in it. Killer riffs, killer leads that build a golden dream-bridge to some external realm we have all lost in our adolescence.
"Giant's Lore (Heart of Winter)" is not my favorite cut on the album, but there is an undeniable charm to the second riff around :20, and this is used numerous times, altered to paint broad strokes against the titan-sized implications of its mythology. Along with the following, pretty yet forgettable, 2 minute instrumental piece "Time Long Past", it represents the weakest block on the album, but that's saying a lot, because even these tracks have an extraordinary plotting which never removes you from the mythic vistas of the album's scope. "Exodus", the 8+ minute finale, is an epic and welcome piece which explores a number of moods, from the crowning vocal glories of its verses to the sobering acoustic breech and back again.
Awaken the Guardian is, not surprisingly, another of those classic 80s recordings which hold up even today with their balance of glimmering highs and murky lows. Despite John Arch's powerful, cutting delivery, the guitars remain good and thick, and you will not miss a note even when he's wailing at full force. The writing borrows quite a lot from best available source, Iron Maiden, with a superb sense for melody and rifling, busybody bass-work, but the Connecticut band has a much more morose darkness about them which is timeless and still refreshing. This album and its two predecessors represent a little niche in power/speed metal which we've simply not returned to in the 20+ years since, and though I may always favor the brilliant Spectre Within, the silver medal of Fates Warning's career MUST belong around this record's banshee-white neck.
Highlights: Valley of the Dolls, Fata Morgana, Guardian, Prelude to Ruin
The year is 1986, hailed by many metalheads as the greatest year in the history of metal. And when you look at albums that were released that year, you can see why. Many classics of the genre, ranging from crushing doom metal (“Epicus Doomicus Metallicus”) to brutal thrash (“Darkness Descends”), just to name a few. For the most part, they are unquestionable classics. Others are not so great, despite having pretty production and nice lyrics about getting money and green and getting a better seat and all that stuff, but still. Among these legendary releases, lies “Awaken The Guardian”. Not as well known as others, but equally loved by those that have heard it. This is the logical progression from “The Spectre Within”, even if not on the same level of perfection. Most of the things that can be found on that album are here. All kinds of riffs, acoustic passages every now and then, song structures with actual complexity, unlike other “technical” albums, genius lyrics and the transcendental voice of John Arch. Ah yes, John Arch. Whereas on the previous album he was more aggressive and morbid, here he is different. He still sounds like himself, but not like he did on “The Spectre Within”. This time, his voice has a mystical, magical feel to it. Just listen to “Fata Morgana”, the third track. When he goes “Come to me!” and you can hear him doing “Na na na na na” on the background, that is pure magic. It can easily be confounded as something childish, but in fact it is something magical, unique. It sounds as if he was casting an enchantment on the listener. One that works.
And speaking of enchantments, that is basically the lyrical subject of most of the album. Castles, magic, dragons, misty forests at night, where mysterious women throw toads and arcane dust into a cauldron to cast a powerful spell. That is what “The Sorceress” and “Fata Morgana” are all about. “Valley Of The Dolls” is a clever critic on the posers of the glam/hair metal scene, whereas “Prelude to Ruin” is about the decay and impending end of the world due to the lack of care. Closing track “Exodus” is an allegory to the search for spiritual enlightenment and transcendence. Most notable, however, is “Guardian”, apparently a love song, although if you look deeper into the lyrics you will realize how personal it is. As John Arch said in an interview, he has a brother who is unable to move or speak, despite still being alive, and “Guardian” is an inspiring song dedicated to all handicapped people. As for “Giant’s Lore”, it is not the simple fantasy story it seems at first. It is based on the Oscar Wilde story “The Selfish Giant”, and deals with redemption and reward, possibly the closest thing to “happy” this album gets. Unfortunately, I fail to see the meaning of both “The Sorceress” and “Fata Morgana”, even though the lyrics are still the work of a genius, complete with rich references to mythology and history, rhymes and alliteration, among other wordplays. And even if the lyrics weren’t so astonishing, you have John Arch singing them. The man is capable of turning profound lyrics such as “aeiou” in art, not just because of his fantastic range and emotion, but mainly because of his fabulous creativeness when composing vocal melodies. The most magical aspect of his singing is not his voice, but what he is singing. He manipulates the music, with his vocals serving as another key instrument in the greatness of both this album and its predecessor. As a side note, Arch sings with much more emotion here than he did on “The Spectre Within”. Not saying that on “The Spectre Within” he had little or no emotion, on the contrary, his vocals on that album have more emotion than someone like Matt Barlow could even dream, but here he is just unbelievably emotional. The use of multi-layered vocals is not overdone, and adds to the overall magic of the singing.
