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Ooh dear... I have been dreading this one. Not necessarily due to the album's content, but more because of the reverence this has received in metal circles over the years. Well, this young 'un is here to tell you that this really isn't a good album, and that he doesn't see the appeal to this music at all. There is merely one flaw with this album, but the problem is that it is a pretty large flaw. So large in fact, that it hampers any enjoyment I may get from this. No doubt the album is unique and special, most certainly. I can't think of many power-tinged progressive metal albums that sound like it, and there are many things to like about it. But the thing that sucks... SUCKS!
Let's be kind to it, and deal with the positives first, that being the instruments. The riffs for instance are extremely memorable, catchy and perfect for headbanging. They are classic '80s heavy/power metal riffs, chock full of melody and an excellent sense of groove. They are driving, aggressive, and just plain awesome all around, carrying a near anthemic quality to them. And there are a lot of them too - not quite a riff binge, but certainly more than enough to keep any listener satisfied. The drums sound kind of standard at first, but upon closer inspection they actually play a fair few interesting patterns whilst simultaneously fulfilling the basic role of timekeeping. I would have liked some double bass on the faster moments of the album for that true '80s rocking speed metal feel, but this never claimed to be speed metal, so I will let it off. The bass does a fine job of heavy-ing up the riffs and giving the album's base a bit of extra grunt. This works especially well for the faster tracks where heaviness is key. And the solos are beautiful, with an excellent sense of melody and a long, flowing nature. They tell a story all on their own, without the help of any lyrics at all.
That is another really good thing about this album. It does convey a strong sense of wonder and has an extremely potent and moving atmosphere on the whole. 'Epitaph' and 'Traveler in Time' really do transport the listener to another world entirely, the world being painted and portrayed by this band throughout the album. It really is magical, something special. I can honestly tell you now, even as a detractor of the album, that this is unlike so many power/prog albums I have heard. Rarely does it get more epic than the soloing or the quiet parts of 'Epitaph', and never have I been more moved by a speed metal track than 'Kyrie Elesion'. The wonderfully melodic instruments, including the haunting acoustic intro, generate an epic atmosphere all on their own, and makes the one goddamn flaw this album has even more infuriating.
This album is filed under the 'progressive' tag, and for once that is a good thing in my books. 'Progressive' these days means 'technical', or to be more blunt, 'wanking', all full of noodling and other unmemorable ego-boosting tripe. In this case, the tag really means just that, songs that go through several contrasting sections in a flowing manner. The songwriting is superb; while on simpler songs like the aforementioned 'Kyrie Elesion' aren't so remarkable in their construction, most of the other songs here are amazing exercises in progressive songwriting. They seamlessly flow between driving heavy riffs, dreamy and blissful soloing, haunting acoustic sections, and more riffs with the utmost grace that it is impossible to become bored with any of these songs. And yet at the same time, the songs don't endlessly chop and change between ideas every minute or so, taking time to establish an atmosphere and a memorable and cohesive set of ideas before morphing and toying with them as the song gradually moves forwards.
But now... it is time to address the elephant in the room. Or indeed, the John Arch on the album. He certainly has a ton of power to his pipes, something he has managed to preserve over the years it would seem. He very clearly sings his ass off, and I do admire that, but I also take quite a strong disliking to his tone. He has a nasal, high-pitched tone to his voice that manages to strike all the wrong auditory chords with me. His voice is so annoying that it nearly wrecks any sort of atmosphere the rest of the band generate, and it doesn't help that he is loud all of the time, incredibly so in fact. Even when the album doesn't require it, he yells all over this thing, which is made even worse due to the odd nature of the vocal lines he delivers. They come across as not only off time, but also completely out of sync with the songs melody wise. He sings in his own melody that differs from the music, and it clashes completely with the song and just makes him sound even worse. There is no doubt in my mind that he can sing, but the vocal melodies, despite being complex and well-crafted, simply don't fit with the music in any way, shape or form. During faster tracks, he kind of fits in, because the music demands his incessant loudness. However, when the music slows down, his volume is entirely excessive and pointless.
And this last issue isn't really an issue on its own, but becomes one within the context of the album. Not so much the production itself, that is all fine, all the instruments sound good as one would expect - displaying that classic '80s sound', so to speak. It possesses great dynamics and a nice, full sound, with all the reverb and what not that one would expect. The issue lies in the mix of the album - because the vocals are very, very loud. Far louder than any of the other instruments, they proceed to nearly obscure the majesty of what is going on underneath while John just kind of wails with no regard for his surroundings or tone at all. And though the lyrics are great, I keep having to look up the lyrics because his voice is drenched in reverb and is very difficult to understand - a compounded effect due to his incoherent and off-kilter, off-time delivery.
I feel bad for having to trash this thing, in all honesty. That score up top has been creeping up with every listen, there is a wealth of good music on here - but the vocals fuck it all up for me. There is more to like than dislike, but trying to ignore John's monumental pipes is a near impossibility, and I am not prepared to stomach a grating voice for the music, no matter how good it may be. Obviously I am in the minority with this one, pretty much everyone else loves his voice and considers this thing a masterpiece. Sadly though, you can't win 'em all, and I don't think I will ever truly like this. A damn shame.
