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It goes without saying that "No Exit" is a very important album in Fates Warning's catalogue. Whether you like it or not, it laid down the groundwork for what would become the rest of the band's career and yet it is at the same very distinct from everything both before and after. It's probably their heaviest album, and the first in which Frank Aresti REALLY got to flex his guitar soloing muscles and the first when Matheos proved he could write lyrics that rivaled the genius of Arch.
I've seen a lot of negativity directed towards this album and it always puzzles me, as it's the only Alder album to maintain some kind of noticeable musical relation to the work that came prior to it. Granted, it doesn't really sound very much like the Arch era (the prominent power metal elements of that period are only hinted at here) but it's still got elements of that, and yet it still manages to be it's own unique being. The songwriting here is fantastic, with Jim doing the majority of it and continuing to astound all with the intricacies and subtleties he puts forth. Being as this IS essentially their heaviest, and thrashiest album it becomes more difficult to be subtle but the band manages to successfully combine overt heaviness with the band's signature explorations. I don't have too many criticisms for "No Exit" except that I simply don't like it quite as much as other albums, but it's still one I frequently play and enjoy.
There's basically two sides to this album. One is the band pushing themselves to their limits in aggression and heaviness, with Steve Zimmerman putting forth what is perhaps his best performance and the guitar team of Jim and Frank slashing out chugging rhythms and ripping yet melodic solos. This aspect of the album is what makes it stand out in comparison to the other albums they have done, as other than the soloing none of these elements would be heard afterwards. Ray Alder's shrieking vocals and unusual vocal melodies are very atypical for him as he would never be such a screamer after this. I've heard people refer to his vocals on this album as "uncontrolled", "undisciplined", and "all over the place" which is somewhat true occasionally but this is greatly exaggerated by most people (more on that later).
The other side of the album is the progressive and melodic side. On tracks like "In A Word" and "Silent Cries" you can hear the building blocks for what would become "Perfect Symmetry", and Ray's vocals are absolutely beautiful in these songs. There is a much larger amount of odd meters and rhythmic exploration to be found on this album, which helps add to the progressive feel of the record.
The best thing about Fates Warning in their "metal" era (which pretty much ended with this album) is that the heaviness only served to support the emotional and lyrical content of the song. There's no section that feels like it was thrown in to serve as a "headbanging" section even though there are plenty of headbangable moments to be found. Everything is put there to reflect the anguish and frustration the lyrics represent, and it is all put together beautifully.
A good example of this is on the song "Shades of Heavenly Death". Easily the overall heaviest song the band did, with thrash sections galore and a rather doomy riff to be found midway through but it never seems phoned in. The lyrics reflect a myriad of emotions from fear, frustration, betrayal, to it's general theme of being lied to and manipulated by either the system or life in general. The music supports this tenfold with it's haunting, yet aggressive feel topped off with one of the best solos (Jim's solo) on any Fates Warning song it is sure to be a highlight. It's not just put there to be a very heavy song, it simply IS a very heavy song.
I was mentioning before about the unjust criticisms of Ray Alder's performance here. I often find myself preferring his voice to Arch (which is saying something as I love Arch to no end), and his clean, operatic vocal sections are impeccably executed. The intro to the Aresti penned "In A Word" is very reflective sounding, which would go on to become the band's signature of their prog era, and his vibrato and tone is fantastic. This is the case for all the cleaner vocal sections on the album, of which I have no criticism. I will however admit that there are moments when he's belting out his (in)famous screams during the heavy sections that there are times they sound a tad out of control. It works quite good on the aforementioned "Shades of Heavenly Death" and on the legendary "Ivory Gate of Dreams", but there are a few moments on "Anarchy Divine" when he doesn't quite pull off what he's going for. He would mature as a singer on the next album, delivering the performance of a lifetime but he is still quite good here.
One thing I notice not too many people talk about when discussing Fates Warning is just how mind boggling the musicianship is. This is probably because they are such a song oriented band, and the focus is never on technique but the way they integrate such precise playing into such emotionally charged music has never been bettered (though it has been equaled by other fantastic bands such as Shadow Gallery). Steve Zimmerman, while no Mark Zondor (who is possibly my favorite progressive metal drummer) is on fire here, with his remarkable control of shifting meters while still providing classic fills. He's definitely one of those guys who plays drums like you would sing them. That is, with plenty of personality and exuberance but yet he also has a remarkable technical command of the instrument. Joe DiBiase on bass is often overlooked, but he always complements the riffs in great ways and usually tries to not directly copy the guitar which provides for a more interesting listen.
And then of course you have the guitar team of Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti. These guys are cruelly overlooked and no matter how much I try to sell to people just how virtuosic and great these guys are, they only sometimes get it. This is again because they only play what fits the song, but they do so without sounding locked in or limited. Aresti's the shredhead out of the two, with his solo in the "Ivory Tower" part of the closing track being a highlight in all it's alternate picked, string jumping glory whereas Jim Matheos is more subdued. He's still capable of technically demanding lead sections, but it's his beautiful tone and the remarkable melodic control of his leads that stand out about him to me. I also personally feel he is one of the greatest songwriters to ever live.
Everything I've mentioned in this review comes together as a whole on "The Ivory Gate of Dreams". Every section captures your attention, and the use of themes and dynamics gives it a bit of a classical feel which is always appreciated. Throughout these 21 minutes you truly experience the story, whether you are paying attention to the lyrics or not, and no matter how many times I listen to it I discover another dimension or element to it I didn't notice before. "Quietus" is the most well known section in it, as it's very catchy and soulful but no one part outdoes the rest. This is one of Fates' best songs (which is saying quite a lot), and though I don't hold it quite as high as a few others, it is nevertheless an astonishing achievement.
"No Exit" as whole is truly a great album. It balances all the elements Fates Warning are known for both of the Arch era and the Alder era, but manages to put it together with the best set of riffs they ever did, and some great songs. I wish people would get over the changes that occured here, because otherwise they are missing out on some great music. It may not be the milestone "Awaken the Guardian" or "Perfect Symmetry"(amongst others) are, but it's still fantastic.