However, not only of vocals is made a masterpiece. On this case, it is made with splendid riffs, outstanding drumming, superb soloing, impressive bass, majestic acoustic moments and genius song structures, with a healthy dose of creativity. Add John Arch glorious vocals and intelligent lyrics and the result is magnificent. Having a good production helps a lot, and they thankfully have one. It was better on “The Spectre Within” (on a side note, everything on TSW was better), but it is still very good here. You can hear every instrument, and the guitars are crunchy and strong. Basically, it goes like this: Lead guitar > vocals > rhythm guitar > acoustic guitar > drums > bass. Of course, they weren’t stupid to solo while John Arch is singing, so the vocals stand out as the loudest on the mixing. Not too loud, on the right level I’d say. You can hear everything, and that is more than enough.
“Awaken The Guardian” is packed with dozens of riffs, of all types and forms, as another reviewer said. That said, they are all brilliant. Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti (replacing Victor Arduini from the previous album) go from riff to riff in a logical sequence, and while one is soloing, the other keeps riffing. Just like on “The Spectre Within”, the riffs are a meeting between US power metal and thrash metal, combining the melodic aspects of the first with the aggressiveness of the latter. And, masked up as 4/4, are the odd time signatures. The riffs may sound simple at first, but progressively you notice that they are actually very technical, without being over-the-top. The leads are more precise and melodic than those on “The Spectre Within”, while still retaining the awesomeness. Listen to the leads right after the acoustic intro on “Guardian” for an example. The drumming is still as effective as it was on the previous album. Steve Zimmerman may not have the technical ability of, say, Mike Portnoy or Gene Hoglan, but he is very precise and knows how to add rhythm to the music, sounding simple but being an essential element of the music. The same goes for Joe DiBiase, who is a very talented bassist, and yet another vital ingredient of the music. As Empyreal noticed, the greatness of this album – and its predecessor – comes from the sum of its parts. John Arch vocals, for example, would not be as effective if the music being played was different. It takes several listens to assimilate all the components of the songs and realize how great this is.
And that is why this album is progressive metal, because you progressively absorb the elements of the music. It may sound obvious, but it isn’t. Look, for example, at Dream Theater. I love them, they are a great band and undoubtedly talented musicians, but their music can only be considered technical, and not progressive, in my eyes at least. That is because you can assimilate all the facets of their music in one or two listens. If you listen to it a billion times, there won’t be any hidden secrets waiting for you. I’m not offending Dream Theater, because I really like them, but that is a fact that cannot be denied. You heard it once, you heard it twice, you heard it all. And that is not the case with Fates Warning. Upon repeated listens you comprehend aspects of the music that you did not realized at first.
With that said, I must fix a little mistake that I wrote before editing this review. For those that haven’t read it, I’ll just say that, nearing the end, I claimed I had understood this album and all of its facets. That was wrong. After revisiting “Awaken the Guardian”, I realized I was far from understanding all of it. To this day, I’m still able to hear new aspects at each listen, which has led me to believe this album is even better than I thought it was, which is why the rating has gone from 98 to 100. There is nothing I dislike about it, and everything about it astonishes me. No other album has managed to enchant and fascinate me like this one. Granted, I still believe “The Spectre Within” to be better, but only because that album is absolute. There is still much to be discovered, especially in the lyrics. “Exodus”, in particular, I feel like I’ve only been able to understand a small part of it. The amount of details here is unbelievable. Overall, I consider this to be even more respectable than its predecessor, and I understand why so many people prefer it, even if I don’t. It is unfair to name highlights because all the songs are amazing. However, the chorus from “Exodus” is obviously above the rest. The whole song is great, but the chorus is the best part on this album. Not just that, it might as well be the single most superb moment in the history of music and, why not, mankind. There are no words to describe it, at least none that a human can comprehend. It is perfection and absolution in its purest form. It renders songs such as “Blood Fire Death” (which is still my favorite song of all time) completely useless. Nothing can touch it, nothing will touch it. This last phrase also applies to both “The Spectre Within” and “Awaken the Guardian”. Truly, I recommend this to everyone. Even if the music can’t touch you, the poetic lyrics surely can. Sadly, albums of this caliber are mostly ignored by the vast majority of people, which is a shame. The world needs more people to dig deep into the treasures of the underground, just like it need more albums like this.
A lot has been said about metal in 1986. It was certainly a huge year - some of the biggest and most important albums ever were released then. Metallica's 'Master of Puppets', Slayer's 'Reign in Blood', Kreator's 'Pleasure to Kill', etc. are examples of such influential albums (for better or worse). But then there's this, Fates Warning's third album, 'Awaken the Guardian'. Now, I suppose Queensrÿche and Crimson Glory are the most obvious bands to compare Fates Warning's sound at this time to, but really this stands apart.