"If there's any justice in this world, 'The Spectre Within's cover art should be placed under the word 'overrated' in any commercially distributed English dictionary out there."
Have you ever had the unforgettable experience of listening to 'Iron Maiden' wannabes repeating themselves to death with a seemingly endless pile of overlong 'copy-paste' riffs that go nowhere while a semi castrated 'glass-breaking-X-Factor-rejected-boy' with the most annoying timbre imaginable by any human standard shouts the most cliché lyrics available to your desperate ears? Well, luckily I didn't, but then I heard this album. Forty eight minutes of autistic vocal delivery plus extremely unimaginative guitar work that for some odd reason, is liked by human beings.
Since day one, 'Fates Warning' embarked on a journey to sound more 'Iron Maiden' than 'Iron Maiden' themselves. Of course, a journey designated to fail. But then, why should I listen to a band such as this, instead of 'Iron Maiden'? It's obvious that in this case, the copycat is inferior from the original act by gazillion levels. The major problem of 'The Spectre Within' is that in addition to the unbearable Iron Maiden worshiping, this time the folks decided to become progressive. Oh, boy.
First and foremost, I couldn't spot a sole decent vocal melody in any of the songs exhibited in this tiring effort. 'John Arch' is obviously a 'Dickinson' fan trying to sound like his hero. The problem is that while he executes high pitched notes easily and can probably vibrate his voice perpetually (or until there's no more glass to break), he possess zero emotional substance and has nothing worthy to sing. The vocal melodies are extremely dull, disposable and sound extremely improvised.
The guitar work is probably one of the most unimaginative collection of riffs I've heard in metal. The same galloping triplet 'Iron Maiden' rhythm is repeated to death in this album without any reason, except for the purpose of imitation. The solos are the same generic fast picked scale repeating itself in different timings and different positions just to fill the blank spot between one bland riff to another. The most upsetting fact about this whole extravaganza of boredom, is that the songs are just overlong and has too many pointless riffs. In my book, 'progressive' music isn't supposed to be an overlong exhibition of repetitive ideas that just take time and space, but a composition of truly imaginative ideas that aren't trying to sound exactly like something that has already been done before.
Besides the poor, uninspired songwriting (a.k.a throwing random riffs with random vocals all over the place) the production of this album is quite bad. The vocals are way too loud in the mix, the guitars have a muddy tone, the bass is mostly inaudible and the drums are too fragile and lacks aggression. Maybe with a proper mix this album could be a little less tiring, but we'll have to accept what we got.
Overall, there's nothing progressive or spectacular to be found in 'The Spectre Within'. In the golden era of metal music when some bands released revolutionary classics that helped to define the genre as we know it today, 'Fates Warning' released one of the most characterless albums ever created.
This is the best album of that unique niche of USPM, power/prog, etc. This defeats their classic follow-up, Ryche's Operation Mindcrime, and pounds Nosferatu into the dust. Only Hall of the Mountain King may look this in the eye, and even he must look down after a moment in penance for his insolence. This album takes many of Mercyful Fate and Iron Maiden's best qualities and creates a masterpiece from it all.
The first thing one will notice about this album is the stellar artwork. There is a futuristic gypsy of some sort with a fixed gaze upon her. A black raven flies just overhead, it's wing just covering the top of the moon. Through the fog, you can barely make out the swamp and the mountain in the background. In the right-side of the background, there are orbs with the constellations contained, as though the night were a curtain pulled back and forth. This is definitely t-shirt worthy, and on my list for sure. As a note, the remaster trades in the red and blue for grey. The old was definitely better, and there really is no gain in sound quality, so go for the original if given the choice.
As to the influences, there are more than these two at play, but these are the two that I will focus on. With Mercyful Fate, you have their exquisite song structures. These songs all have that epic feel that Fate had. They don't have as many of the changes Fate had, but the overall feel is maintained. These songs are longer, but I guarantee that these will not bore you. From Fate, they also possess Diamond's unique vocal approach. Not in terms of how often he changes range, but more in terms of how much his vocals carry the flow of the music and how forceful they are. If you prefer Ray Alder that's fine, but he doesn't do near as much for the music as Arch does. He's just inoffensive. Lastly, they are extremely atmospheric. Not as much as Mercyful Fate, but close. Considering their other influences, I'd say this is mostly from Fate, even if the atmosphere itself is rather different. From Iron Maiden, they took the strong melodicism. This sounds small, but it permeates the music at every turn. This music isn't really heavy or aggressive, it's rather fast, but no more so than is standard for power metal. I would argue that they exceed even Maiden at this game, and that this was the most melodic album of 1985.
