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Tough review. The toughest review, actually.
This is the first Fates Warning album I ever listened to, over a full decade ago. I'm gonna make an effort and review it as objectively as I can, but don't expect miracles. I've cried my heart out more times than I could possibly remember with this album.
The way I see it, this album is paired with the next one (Inside Out). Not that it does not stand on its own as a beautiful work of art, but if you have listened to and liked "Inside Out", there is no possibility you won't love this-and vice versa. "Parallels" is probably the most "easy" and accessible Fates Warning album out there, and that is its own shining and brilliance. It's far less complicated and prog than "Perfect Symmetry" or "A Pleasant Shade of Gray", but the "keeping it simple" spirit works perfectly as it transmits the feeling in wholeness. Some people say the band maybe tried to add some marketing to the product, maybe sell some more copies. I don't think this was the point. Probably and in my humble opinion, it's much more trying to express stuff in a way that the listener would focus more on the feelings and the meanings, rather than on weird time signatures or techniques.
"Parallels" is a non-prog progressive metal album. That means, you don't have to be a weirdo progster in order to appreciate its beauty. Maybe you don't even have to be familiar with metal at all. The message is as simple as it could ever be, and it is open to you (us) all. Some of the greatest Fates Warning songs are included here, such as "Eleventh Hour", "Point of View" and "Life in Stillwater" (steady setlist selections up to the most recent tours), as well as some kind of hidden treasures like "Don't Follow me" or "The Road goes on Forever". As for the lyrics, need I say anything? Maybe I should if you have never listened to Fates Warning before: Pure poetry. There is no possible way you wouldn't be touched lyrically by this stuff, trust me on this one.
An excellent choice if you are to enter the magnificent journey that Fates Warning is all about, as well as the most precious lifetime companion even for the most experienced and demanding music fan out there. This album was always the first pick out of my shelf, in all situations. I know I'm never gonna be over it. But I don't mind. Because after all, feeling is what matters, and feeling is the middle name of this album.
Fates Warning is one of my favorite bands, and this is one of their albums that I simply cannot get into. At all. I'm not sure why, as everyone seems to think of it as of their better albums, if not their best, yet it simply leaves me feeling completely and utterly underwhelmed. Where other people hear a great prog rock/metal classic, I just hear a heap of commercialized rock that festers in its own mediocrity.
Stylistically, this takes the meticulous, mechanical sound presented in Perfect Symmetry and continues it, with a bit of a shift towards a more emotional style. I actually find the vocal performance here better to be the only thing on this album that is truly better than Perfect Symmetry, as I always found the Alder's vocals to be a bit too whiny on that album. The improvements end there, however. The guitar work on this album is about as boring as guitar work gets - It's not energetic and attention-grabbing (such as the guitar work on Spectre, Guardian, or No Exit), nor is it thought provoking and emotive (APSoG, Disconnected) - it simply plods along, playing thoroughly uninspired riff after uninspired riff. There are a few good leads scattered throughout the album, but they are too few and too short to really impact the overall impression of the album. The production doesn't help; the guitar far too quiet in the mix, in fact, everything here is pretty drowned by Alder's vocals, which, while not bad, are still not his best, being too whiny for my taste. The songwriting, too, takes a turn for the worse, with every song trying its hardest to sound catchy, yet not quite getting there. By the bands own admission, they were attempting to write singles with this album, and it really doesn't suit them very well. Zonder's drumming is top notch (that's almost a given), and is a redeeming factor, but once again it's too little to significantly improve the album for me.
Nothing on the album is truly bad. In fact, in terms of commercial rock, it's quite good. However, I don't listen to Fates Warning for a commercial rock album, I listen to Fates for top-tier prog metal, and top-tier prog metal this is not. The album sounds forced and dull, and hardly ever does it truly grip me over its entire 45 minute duration. It's easy to listen to, and can be relaxing, but it's simply not emotionally or intellectually engaging in the way their best albums are.
The songs themselves are all very listenable, with nothing gratingly wrong to make you want to turn off the album, but once again, that's not the problem. There's simply no inspiration here, the band seems to just be going through the motions. Leave the Past Behind inches along with its echoey acoustic guitar interrupted by some very generic pre-chorus and chorus riffs, leaving absolutely no impression until it reaches its lone guitar solo before descending right back into the stupor from which it came. Eye to Eye sports a particularly cheesy opening section before diving into some very overdone vocal lines by Alder. The rest of the album seems to follow suit, with Point of View being perhaps the only track that I would genuinely listen to as anything other than background music.
I don't know what Fates Warning was trying to do with this album, but I really don't get it. Try as I might, I don't particularly enjoy Parallels (or its slightly more boring twin, Inside Out). While Parallels receives its heaps of praise, I think I'll go back to The Spectre Within or APSoG, as, at least for me, both are far superior to the uninteresting 45 minutes of uninspired prog rock.