There are tons of fantasy metal bands these days, but 'Awaken the Guardian' really sounds like fantasy itself in a way that only Blind Guardian's 'Somewhere Far Beyond' rivals. Moonlit forests, glowing glyphs, ancient secrets, mysterious women - these all are evoked in the listener's mind not only by John Arch's (vocals) lyrics, but by the carefully crafted music itself. This is often considered a pioneering progressive metal album, but I find it to be closer to power metal (with progressive touches), with a little bit of thrash thrown in from time to time just to add some aggression and excitement.
Yes, this is a complex album. It has odd time signatures out the wazoo, shredding guitars, wailing vocals, all that good stuff. But above all this album is about SONGS. Everything here is to serve the songs, strange beasts as they are. Somehow, they take these razor-sharp, lurching, stumbling riffs, strengthen them with effective drum and bass parts, and let John Arch take it away on top of it all with his nasally, soaring vocals.
Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti had to have been two of metal's greatest guitarists at this time, and most underrated. They perform some bizarre riffs here, yet they manage to be catchy and melodic anyway. They also rip out some blistering solos, and they're like gold when they appear, because this album is not all about solos. They'd much rather hit you with an intense riff than dazzle you with a technical solo. If only more 'progressive' bands would do that; Fates Warning may have been progressive, but they were first and foremost METAL. One thing I really like is the red herrings they throw at you: one section of song will seem to wrap up, and a new riff will come in, and just when you think they're about to jump in and pursue this new riff, they'll go into a modified version of the previous part instead. I've never heard quite such an approach, and it works really well. And the solos, scarce as they are, never seem to come right where you'd expect them to; but their placement always makes perfect sense, and you wonder what you were expecting in the first place. Awesome, awesome performance by these guys.
Joe DiBiase (bass) and Steve Zimmerman (drums) comprise the rhythm section. Even though the bass is not prominent here (like so many other metal albums), it's present enough in the mix to add a lot of punch to the songs. Really, that's the bass's main function in metal anyway; and just look at the results when the bass is NOT there at all: '...And Justice for All'. Need I say more? Steve Zimmerman is a damn skilled drummer. I much prefer his style to, say, Mike Portnoy's, because he can play these difficult parts without ever giving off the 'look at me!' attitude. He serves the songs! He injects a lot of life into these songs, and momentum when it's required. Really, it's difficult for me to say much more about his drumming, because it's so tasteful and never calls attention to itself, which I see as a positive thing.
John Arch is easily the most discussed and controversial member of old Fates Warning, and no wonder. Not only is his voice itself odd and nasally, but he has this aversion to singing any kind of melody that sounds 'normal'. He just kind of floats above the music, doing his own thing as it were - and yet it works. It's essential. Taken by itself, his voice seems to be the opposite of 'powerful', but you put it here, and it becomes so. He sings his brilliant lyrics earnestly, yet without concern if anyone but he himself understands them; and as a result of his eldritch, endless melodies that somehow end up being catchy, you'll find yourself singing along in no time (or trying to). There are many power metal vocalists in this world, but none of them sound anything like John Arch, or employ anything like his unique, effective method.
A note on the production. While it isn't the greatest production I've ever heard, there's nothing about it I would change, and for one simple reason: it's a very METAL production. The guitars are full-sounding and heavy, the vocals are prominent and glorious, the drums are loud and powerful, and the bass is rich and weighty. Spot-on.
Well, I suppose I could discuss individual songs now, but I'd really rather not. Sure, certain songs stand out to me, but this is an album best taken as a whole, with the Many coming together to form a stronger One. It's epic. It's aloof. It's bewitching. It's 'Awaken the Guardian'. If you like metal, you need to hear this, and that's all there is to it. It's got enough aggression for the thrash metal fans, enough darkness for the black and death metal fans, enough complexity and technique for progressive metallers, and enough, well, power for the power metal fans. This is the soundtrack to fantasy, wonderful, dreamlike, and weird.
I like Heavy Metal, don't you? Catchy riffs and guys in denim jackets and long blond hair and headbanging, right? Fuck yeah, man. Throw up the horns, bang your head against the stage, hail Eddie, all of that good stuff. I'm not being facetious or sarcastic, either, that's really my favorite part of the genre right there. Back in the 1980s, metal bands didn't seem to feel embarrassed about indulging in that kind of talk, in the age of tape trading and the golden era of the underground. And I love it, even now, twenty years later. I love every bit of it, from the thin, guitar-heavy production to the straight-out belting pride that bands like Savatage, Jag Panzer and Liege Lord possessed and to the sense of adventure that Iron Maiden inspired in me the first time I heard Piece of Mind. However, there were some albums, even back then, that simply transcended all stereotypes and conventions and created something truly timeless and beautiful, even by the standards of people who turned up their noses at the genre without even hearing a note of it.