The instrumentation is solid, but not really spectacular. Matheos would improve a good deal later, but here he is merely good. The other guitarist isn't particularly special. Don't misunderstand me, the playing is very enjoyable. I simply mean that their melodic capabilities outstrip their technical ones. The solos aren't of the most memorable nature, but they're very good nonetheless. Arch is the most memorable element here. He has a little of the spectral character that Halford had on Stained Class, but the voice itself is rather different. Perhaps Geddy Lee meets Bruce Dickinson, with some of King Diamond's techniques tossed in. I will admit the rhythm section is probably the weak spot. The drumming is rather stock, and the bass is seldom standing out. Neither are bad, and there is some solid grooving, but they don't impress near as much as Matheos, let alone Arch.
The song quality is consistently great. There is not a weak song on here, and they all showcase an extremely enjoyable melodic brand. For my money, the opener would be the best. Everything comes together so perfectly. The atmospheric touches, Arch's memorable lines, and the amazing melodies all come together perfectly. This essentially occurs all throughout the album for its entire time. For me, the only things dragging this album away from a perfect score are the rhythm section's relative mediocrity, and that the technicality isn't as high as the melodic playing. Obviously considering all my praise, I consider these exceedingly minor flaws. Some previous reviewer referred to this as the peak of 80's American metal, and it's close. I don't rank it as the best we accomplished, but it's top five or so. This is mandatory for USPM fans, and highly recommended for fans of early metal and all other varieties of power and progressive metal.
When speaking of traditional heavy metal/USPM, Fates Warning's second and third album, The Spectre Within and Awaken the Guardian, are often cited as the greatest albums that exist within the genre, or even some of the greatest albums ever. While such praise is not entirely unwarranted, I do feel, personally, that it applies much more to Awaken the Guardian than to The Spectre Within. I do seem to be very much in the minority on this point, and I'm not sure why it is that much of The Spectre Within doesn't click with me on the level that Awaken the Guardian does; indeed, from what I understand most people find the latter album much more inaccessible. I did find it inaccessible; it took me around a year or thereabouts to fully appreciate it and come to the popular conclusion that it is indeed quite amazing and one of the best albums in the genre. The Spectre Within, though, still seems to elude me, after almost 5 years and many, many times listening to it in its entirety. Not that I dislike it, nor that I even see it as average - but only specific songs and sections seem to, for me, reach the grandeur that is so ubiquitously applied to it, which has continued to puzzle me.
Well then, let's get down to the attributes of the music itself and what makes it good but not great to me, rather than simply making comparisons to its successor. This is unmistakably USPM, with a fairly slick, polished production and riffs that, while maintaining a progressive nature, sound more akin to some of the more aggressive acts like Helstar or Liege Lord than to those more often filed as "progressive," such as Queensryche or Crimson Glory. Indeed, I hear very little if any resemblance to those latter two bands here, the vocals being the only element that one could reasonably point to as a major similarity. The riffing style resembles a more aggressive Liege Lord (I'd list a more well-known point of comparison, but there really aren't any that do the sound here justice), with some of the galloping riffs we heard on the previous album, Night on Brocken, but only slight Iron Maiden resemblances remain, Fates Warning having clearly moved far beyond Maiden in terms of complexity and atmosphere on this album. Arch's performance here isn't really like anyone else at the time, his aggressive yet nasal shrieking being nearly inimitable, and still not really imitated by many to this day. The vocal lines are what stands out the most about his performance, though, using multi-tracking to great effect many times throughout the album's duration (that sublime middle section in "The Apparition" being the greatest example - listen to the song, you'll know it immediately when you hear it). The riffs are good but not hugely differing from the norm for USPM - in fact, I'd point more to the leads as building most of the complexity, usually playing unusual and dynamic, yet ultimately enjoyable melodies atop aggressive but rarely fancy or particularly dynamic riffs.
The thing is, what I've described certainly builds a solid, enjoyable album, but what separates it from the pack? I've mentioned Arch's use of multi-tracking, which certainly contributes, and is probably the largest factor in giving it those "sublime" sections for me. I also mentioned the leads, but they only pop up fairly occasionally, the songs often just featuring simple workmanlike riffs under Arch's acrobatics, which seems honestly out of place and relatively mundane to me. Songs like "Orphan Gypsy" and "Pirates of the Underground" are, for that reason, decent but not at all great to me, with other tracks like "Traveler in Time" and Without A Trace" having enough stronger sections to make them somewhat memorable, but still not pants-shittingly great by any means. For me, at least, it's "Kyrie Eleison," "The Apparition," and "Epitaph" that put this album above merely competent, and, in my opinion, has it bordering upon top-tier quality, but not quite there. There are certainly touches of the brilliant complexity that was to come on Awaken the Guardian, but only those 3 tracks, which happen to be on the last 3 tracks on the album, have those touches more than occasionally.
"Epitaph" certainly does this with the most ambition, perhaps being my favorite song here overall. With its acoustic guitar layering and some more ethereal wailing from Arch, it's definitely the only song on the album which has that sort of arcane, mystical atmosphere which Awaken the Guardian possesses. It also has fantastic soloing leads that are very rarely seen anywhere else on the album, and Arch begins to shriek like a madman, going up way into the stratosphere more than once. Just the best stuff on the album in about every way. So, overall, the album is very good, probably even great, but for me not amazing or perfect, as it is often lauded. Definitely check it out, but don't expect it to be the most amazing thing you've ever heard. Or maybe you should, since it seems it's just me who thinks otherwise. But check it out either way.