For the past few albums, Fates Warning had been making pretty bold and large steps in their music, from the initial transformation into a power/thrash hybrid with Ray Alder's debut No Exit, to the forward thinking direction of Perfect Symmetry. Parallels, the band's 6th album, is on a level playing field with it predecessor, with much the same style, and much the same balance of tranquil, dreamy acoustic segues and metal-lite subtleties. This is also probably the 'friendliest' of the band's albums, as in, you could probably play this record for your mother and she'd get something out of it (if your mom got something out of No Exit, well, you were one lucky tyke). Almost every track here was primed for radio play, and the production is polished up from Perfect Symmetry.
But is it too clean? Is this the point at which Fates Warning had crossed the apex of their career and begin a slalom down the far side? In my opinion, yes. As professional as this effort is, it's a double edged sword. The music feels extremely constrained, so that even its most powerful, melodic moments feel like a crack team of editors and analysts are pouring them over, to hew them down to only the most polished of stones. I did enjoy Parallels, in fact I find several of the tracks unforgettable, but it lacks a little of the dark factory feel of Perfect Symmetry, and feels like an attempt to bridge over into the softer terrain of some of prog. rock's most accessible acts, like the 80s-90s efforts of Rush, or Yes, Genesis or Marillion without losing the band's central identity. It's good stuff, but I really need to be in the mood to hear it, whereas many of the band's prior albums would PUT ME in the mood, regardless of where and when I was, if that makes any sense.
"Leave the Past Behind" is a very Rush-like piece, with sparkling acoustics that slowly build into a steady, captivating bass and the mechanical guitar chords of the prior album. The chorus is fairly obvious, but certainly a winner if you are a fan of Perfect Symmetry or Queensryche's smash hit Empire. It's an effective opening track, curt and comfortable, but no surprises lurk around any corner. "Life in Still Water" seems anything but still, as the volley of lush chords and Zonder's electronic drum fills splash about the surface. The latter half of the verse is great, for the ringing guitars that sear over the shaking bass, and it builds to an appropriate chorus climax. "Eye to Eye" forges a resonant intro with more of the brazen acoustics, and a calm but hooky metal lite rhythm ensues, a precursor to the tranquil lament of the verse. Again, the chorus feels predictable and subdued, and there is simply nothing else here of note except a very safe lead. "The Eleventh Hour" is the longest track on the album, and arguably the most interesting. The curtains part for a lurid dreamscape of somber, shining cleans and effects, while Alder embarks on a journey of escalating isolation to just before the 3:00 mark, where the hard chords arrive and herald an epic stream of melody, pure payoff for the listener's patience. But the best moment of the song is beyond 6:00, with an excellent guitar pattern that plays off the central rhythm.
'Somewhere along the way
We exchanged our dreams for selfish pride
There was a common goal
But somehow that vision has died'
"Point of View" feels like Geoff Tate and company sent an Operation: Mindcrime outtake to Fates Warning to see what they could do with it, a familiar pattern with the melodic, urgent chords over the potent, but understated rock beat. It's a decent tune, and in particular I enjoy Alder's performance in the chorus, an edgy banshee keening its message through a still night. "We Only Say Goodbye" is hands down the most memorable track of Parallels, and it's almost embarassing to admit, because this is the kind of track that should have seen a Shania Twain level of airplay. It's super calming and catchy, and though it's heavier than, say "Silent Lucidity", it seems a crime that this very track did not push the Connecticut veterans to some sort of massive US radio presence. I can almost picture it, 15-20 years down the line, all the Fates Warning fans being sick to death of hearing it on VH1 and every classic rock radio station in their region. Alas, thankfully it maintains its beautiful melodic abandon, and it may just be the band's best song in the past two decades...
"Don't Follow Me" puts us back on the path to the band's previous album, with a huge, forward melody recalling "Through Different Eyes" or "Static Acts", parting for another of the band's safe, moody verses before a decent chorus and great, spry lead guitar. "The Road Goes on Forever" is like a quiet afternoon at the local lake, sitting half in the shade of the trees by the beach while you shove aside that newspaper you were going to read, to simply soak in the idylls of your location. It's all clean, with Zonder emulating the water's surface through his percussion. Though I find the track sufficiently captivating while I listen to it, for some reason it doesn't resonate with me beyond the album, and doesn't have anything quite like the hooks of "We Only Say Goodbye".
It's quite telling that Parallels, while being the worst of the Fates Warning albums to its date of release, was still a high quality recording with a lot of good hooks in its gills. The songs are just as carefully crafted as you'll find on any album in the band's backlog, and indeed it's the type you could put on for the full 45 minutes while reading, napping or working on that college project. If you were a fan of the progressive rock of the 80s and 90s (only dabbling in metal), this album may very well have been your gateway into the band. I certainly was not as immersed here as by their previous work, and to this day I still long for the fantastic, dark scenery of the John Arch years, but Parallels was more than acceptable for a band exploring their options.