Fates Warning's Awaken the Guardian is one of those albums. You know, in case you couldn't already guess that, or something. Anyway, though, this was the band's third album, straight off the heels of their almost equally excellent sophomore effort The Spectre Within, and it is truly a love-or-hate affair, just to get that out of the way now. While its staggering reputation makes it almost impossible for even the most ardent of metalheads to claim they dislike it, Awaken the Guardian has been subject to some rather polarized opinions. They don't get it, they say. John Arch's vocals are annoying, they say. I used to try and tell them to keep listening to it, because maybe they'd "get it" after a few more spins, but now I don't think that is completely true. This is indeed an album that will grow on the listener with subsequent plays, but there is also another level beyond that: some people will just not ever get into this one. It's not overly technical or anything, it's just one of those albums that was crafted like a Rubix cube, and thus is extremely hard to truly wrap your head around and appreciate. That isn't saying anything negative about the people who don't get it, just that this album wasn't really built for everyone. It's esoteric, it's weird, and for those who it does manage to reach completely...they will never forget it.
Let's talk about John Arch, then, because he is perhaps the biggest target for all the detractors' disdain over this album. His nasally wailing takes an acquired taste to really get into (or just a desensitization to "weird" vocals, which I think I have), and while it might sound prepubescent or whiny at first...well, I'm not going to say "on further listens" this time, it just isn't prepubescent or whiny, at all. While it might sound that way at first, it really has this ethereal, almost eerie, ghostly quality about it. The stuff he's singing is all quite unorthodox and strange, with his vocal melodies soaring and diving and creeping and crawling around the riffs in a fluid, ambidextrous manner that assures that Awaken the Guardian sounds like nothing else on this world or any other.
This band came from a time before Metal started experimenting with different genres and before "progressive" meant that a song had to be ten minutes long with super-clean production and a vocalist that sounded like Geddy Lee or James LaBrie (read: the days when "progressive" actually MEANT something in the larger part of the metal world). Awaken the Guardian is what I would call a progressive album, but by virtue of the dense complexity of the songwriting, which is juxtaposed with the rather simple, headbangable riffs and the subtle melodies that become more and more apparent with subsequent listens. They all sort of mesh together into the huge, thick, murky production to create elaborate and towering songs - eight of them, no less - that just sort of work together. Riffs build upon each other, galloping on in an Iron Maiden-esque way and then sometimes getting slower, sometimes dropping out entirely to launch into a moody, melody-laden solo piece, and the vocals just sort of spiral around them, and the whole thing just works. Yes, Jim Matheos is an amazing guitarist, with a lot of subtlety and control to his playing that only makes it more amazing when you realize how cool most of the stuff he plays on here really is, Steve Zimmerman's crushing drum-work adds a lot of weight to the sound, and John Arch's unforgettable nasally wailing adds a charming touch to the whole thing, but the songs here don't really act as songs, they just sort of exist on their own, like living and breathing beings. There is no one element that makes them so good; it's the sum of all their parts.
It's the feeling they evoke, the mystical, otherworldly hum that seems to rise up when all of the instruments clash to take you away to a place you've never been before. It's not something I can describe on paper, because it will be different for everyone. This isn't an album you hear, it's an album you experience, if you're one of those that does really end up getting into this album. Right from the opening romp of "The Sorceress," this album captivates, following up with similar slabs of strange, erudite goodness like "Valley of the Dolls," the mammoth, driving stomp of the planet crushing "Prelude to Ruin," the quirky, jagged melodies of "Fata Morgana" and of course the poignant, show-stopping journey that is "Guardian," with its absolutely wonderful chorus and slow, searing melodies. This is how you do a Metal ballad, and even then, nothing else has really sounded like this since. The album closes with "Exodus," a long, hypnotic epic with droning, swirling guitar harmonies and that chorus, which I once fell asleep to, and which will transport you to worlds you never could have believed existed before this, with a hook the size of the moon and enough layers to make it positively mesmerizing and thoroughly unforgettable. Like I said, I once drifted off to sleep to the final choruses of this song, and I think that was the moment I really got this album. Others have said that the previous album The Spectre Within is better, and maybe someday that one will grow on me to the level this album has, but for now, nothing touches this album for sheer Heavy Metal magic. In fact, this hasn't been so much a review as a testament to the album's greatness, as I don't think I've really, accurately described what is so good about this. I don't think anyone can, but after I heard those final notes of "Exodus" with my head in a sleep-laced daze, I was sold, and maybe, just maybe, you will be, too, on some cold, misty night, after the lights are turned out, and the first notes start to play...
