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Though the lazy, minimal cover art for Fates Warning's 7th album certainly gave me no immediate grounds for anticipation, its contents are thankfully not so vapid. Arriving at a time when progressive metal was now firmly in the domain of the huge selling, Dream Theater (who by this point had released Images and Words and begun their conquest of almost every Guitar World subscriber and Queensrÿche expatriate fan looking for a new, improved thrill), the album seems extremely tame. But 5-6 minutes of jamming and showboating musical proficiency was never the forte of the established Connecticut band. Unlike their peers and friends in Dream Theater, they were motivated only by the song itself and not the grandstanding.
Continuing the band's progressive tendencies, it was however a surprise that Inside Out remains so close in style and tone to its predecessors Parallels and Perfect Symmetry. They had found their niche, and would reside comfortably within for the remainder of their career (thus far, at any rate). This effort does contain its fair share of rather saccharine ballads, but the metal moments are arguably more prominent and aggressive than on the predecessor, so it builds a fair balance that should sate anyone into the band's work from 1989 on. As far as the quality, I do feel this is somewhat lacking. Inside Out is simply never the album I turn to when I need my fix of modern Fates. Even in its better moments, the material is just not as standout as anything the band had ever done before. Considering the barren landscape of non-extreme metal in the mid 90s, it was satisfying for only a short time. But, hell, at least it was better than anything the slumping Queensrÿche had released in the entire decade.
The disc begins with "Outside Looking In", which involves sad, sailing melodies and a similar rhythmic mechanism to the verse of the previous album's opener. It's a solid track which offers enough variety in the drumming and riffs to please, but it doesn't help that it is immediately eclipsed by the superior "Pale Fire", which is another of those 'single' worthy tracks very similar to "Through Different Eyes" from Perfect Symmetry. Lyrically, "Pale Fire" is quite a success, for the chorus evokes a pretty powerful image that haunts long beyond the closure of the music:
'Pale fire, dry land getting drier
nothing can grow in the ashes of desire
Pale fire, burned on the desire
no one can grow, with nothing to inspire'
Pretty mesmerizing words, those, and maybe an unintentional soliloquy for the band's direction in the 90s decade. "The Strand" creates an almost folkish platitude through in its somber, bluesy rock verse, but I liked the bouncing bass rhythm and it builds to another great chorus part, which simply rages into existence like many of the better moments of Perfect Symmetry. "Shelter Me" feels very similar to "Pale Fire" or "Through Different Eyes", but it lacks the staying power of those tracks and the title and chorus feel perhaps a little too accessible, almost as if being written by Diane Warren for some R&B or soft rock track. The music is pleasing enough, but quickly forgotten. And unfortunately this is followed by "Island in the Stream", a big rock ballad that has much in common with "The Road Goes On Forever" from Parallels. Immersive and pretty for its acoustics and pianos and atmosphere, but I could never summon the desire to ever seek it out individually.
"Down the Wire" gets by on the groove it develops through the verse, though the chorus reminds me of a more rocked out spin on "We Only Say Goodbye", so perhaps a bit of unconscious self-cannibalism. "Face the Fear" begins with a flow of shining, teary melodies that transform into a pretty complex pattern beneath the verse, with acoustic cleans swelling at the top end and a clockwork melody hanging under Alder's vocals. The chorus is likewise interesting, Zonder playing rattlesnake while the sprightly clean guitar flush like flower petals escaping their stalks. "Inward Bound" is a brief, bluesy atmospheric instrumental which might feel more at home on an early Eric Johnson record, but here does very little even as a segue from its busy siblings. "Monument" is the best track on the latter half of the album, cautiously escalating into an insanely catchy hook after 2:00 which rekindles the factory-like atmosphere of Perfect Symmetry. "Afterglow" is a nice lead-out to the album, a brooding acoustic piece laden in slim electric melodies and an eerie narrative, interspersed with happier bits and a quiet momentum.
Inside Out is hardly void of ideas, but it definitely has a few tracks which feel redundant to the prior efforts, without exceeding that work. As such, it's simply not that impressive in the long term, and I rarely have the patience or time to listen through the whole album, heading straight for its better moments and ignoring the chaff remainder. It's solid, but not inspiring. However, if we were to compare this to the sullen ennui that would follow, it feels almost a masterpiece in comparison.
Highlights: Pale Fire, The Strand, Monument, Afterglow