Fates Warning is one of those bands that honestly took me a long time to get into, especially with how the earlier albums turned me off, and for one reason: John Arch's vocals. I was honestly annoyed by his over-the-top vocals, and I was more of a Ray Alder fan. My first exposure to the band was Parallels, so I assumed that was their main sound: commercialized progressive rock with hints of metal a la Queensrÿche post-The Warning. And so, I avoided the band's earlier catalog for several months.
But one day, I was curious as to what it was that made The Spectre Within and Awaken the Guardian classics among true metal fans, that I finally started spinning a few tracks off them both. I remember hearing the majestic beauty that is "The Apparition", and how brilliant its guitars sounded in the recording. At the time, I was still very much more of a Ray Alder fan, but I was beginning to appreciate John Arch more as a singer. I also heard "The Guardian", taken from the album right after it, Awaken the Guardian, and the vocal harmonies were definitely getting to me. I then decided to sit down and listen to BOTH albums in full; I honestly liked what I heard, but had a bit of a hard time choosing between the two. Thankfully, I was able to reach a verdict on my favorite Arch-era Fates Warning album: The Spectre Within.
Now, why did I pick this one over Awaken the Guardian? While the former isn't as heavy as the latter, it had one main thing that made it such a near-perfect offering: consistency. Yes, The Spectre Within is consistent, from the atmospheric "Traveler in Time" to the depressingly eerie "Epitaph", sandwiching other classics such as "Without a Trace" and "Kyrie Eleison".
There are no passengers on this album; Jim Matheos and Victor Arduini form a flawless team of co-lead guitarists, Joe DiBiase's bass doesn't slouch when things pick up, Steve Zimmerman pounds his drum set like a feral beast that's just waiting to strike any moment, and finally -- John Arch belts out some of the finest, most incredible vibratos on this album. Not to mention, by the way, how extremely poetic the lyrics are. "The Apparition", "Epitaph", and "Orphan Gypsy" especially make this obvious.
Really, I've never heard a progressive metal album as brilliant as this one, and whatever fanboyism I had for Ray Alder's stuff was COMPLETELY erased from memory. I just have so many things to say about this album that would likely be the size of a fucking chapter book, but will conclude that this is simply a masterpiece that should be heard by ALL fans of Iron Maiden, Queensrÿche, Dream Theater, Crimson Glory, and other bands alike.
Review posted at forcesofsteel.com
I’ve been putting off writing a review for this album for some time. Partly it’s because it already has so many reviews which say almost all there is to say about this album (specifically, that it’s fucking incredible), and partly because it’s simply hard to write a review for such a truly spectacular album. It’s nearly impossible to shove enough praise at The Spectre Within, because no matter how eloquent your review is, it still will ultimately be an understatement. The Spectre Within is worthy of every bit of praise anyone on the metal archives could possibly give it, and then some. This is not an exaggeration – this is truth. This album transcends not only everything else Fates Warning has ever done, but damn near every bit of metal to ever be recorded. This is the absolute pinnacle of 80s American metal, and I say that with complete honesty.
So, while I could fill up a few more paragraphs with more generic (albeit well-deserved) praise for this album, this review cannot be infinitely long, and it wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t mention the music. I’ll start with the musicianship; this isn’t the most technical music ever written, but it’s not trying to be. The riffs and leads are technical enough to impress, but never more than that. The emphasis here is on melody and atmosphere, not on flashy guitar acrobatics. As with all USPM, the rhythm guitar is central to the music, providing the backbone of the songs, and the riffs here are of unmatched quality. Every riff is brimming with originality, propelling the songs along and demanding the attention of the listener. The drums are equally superb, with Steve Zimmerman hammering out loud, bold rhythms that perfectly complement the riffs. The bass, while not as central to the music as either of the aforementioned instruments, is well played and clicks right into place alongside the rest of the music. The lead guitar is used sparingly but is superb and very varied, ranging from frantic (but not flashy) on the faster tracks to slow and emotive on Epitaph.
...Which brings me to the vocals. John Arch deserves his own paragraph. Opinions on Arch tend to be rather polarized, as many find his voice annoying. This opinion, initially, is quite understandable; he has a very awkward, nasally tone that can make a bad first impression. His vocals, however, are completely and utterly incredible. Technically, he’s a very competent singer, capable of both ear-piercing highs and emotional midrange, but it’s not his voice that impresses so much as the unique way in which he uses it. The true magic behind Arch’s vocals is the complex, floating melodies he weaves above the music. Arch does not confine himself to following the riffs as many vocalists do; rather, he sings complex lines that add an additional layer to the music, with a presence equal to, if not greater than the rhythm guitar. That isn’t to say he’s completely separate from the music, however his vocals have a freedom from the rest of the music that few other singers, if any, can emulate. Arch also sings impressive harmonies, not only doubling the guitar behind his already complex vocal lines, such as on Pirates of the Underground, but also taking the place of a lead instrument, such as on The Apparition.