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com
On paper, this album looks awesome. It's not just far more complex than most other eighties power metal albums, actually most power metal albums period, the song arrangements mostly make perfect sense. The song structures blend the diverse influences - I can already identify Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden, even Black Sabbath and probably a few prog-rock bands too - seamlessly. The lyrics aren't shabby either, and the cover art is pretty cool.
The performances are very good too, these guys can obviously play their instruments and John Arch can obviously sing. At first he sounds like your average power metal falsetto if one that's more nasal than usual, but if you listen closely you'll notice that the vocal melodies are really intricate.
There is only one ingredient lacking... and unfortunately, it's an important one:
For the most part, this album is boring. When listening to this album, there are very long stretches where all I feel is "wow, this sure is complex and well-written". I have no idea exactly what went wrong, because I do quite like "The Spectre Within".
This, however? I'm told how it's heavier and more intense than most power metal albums and, yeah, I understand that the main riff in "The Sorceress" is very similar to "Children of the Grave". Guess what? The song still bores me and so do the majority of this album.
I'll admit this much: "Valley of the Dolls" is a fun speedfest despite being from an objective point of view the album's only serious misstep due to actually being meandering, "Fata Morgana" is as good as anything on "The Spectre Within" and "Exodus" is a great closing epic complete with a wonderfully catchy chorus.
Except for those three songs (out of eight, remind you) I just don't see the same things in this album as most reviewers here do, just a lot of navel-gazing. As I've found out the hard way, life's too short for the latter.
I bought this album used, cheap, on a bit of a lark. My knowledge of Fates Warning at the time did not extend beyond name recognition; I thought they were some kind of heavy/power metal band, but wasn't completely sure. I expected some light listening that I'd be sick of in a week or two.
But that's not how it went. I was so very much impressed on first listen that I questioned my prejudices against power metal. Was this album really as good as seemed to be? Had I unfairly written off power metal? If Fates Warning are really are this good, why aren't they receiving much higher praise than, for instance, Helloween or Blind Guardian?
Here's something you've heard before: I never could get into power metal because it's just way too cheesy for me – but wait! It's pretty cheesy to put on makeup and shriek about the devil, isn't it? Or to oink like a pig about murdered women over a backdrop of tuned-to-Z guitars and nonstop blastbeats? What's so particularly cheesy about fantasy lyrics or high-pitched singing compared to that sort of nonsense?
Well, not much. Cheese runs deeper than that – it denotes insipidity, predictability, triteness – things which this album wholly lacks, in spite of possessing, in spades, fantasy lyrics, high-pitched singing, and a number of other familiar tropes. I like to think that I have every possible bias against the band from the start – I don't even like Iron Maiden all that much, and Fates Warning aren't extremely heavy even by power metal standards (the usual proposed antidote for power metal skeptics is a “heavy” album like Helloween's The Dark Ride. This misses the point, and never convinces anyone). But there's no getting around the quality of the songwriting and arrangement here. It's so... composed-sounding. John Arch's vocal lines deserve the most credit for being so very far away from the dopey sing-a-long melodies one might fear, but it goes right down into all the riffs, all the song structures, all the everything. It's all just very good music where one might expect an excruciating series of vapid choruses and guitar demonstrations.
Fates Warning doesn't seem to be particularly highly regarded among power metal fans; they're certainly well-liked but don't seem to break into the top tier. Maybe they're just not buying what this band is selling – when a power metal fan comments about a band being “pretty much the only good death metal band,” I have sense enough to stay the hell away, so I suppose it works both ways. Thus, this album is highly recommended for fans of Morbid Angel, Burzum, and Immolation – folks who otherwise might not catch wind of it.
Awaken the Guardian is hailed by just about every single power metal, prog metal, and thrash metal fan as a masterpiece of epic proportions, and, strangely enough, I can sort of see why. It’s got inventive thrash-like riffs, top-notch solos, clever lyrics, and it’s an important milestone in the history of prog metal. It also has an assortment of problems, and it took me nearly two years to be able to appreciate it. It’s extremely hard to “get”, and even when you do get it, it’s still flawed.