Highlights: Life In Still Water, The Eleventh Hour, We Only Say Goodbye, Don't Follow Me
My title for this review sums it up pretty well really. Listen after listen as more and more time goes by, I really can not find a single thing wrong with this album, not one complaint at all. Regardless of how many ways I analyze it, I can't find anything I don't like or even think could be improved upon. Let's take a look at the specifics.
Writing: I don't think you can ask for anything better than this when it comes to songwriting that is very emotional and well thought-out yet still definately has a metal edge to it. There's a couple "half ballads" on here, in the form of The Road Goes On Forever, Eye to Eye, and about 50% of The Eleventh Hour. These tunes offer up a very heartfelt side of the band, expressed through Jim Matheos' amazing guitar work and Ray Alder's unique and expressive voice. There are also however several tunes that are certainly more of a metal variety, such as Leave the Past Behind, Life in Still Water, Point of View, and Don't Follow Me. These songs generally feature enough harmonized guitars and complex rhythm section stuff to keep just about anyone happy. (Mid to late 80s Queensyrhce anyone?)
Playing: I can't fault the musicianship on this album at all. It's obvious from just a single listen that a lot of the playing is definately more complex than your average metal record, but on the other hand, this album does not do something many, many prog metal albums do, which is basically trip over their own feet by trying to write the most complicated music they can. The playing is very tasteful. The solos are flashy but only when the music calls for it. The vocals perfectly fit the mood of each song and passage, the drumming is very technical yet along with the bass delivers a much needed bunch when necessary.
Production: When I think of the greatest produced albums of all time, this is quick to come to my mind. Not a single thing is wrong with this album's production. Every end of the sound spectrum comes out very well, and the album sounds great any way you want to play it, loud or soft, on speakers or in headphones, it doesn't matter. The sound quality is immaculate, and in no ways leaves you desiring anything more.
So yes, it goes without saying that this album is a must have for fans of anything along the lines of traditional or progressive metal. This album appeals to a lot of different people though it's stylistically hard to classify. When I think about this album, it makes me actually realize what "the big picture" of metal and music in general is all about. You need this.
Fates Warning is probably the earliest example of the merging of the Progressive musical approaches of bands such as Rush and the heavy metal genre as pioneered by the NWOBHM bands. They have had sort of an unofficial rivalry with another pioneering band of the Prog. Metal genre Queensryche according to the critics, although their music is actually about as comparable as night and day. While the Seattle based quintet was mixing keyboards in and delving into political concepts, this group of musicians from Connecticut dealt mostly with mystical themes, although this album is a bit of a departure from that approach in favor of a more philosophical approach.
In terms of the music, this is probably Fates Warning’s most accessible release, particularly in terms of structure. Songs such as “Eye to Eye” and “We only say Goodbye” are extremely catchy ballads with all the hooks necessary to be radio-friendly, I believe that latter actually did enjoy a fair amount of attention from the mainstream. “Leave the Past Behind” and “Point of View” have some rather complex musical devices, but still have highly catchy choruses and a very straight-forward structure. “Don’t Follow Me”, which is my favorite track on this release, is almost a hold over of their early work on “Night on Brocken” in how well it combines the sound of Iron Maiden with their own style. “The Road Goes on Forever” is a rather slow and straight-forward ballad that lacks any real climax, and takes my pick for the weakest track on here, I would have put this track before “Don’t Follow Me” so it could have ended on a more triumphant note.
There are two tracks on here that contain a lot of the more progressive elements that defined their previous 3 releases. “Life in Still Water” is structurally a fairly simple track, but the off-beat drum beats and constant fill-ins, superimposed over a rather intricate set of riffs make it a bit of an outlier amongst the more catchy songs. “The Eleventh Hour” is the longest and most formally complex out of the bunch, and is loaded with many formal twists and turns. This is Ray Adler’s highlight vocal performance, as he stretches into the upper limits of his register, and floods the entire song with a strong sense of passion. Although I am partial to track seven on this release, most fans of Progressive Metal will definitely eat this song up.
It is also necessary to point out, just so that fans of more guitar driven metal aren’t overly disappointed if they choose to take this review as a recommendation to pick up this album, that Fates Warning is not a band that is defined by their guitar solos. Although they do have rather well placed solos that are technical enough, they are in by no means the amazing technical displays that you get out of bands like Dokken, Judas Priest, or MegaDeth. If there is a guitar player that I can really compare Jim Matheos’ to, it would be a combination of Chris DeGarmo and Alex Lifeson.
In conclusion, this is an album that is highly accessible to fans of metal outside of Progressive circles. Some fans of Prog. Metal might be a bit disappointed with this one, but it has a lot of the same strengths that “Perfect Symmetry” and “Awaken the Guardian” had, just in a set of songs with simpler structures and less odd time references. Fans of more traditional metal will find things to like in here, and fans of melodic power metal whom don’t live and die by the cliché drum beats of the style alone might find some keepers on this gem. This comes highly recommended to all said parties.