And now for the music itself: the songs are all fairly long, with Without a Trace being the shortest at 4:50 and Epitaph measuring an impressive 11:58. Despite the long song length, however, not once does a song sound plodding or dragged out. Every second of The Spectre Within is exploding with fresh and original ideas, from the opening bell tolls of Traveler in Time to the fading vocal harmonies at the end of Epitaph. Each song presents the listener with something new and exciting, and each melody brings its own uniqueness to the grandeur of the album. The album itself is pervaded by a dark, almost morbid atmosphere, brought about mainly by the combination of the ominous imagery of the lyrics and the ever-present riffs. Piercing the darkness is John Arch, weaving his aforementioned melodies, leading the listener through the album. Thematically, the album revolves around the concepts of death and the afterlife (with the slight exception of Pirates of the Underground), viewed through a different lens with each song. Traveler in Time marches steadily and relentlessly towards death, while Orphan Gypsy carelessly careens towards it. Kyrie Eleison desperately seeks a reprieve from death through religion, while Epitaph welcomes its release with open arms. The music and themes are tied together with marvelous songwriting; Traveler in Time’s march is clearly heard in its main riff. The Apparition’s yearning for enlightenment is urged on by its uplifting and energetic bridge. Further developing The Spectre Within’s theme are a set of brilliantly written lyrics – John Arch proves himself to be an extraordinary talented lyricist on every song, from Epitaph’s morbid hopelessness to the biting wit of Pirates of the Underground (which is a cleverly masked criticism of the lack of metal played on the radio).
Of course, The Spectre Within never loses its metal sensibilities for the sake of being artsy. Without a Trace is, at its heart, a galloping speed metal anthem. Likewise, The Apparition is pure melodic USPM. Stylistically, The Spectre Within stays a true heavy metal album, and it’s the fact that Fates Warning could craft such a masterpiece within that framework that truly impresses – the enjoyment here does not come strictly from the superb theme or artistic vision, it comes from the quality of the music. Even listening to it strictly as a metal album, The Spectre Within never once disappoints, which is quite an amazing feat. Even with all of its artistic splendor, The Spectre Within remains an album to which one can simply let go and headbang.
So, there you have it. The Spectre Within is a one of a kind album, the likes of which will probably never be recorded again. I have yet to hear an album that surpasses it, and probably never will.
There are two fairly distinct phases of Fates Warning to note. In the early years, primarily with John Arch on vocals (and ending with 1988's No Exit, the debut of Ray Alder in the band), they created classic, riff-heavy compositions in the vein of melodic speed metal with a dash of Maiden. Starting with Perfect Symmetry, a more mechanical, progressive entity took form. While this latter phase produced some interesting and memorable albums (Perfect Symmetry, Parallels, Inside Out), it is the classic Fate's Warning which I hold most dear. There is something truly atmospheric about their first three albums. 1984's Night On Bröcken was a solid debut with a few catchy pieces, but it's follow-up The Spectre Within is not only the finest album in the band's career...but one of the greatest melodic metal albums ever to emerge from the US of A.
Each of the seven tracks on Spectre creates a bold narrative vision, laden in the mystique of carefully plotted compositions and the haunting keen of John Arch. Outside of the music of Fate's Warning, one might find Arch annoying at best, but within the milieu of old, haunted speed metal landscapes, he shines like a fallen God. "Traveler in Time" creates a panorama of flowing bass and insanely catchy riffing which foreshadows their later, progressive work. The track also features some creepy acoustic segments with amazing vocal lines, bells, drumming, unbelievably awesome. "Orphan Gypsy" is powerful and sad, glistening melodies atop its forceful, circular intro riffing. The speed metal of the verse is amazing, but again, this band wrote riffs like no other, you can alreaady hear the adventurous nature the band would channel for the remainder of its career, even though the enveloping composition is somewhat traditional. The lyrical skill of this band was nearly unparalleled in its day, almost poetic.
'Young warrior to the drunken galley slave, running with the wind running wayward knave I'm a vagabond with a maëlstrom mind, my blood has left me behind So go away, leave me alone, if you look in my eyes you see only stone I won't let you in, I can lock you out, in your world, your fallacy, I don't want desolate island debris'
Just when you thought you were losing yourself in the high mystique of The Spectre Within, it moors you back to Earth with a pair of pure metal ragers. "Without a Trace" features a lick Iron Maiden only WISHED they came up with, and "Pirates of the Underground" is simply incredible, with a gung ho vibe to its volley of riffs, an almost doom/speed hybrid in its verse. "Apparition" has Arch at his best, the vocal melodies are inescapably memorable, and the riffs plod along with limitless grandeur. "Kyrie Eleison" opens with some chanting and then proceeds to create moody atmospheric doom the likes of many others only dream of conjuring, before the amazing verse riffing picks up speed. The epic length album closer "Epitaph" runs nearly 12 minutes length, and never grows dull. 12 minutes of perfection, from the monolithic doomy intro riff to the flourish of proggish synthesizers in the closing seconds. At this point you know you've been on quite the journey, once the album ends you can return to the world of sunshine.