I’m going to cover the album’s faults first, and the first strike against this band, even if it’s a small one, is the vocals. Many have asserted that John Arch is a golden god on vocals, deserving of a spot amongst the pantheon of great heavy metal vocalists, next to Halford and directly below Tate, but it’s not true. His high, keening voice is not bad, but he doesn’t really have the crucial ability to kick a song into high gear. He also sounds much worse here than he did on The Spectre Within. I’m not sure what happened. It could be the recording, or his voice might have gotten worse – I have no idea. It took me a year and a half to warm up even slightly to his vocal performance here.
The bigger problem with the vocals is the vocal melodies, which are very prone to “meandering”. The amazingly, alarmingly, astonishingly alliterative line, “Blasphemous black bible bias, you betray bigotry,” from “Valley of the Dolls” is robbed of any power because of the sing-songy and oddly chromatic vocal melody that it is sung with. That might be just one example, but these moments happen all over the album. And when they happen, they ruin the flow and cohesiveness of the songs, something that the progressive component of the album had already put at risk.
I’m an enormous fan of prog rock. I can listen to old prog rock like Yes and Genesis, new stuff like Glass Hammer and Spock’s Beard, and many different varieties of prog metal, ranging from Arcturus to Queensryche. Be it heavy, psychedelic, quirky, beautiful, or just plain weird, I listen to most of the sub-genres of prog. I bring this up because I wanted to talk about the element of Awaken The Guardian that got it labeled prog in the first place, the odd time signatures. There are generally two ways of dealing with an odd time signature in progressive rock. The first is to simply let it be odd, in all its angular, disjointed glory. Although regular prog-metal bands like Dream Theater do this some of the time, most of the more technical bands in prog metal rely heavily on it, especially those that are instrumental – Behold… The Arctopus, Gordian Knot, Spastic Ink, you get the idea. The other way is to try and smooth the odd meter over and make it sound to a casual listener as if it’s in 4/4. I prefer the latter approach, as it usually yields much more listenable results, and for the most part, it’s the approach that Jim Matheos takes in writing the songs, with mixed results. The Sorceress somehow flows seamlessly from its lurching verse into galloping, hazy chorus, but other songs don’t do quite as well.
Speaking of choruses, some of the refrains on this CD can hardly be called choruses. Even in progressive metal, the chorus is still supposed to be the part where everyone sings along at live gigs. Fates Warning apparently hadn’t heard this conventional wisdom, because some of the choruses on Awaken the Guardian are long, drawn out, uncatchy, and boring. Some of the tracks aren’t so bad – “Guardian” and “Giant’s Lore” come to mind, but others, “Prelude To Ruin” especially, need some work. The bottom line is that “The Sorceress” and “Guardian” are the only two songs on the album that I can recite the choruses for.
It also runs out of steam towards the end. The first four songs on the album are all notable in some way or another, but much of the latter half of the album is spent on the two mediocre epics, “Prelude To Ruin” and “Exodus”. I’m really not sure what to say about these twin epics, because saying something about them would burden me with the chore of listening to them. Both are chock full of those odd sing-songy vocal melodies I talked about earlier, both have long, drawn-out choruses for no apparent reason, and yet both have plenty of nice riffs.
Oh yes, those riffs. For all of its shortcomings, Awaken the Guardian is packed with many, many more than 31 flavors of riffs. However you like your riffs – lurching, galloping, chugging – Awaken the Guardian has them. And like a certain other band with “Fate” in their name, Fates Warning have an endless supply of them. “Valley of the Dolls”, in particular, has riffs, with more riffs on top, some riff sauce on the side, and riff cake for dessert.
The lyrics are generally well-written, but not because of the subject matter. John Arch writes mostly fantasy lyrics about cliche fantasy topics, but they somehow come out good. Not many other writers could take the lyric “Kings, queens, pirates, giants/ Castle walls and dungeon doors” and actually say something with it. He plunges metal’s immature lyrical themes – witches, mythology, even hating posers – into a big vat labeled “poetry”, and once they’re submerged… well they somehow don’t sound so juvenile anymore. “Valley of the Dolls” is a much more reasoned and valid critique of the Sunset Strip glam scene than anything Manowar wrote in the 80s. Even with Arch’s maturity as a lyricist, I could do without the “evil woman” clichés of “The Sorceress” and “Fata Morgana”.
The guitar soloing doesn’t come very often – nearly every song has a short one – but when they happen, the solos are well-done, sometimes resembling the short, melodic yet technically competent style the Wilton/DeGarmo duo in fellow progsters Queensryche used. “Guardian” has an emotive melodic intro solo that predicts the style Andre Olbrich would use on Blind Guardian’s classic mid-90s albums, and another near its end.
This is, above all, a piece of prog metal history. Consider this: the only other bands releasing metal as progressive as this in 1986 were Crimson Glory and Queensrÿche, and neither Rage For Order or Crimson Glory’s self-titled were as influential as this classic, warts and all.
When a person seeks to actualize his own soul, to realize his own identity and act for the end it implies, he has lived as he ought to have. As a youth confused and utterly unknowing of where my newfound love of music would take me, I entered the abyss that was the music scene of the 1990s armed with a dream of making myself heard. But no one acts for his ends without inspiration, and as many have I first sought it in the wrong place, in the culmination of 1990s mainstream music Kurt Cobain. After pulling myself away from that scene and discovering the music that had come before, I started to seek out voices that spoke as no others did, and in 1997 I happened upon an album with an outlandish cover that beckoned me to purchase it and take a chance on an unknown.
“Awaken the Guardian” is not merely an album, it is a manifesto of a musical ideal that many bands have been trying to reach in both the Power and Progressive genres but have not yet quite been able to achieve, the transcendence of mere technical virtuosity into the realm of musical poetry. Ronnie James Dio has hit this from time to time; more recent acts such as Luca Turilli and Blind Guardian have come very close to emulating it through concept album storytelling, but something is very different about this opus. It does not overtly seek to impress, but the impression that it leaves is spellbinding. It’s truly remarkable feature is its simplicity, how a collection of very rudimentary concepts and musical constructs are melded together to form one work of aesthetic and intellectual cohesiveness.
The musical scene that gave birth to this album stood within a highly competitive and artistically consequential era. 1986 was steeped with bands releasing albums of both the NWOBHM and Thrash persuasions, and this album contains several elements from both in its musical infrastructure. Several Thrash riffs such as the Black Sabbath inspired middle section of Metallica’s “Four Horsemen” are paraphrased and cultured in “The Sorceress” to present something that is raw yet perfectly symmetrical. Likewise the galloping riffs of “Fate Morgana” and “Valley of the Dolls” hint at early Iron Maiden influence, but ratcheting up the Progressive approach of sectional contrast that Maiden had abandoned after Killers while challenging the experimental ambiences that they were playing with on “Somewhere in Time”, which was released the same year.
Stereotypically Power Metal is knocked for not having any heaviness to it, but one would see a real contradiction in “Prelude to Ruin”, which is an atypical take on the ruination of mankind that plays upon various ironic melodic material to express the madness and irrationality that would likely accompany such an end. “Giant’s Lore” is one of the earliest examples of a Power Metal song that actively and unapologetically seeks the otherworldly realm of High Fantasy as embodied in Tolkein’s various works. Blind Guardian had penned a demo under then name “Lucifer’s Hermitage” that contained songs seeking these themes, but their musical approach at the time was not akin to the Progressive approach found on here. Likewise the closing track “Exodus” pretty much epitomizes the outer limits that the Power/Prog hybrid style can reach without defying the laws of intelligibility. I’ve heard several songs 10 minutes longer than this by Symphony X and Dream Theater that don’t come close to capturing the command of musical brilliance on display here, nor have most bands I’ve heard out of the Power Metal scene today been able to capture the melodic sense of triumph in the chorus.
Although mostly driven by electric guitars, the usage of acoustic tracks on here is quite substantial, and heightens even further the sense of musical depth. “The Sorceress” and “The Guardian” both contain acoustic tracks that can only be described as haunting, the former for its dreary and dark nature, and the latter for its sense of melancholy nostalgia. “Time Long Past”, which emulates and surpasses the many brief instrumental bagatelles of Black Sabbath, is also highly nostalgic and contains a rather impressive and moving set of melodic leads to substitute for the absent lyrics.
Although musically alone this album is a towering colossus of sonic mastery, the true magic is found in the voice and the words. Others have spoken at length of John Arch’s eccentric yet philosophically relevant poetry, as well as the subtlety of his metaphors, but what is truly amazing is how his voice injects them into the musical whole. There is no tension between the voice and his supporters; there is a perfect unity that superimposes a series of modal folk and church sounding chants as well as the high end counter-tenor lead that tells the various tales. Ronnie James Dio is probably the only vocalist who has been able to combine both the poetic lyrics and the majestic voice to achieve similar ends, although while Dio’s voice is rough and bombastic, Arch’s is clean and subtle. His voice does not seem to need to scream to the audience and beyond that this is where the punch line is, but instead passes it on to the few whom choose to seek it inside the web of sound.