The Spectre Within has a timeless production, the album has never become dated, except in the technical sense. This is a testament to the superb quality of every second of riffing on the disc. There are no weak tracks, no boring moments, and nothing even bordering on 80s cheese. The album is dark and serious, haunting and morose, with only a smattering of fist pumping metal excitement on "Without a Trace" and "Pirates of the Underground". This is one of the very best releases of classic American metal, and one of the best for Metal Blade/Restless. Yes, despite the rash of trendy modern signings the label has made to stay afloat in this tasteful era, they were once the mightiest label around, with a roster of legends. Fate's Warning is surely one of those legends, and this album represents their finest hour.
John Arch. Those words alone show how amazing this album is. One of the most unique and incredible singers I have ever heard. Sure, he is somewhat annoying at first, he resembles Bruce Dickinson and everything else people say about him is probably true. However, no one can do what he does. I'm not really sure what is it that he does, but he does it, and it sounds amazing. But of course, a singer isn't the only thing that says if an album is good or not. Don’t worry though, because "The Spectre Within" is a masterpiece of power/prog metal. Most people prefer "Awaken The Guardian", and while I love that album too, this is their crowning achievement, in my opinion. Here they started to show some hints of prog influence on their sound, but overall it still is US power metal. There is also a thrash influence on the riffs, but more on that later. I still remember the day I bought this album. I had never heard anything from FW before, and I don’t have the habit of buying CD’s without downloading it and getting my conclusions first. But I trusted MA (more precisely, UltraBoris) reviews and bought it without knowing what to expect. Getting home, I go to my room and put it on my CD player. I press play. The music starts and I think “Yeah, pretty good music”. The vocals enter and I think “OMG, who is this idiot raping my ears?” No kidding, that is what I thought at first listen. It has been said on the previous reviews and I agree wholeheartedly: this album is an acquired taste. Is not something you’ll listen once and think “What a masterpiece!” No, it takes time. Time not only to understand the music itself, but mostly to get used to John Arch’s vocals. Sometimes it will take just a few repeated listens, others it will require much more patience. But in the end, it is worth it.
The music here is unique. The sound can be described as a mix of US power metal with some influence of thrash in the riffage, some characteristics from the N.W.O.B.H.M and an atmosphere completely different from anything I’ve ever heard. There are some heavier and faster songs like “Kyrie Eleison” and “Without A Trace”, some more mid-paced moments like “Orphan Gypsy” and “The Apparition”. Then you have the ever-changing nature of the long epics “Traveler In Time” and “Pirates Of The Underground”, the first one being the second best song here, after “The Apparition”. And to perfectly finish the album, you have “Epitaph”, an atmospheric epic with a somewhat creepy performance from Arch. Every song has impressive riffs; some great solos here and then; effective, although simple, drumming and good bass playing to round it up. Thanks to the excellent production we can hear every single instrument, even the bass. Another thing that I must mention is that every song has a memorable chorus, except “Epitaph” and "Pirates Of The Underground, but I don’t think that song even has a chorus.
While I was writing this review, I thought a little more about what I said before concerning Mr. Arch’s vocals (and read the other reviews again), and I think I finally understood what is it that makes him so unique. He is MAGIC. Not only he has a huge range, capable of changing notes and pitches in instants and holding them for seconds, he can create melodies with his voice that are trance-inducing, and he sings them throughout the whole album. Yeah.
So that is all I can say about this album. Nothing new, really, but there isn't anything else that needs to be said. It is a must-have for everyone that likes metal, and for everyone with a fascination for vocal skills. The amount of talent contained here is guaranteed to kick the ass of any Pantera fan in miles. It is a shame that this album is so underrated, even among FW fans, because it is, undoubtedly, their best. All hail Jim Matheos, Victor Arduini, Joe Dibiase, Steve Zimmerman and, especially, John Arch.
In the four corners of life are the golden mirrors reflecting what you are and what you are to be. In the first is a young boy, white dove in his hand. In the second is a warrior in armour. In the third is an old man, gold watch in his hand. Fourth and last, there's The Spectre Within. It has no reflection at all. There is nothing like this. This is a power metal album with exceptional complexity and viscerality that heavily emphasizes both the vocals and the riffs. Although the excellent successor 'Awaken the Guardian' does share these traits, the two are still very different; the fantastic atmosphere is present in both, but here fantasy is comparatively less prevalent, while death and darkness are ubiquitous, and this is more thrusting forward in contrast to the symphonic soaring of 'Awaken the Guardian.' It sucks the listener into the abysmal maelstrom of clashing thoughts, through a labyrinthine path of convoluted structure and unpredictable shape.
John Arch's vocals form the core of the album's sound. Voice-wise, he could be described as a nasal version of Bruce Dickinson or Geoff Tate, but perhaps he resembles 1970s' Halford more overall in the inaccessible and twisted vocal lines – and he takes the vocal twist to the extreme. Like Halford's line in the bridge of 'Stained Class,' John Arch's phrases are long-winded and melodically rich, with many notes and pitch-changes. Almost every phrase is extended beyond the typical length, yet it feels logical – even absolutely necessary. John Arch sounds like he is warping the musical environment around himself, and these lengthy twisting vocal lines lend a sophisticated and dark mood to the overall music. Mostly he is high-pitched, especially soaring incredibly high in the endings of 'Orphan Gypsy' and 'The Apparition,' but sometimes, as in the pre-chorus of 'Kyrie Elesion' or the first verse of 'Epitaph,' his voice turns lower and sinister. He also sings in a ballad-like way in the third part of 'Epitaph,' as well as providing almost distorted vocals in the second bridge of 'Traveler in Time' (the "sacrifice the living for life" part) and some low-volume, subliminal spoken words in the third section of 'Pirates of the Underground' (probably backward as well, if it is a faithful representation of the lyrics "preacher man spins backward secret messages"), though he never completely changes his voice like King Diamond. Moreover, the various passages without lyrics, consisting of "ah"s and "oh"s, are employed with melodic significance, sounding composed, not improvised. Even the very short screaming phrases like the one announcing the entrance of the last verse of 'Without a Trace' or the one in 'Kyrie Elesion' that leads into the guitar solo have anticipatory melodies related to the following music, and every song has more than one extended shouting consisting of five or more notes, like the one between the bridge and the last verse of 'Orphan Gypsy.' The non-lyrical vocals sometimes even take the role of a lead instrument, as in the section right after the first guitar solo in 'Traveler in Time,' the intro of 'The Apparition,' and the fourth part of 'Epitaph.' Also, they are overdubbed for providing background harmony, to an especially great dramatic effect in the final stanza of the middle section in 'The Apparition,' while in 'Pirates of the Underground' the overdubbed vocals almost form counterpoint with the main vocals. The ending phrases are often complex as well, such as the descending lines after the choruses of 'Traveler in Time' and 'Orphan Gypsy.'
Competing with and complementing the complexity of the vocal lines are the riffs with an almost thrash-like insistence on being prominent for most of the time. The riffs are not overtly technical – heavy metal riffs consisting of one power chord for two or four palm-muted notes either down-picked or alternate-picked are the most abundant, and although there is only one real thrash riff (the one right after the chorus of 'The Apparition'), there are some heavy riffs with visceral compulsion, such as the intro riff of 'The Apparition' or the main distorted riff in the first section of 'Epitaph,' helped by the crunchy guitar tone. Metalness is never sacrificed, but the riffs are still complex. Warped by the twisting vocals, there are rhythmic asymmetries and short noodling phrases thrown in (most prominently in 'Traveler in Time'), and some riffs, like the verse riff of 'Without a Trace,' follow the vocal twists into a darker section within themselves. The left-channel guitar usually plays in a slightly higher pitch than the right-channel guitar, sometimes resulting in arcane harmonies as in the chorus of 'Without a Trace.' The high degree of variation among the songs exhibited on this album certainly owes a significant part of its debt to the riffing – even the three fast songs have main riffs of different natures, from the grinding riffs of 'Orphan Gypsy' and the fast yet heavy chugging of 'Without a Trace' to the staccato speed metal gallops of 'Kyrie Elesion.' Riff progressions are very smooth, though not predictable, with various transitional phrases such as the tremolo connection of the first and second under-verse riffs of 'Orphan Gypsy' and the noodling melody between the verse riff and the chorus riff of 'Without a Trace.' There is even a guitar lick in the last verse of 'Kyrie Elesion' (right after "here I go and start to fall again"), heightening the dramatic effect and giving variation. Some riffs enter in varied forms throughout a song (most notable in 'Orphan Gypsy') and even different riffs often have melodic relevance with each other, lending a strong thematic consistency for each song. A sense of necessity is present in every riff transition – it feels inevitable that a certain riff came after another, and it seems to be the only right way to have arranged them. While the vocals are omnipresent during the verses, they leave room for riff breaks, such as the re-introduction of the intro riff after the first chorus of 'Without a Trace' and the quasi-thrash break of 'The Apparition.' The vocals and riffs are both highly idiosyncratic, but they are integrated well with each other: sometimes the riffs support the vocals, as in the intro of 'The Apparition,' while at others it provides contrast, such as the riff in between the first and second solos of 'Traveler in Time' which first allows the vocals to sing (or, in this case, play) the consonant and uplifting lead melody and then turns darker itself.