When I first listened to this album I was confused, I had not idea what I had just heard, and I immediately had to listen again because I knew that I had missed something. After 6 months of owning this album I had listened to it dozens of times and still I was feeling I needed to listen again. Afterwards I noticed that my attitude about music, particularly how I would compose it, had been drastically altered. I became bored with playing songs that sounded like what every one else whom referred to themselves as metal fans were doing. It was during this time that I began composing my own saga of High Fantasy inspired songs with the intention of creating something different, something that was both edgy and beautiful. The reason why I play and compose Power/Prog Metal songs instead of Thrash songs is because of this album, which makes a statement that the best elements of the music that I had already loved could transcend the angst and stagnation and become something that was truly relevant, something that was art.
To fans of metal that seek depth and likewise seek beauty, it is here awaiting your open ears and minds. It is a testament to the brilliance that was alive and well during the 80s, and it could well be the path that leads us back to where we were back then and perhaps beyond. From 1986 up until now it would be albums such as Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” that would define metal’s ideal state, and we have seen the disastrous results that have followed. Let us go back and find a new ideal, for the time for mediocrity and pretentious angst has come and gone, and may that new ideal be worthy of those who set the spirit of metal loose upon this earth.
This one's almost as good as its predecessor, The Spectre Within. If you like that one, you will like this one, guaranteed. The same soaring vocals, the epic song structures and powerful riffage is here as well...
Oh, so you don't have that one, or just in general want to hear more... this is one of the first real power metal albums, and has enough similarity to both Ample Destruction and Imaginations from the Other Side to fall squarely within the genre. John Arch's vocals are probably the most unique feature of the album - hitting those impossibly high notes, and not just for "look, I have no nuts!" effect, but actually singing on key and complementing the riffs. The riffs are pretty damn heavy for a power metal - remember, this was 1986, when Rhapsody was a fermenting cheese log of a wet dream and Sonata Arctica barely had a Stratovarius to suck more than. There are lots of tempo changes, a la a thrash album - yes, kids, I said thrash - and then melodic solo after melodic solo.
Highlights... oh, just about all of them. For the second time in a row, Fates Warning can do no wrong, as they go through a variety of compositions... The first three songs are pretty fast and heavy, with some necksnapping riffage, especially in Children of the Grave with high pitched vocals... err, the Sorceress. Valley of the Dolls is somewhat more epic over a speed-metal riff base that echoes Pirates of the Underground, and Fata Morgana has that Blind-Guardian-esque chorus, and the chanting part that, pretty much, if any other band would do, it would come out cheesy - but somehow these guys manage to nail it.
Then we get a little acoustic break to begin Guardian, which is the most progressive-sounding of all the songs on here. It's the longest, barring the closer Exodus... in the first minute and a half, you can find the main melodic theme of the song as a teaser - it's one of those "oh man, this is gonna be absolutely fucking awesome when it kicks in" type songs, similar to Epitaph on the last album. Epic as fuck without becoming pretentious. Then the chorus is the be-all end-all of 80s metal power ballads... "will you remember me?"... everyone from Manowar to Steelheart wishes they were this epic and glorious. Oh and as this is a power ballad, there has to be the obligatory heavy section, and this puts most every thrash band to shame. Dark Fucking Angel, you may pass. The rest of you FAIL. Grandfather, tell me a story.... well, once upon a time, power metal had BALLS OF STEEL!
Oh yeah, the rest of the album... Prelude to Ruin. Cheesy intro? Why no, seven minutes of epic power metal. The intro riffage is a bit reminiscent of Piece of Mind (the whole album has a slightly Maiden-esque feel), then we get more of Arch's excellent vocals. The song moves along at an efficient pace, then all of a sudden turns into a bludgeoning thrasher. Just about Fates Warning's heaviest work, and I must stress for the 432709th time how well the vocals go with these riffs.
Giant's Lore is more standard power-metal fare, comparable to the first few tracks - completely unashamed fantasy lyrics, but the fact that there's actual heavy fucking metal riffage puts these guys miles ahead of the modern flower metal epidemic. Time Long Past... now here's our cheesy interlude. Except, it's not cheesy. It's a minute forty-nine seconds and is a downright excellent guitar piece.
Then, all that is just a buildup to the awesome fucking closing track... Exodus! The closing-track-to-end-all-closing-tracks tradition continues here. This may very well have been the general effect that Blind Guardian was aiming for when they did A Night at the Opera with its 437289 vocal layers - however, not even they can make a chorus quite this epic using only the words "na na na" and '"hey yeah"... oh and "far beyond the prophecy of tyrant guardians". Fuck yeah, pretty much that chorus is the highlight of the entire album.
Well, one of many. Way too many. What the fuck are you waiting for? Another Sonata Arctica release to melt your last remaining brain cell? Heavy fucking metal lives!!!