The vocals and rhythm guitars are definitely the greatest forces of the album, but the other voices have their contributions. Guitar solos are fast and shredding in general but controlled and integrated with the songs. There are some blazing super-shreds, but these are used with restraint, and on the lower strings, so they never become flashy. Excluding the slow solo in the third part of 'Epitaph,' the solos of 'Without a Trace' and 'Kyrie Elesion' are the most melodically articulate, with the solo of 'The Apparition' being more chaotic (though certainly within the framework of power metal solos and not even remotely resembling Slayer or Morbid Angel solos). Several, such as the second solo of 'Traveler in Time,' in contrast to the mentioned solos of 'Without a Trace' and 'Kyrie Elesion' which maintain a consistent mood throughout, go through brighter and darker phases as the riffscape changes underneath. Sometimes the solos are used to interesting effects; the fading last phrase of the first solo of 'Traveler in Time' hints at the "vocal lead-riff" that is to follow, and the second guitar solo of 'Without a Trace' begins with a slightly more elaborate version (five notes instead of three) of the main motif in the verse riff. The bass guitar is not prominent in terms of either production or composition, but there are a few instances of interesting performances, such as the supplying of an extra bit of melody in the chorus of 'Orphan Gypsy,' or doubling the vocal line ("tabernacle is forbidden") in the middle part of 'The Apparition,' and in the first part of 'Epitaph' the frequent absence of distorted guitars requires the bass to fill in the place in support of the acoustic guitar melodies. The drums follow the riffs for most of the time, hence naturally not very attention grabbing but interesting and varied (since the riffs are), and there are some fill-heavy sections such as the chorus of 'Traveler in Time' and the part between the solo and the final verse in 'Orphan Gypsy.'
Generally songs start with an introductory sequence of riffs, which leads into the first verse-chorus cycle made up of two verses followed by a chorus, then they enter the middle section consisting of a solo or two and a different verse, and finally ends with the second verse-chorus cycle, with only one verse and a chorus. Four of the seven songs, namely 'Traveler in Time,' 'Orphan Gypsy,' 'Without a Trace,' and 'Kyrie Elesion,' follow this pattern, though they all slightly differ from each other in construction. 'Traveler in Time,' the most epic of these, contains two separate solos and two middle-section verses, and a full-fledged riff sequence (and a subtle acoustic phrase) as an outro. 'Orphan Gypsy' has a very long introduction consisting of four riffs and a guitar solo, and unlike 'Without a Trace,' sends out the middle verse first before going into the main guitar solo. Both 'Without a Trace' and 'Kyrie Elesion' have two consecutive guitar solos with different tones (and the first ones are harmonized), but the others don't, and while 'Kyrie Elesion' lacks any middle verse, it is the only one with a pre-chorus. There are also some differences between the first verse-chorus cycle and the second, other than the fact that the verse part is twice as short the second time, minimizing the déjà vu effect. The tremolo phrase connecting the verse and chorus of the first cycle in 'Orphan Gypsy' is replaced by a drum fill in the second; 'Without a Trace' has the transitional melody between the verse and chorus of the first cycle omitted in the second, and the second verse-chorus cycle of 'Kyrie Elesion' starts with more intensity than the first does (manifesting the said intensity in higher-pitched notes). In fact, in the case of 'Orphan Gypsy,' each of the three verses is sung slightly differently.
The other three songs all have several seconds of silence (though sometimes the guitar sound is sustained faintly throughout the pause) within the songs that divide them into different parts, although in the case of 'The Apparition,' the main verse-chorus cycle repeats itself at the end, making it hard to consider it a truly multi-sectional song. 'The Apparition,' in fact, has the most conventional structure among all seven songs on the album, with a relatively shorter verse-chorus cycle which is repeated thrice, but the almost futuristic introduction with interwoven riffs, leads, and vocals and the intense middle section which is a world in itself, consisting of ever progressing verses and a frenzied solo as well as riff breaks, sets it above any cyclical redundancy. The other two are truly multi-sectional epics. 'Pirates of the Underground,' the lesser of the two, is in three parts. The first part consists of an introductory passage of three riffs and a guitar solo. The verses, which, save the repetition of the first verse (albeit with slightly different vocal delivery), progress linearly, make up the second part, and fast riffs with a harmonized solo and several lines of verses form the third part. 'Epitaph' is a staggering epic of almost twelve minutes divided into four parts. The first part is a series of contrasting distorted and acoustic guitar riffs, the second a fast twisting section, the third a calm, acoustic driven part with a slow guitar solo and ballad-like singing, and the fourth a build-up of riffs, vocals and keyboards, which finally fades out.
Thematic and atmospheric preoccupation with death is present throughout the album. From the clock ticks to the bell tolls, 'Traveler in Time' displays an obsession with the approaching of death through the passing of time, accentuated by the dark riffs and morbid vocals, while 'Kyrie Elesion' seems to be running away from death with the urgent gallops of the main riff and the haunting chase of the pre-chorus. 'The Apparition' and 'Epitaph,' however, are the most narrative. Following the introductory vocal-riffs showing desire and yearning for knowledge (about afterlife), and the "take me away" chorus, 'The Apparition' really does get taken away into an abyss of a thrash break. Then, with the words "I want to know," it morphs into a fast, somewhat uplifting but ambiguous speed metal section, enlightening and revelatory, which culminates with the repetition of the "no reflection at all" line, representing the lack of afterlife; first it is sung rapidly, the second time it is contemplatively extended, and the third time the pitch ascends high, perhaps in fear of reduction to nothingness, perhaps in ecstasy of being able to gain total liberation from the shackles of the world through death, or both, as the immediately following schizophrenic solo, which hesitates in the middle but rushes near the end, seems to hint toward. 'Epitaph' narrates the advent of death (likely suicide, as the lyrics suggest) in four parts – despair, dying, fading, and dirge. The contrasting "yeah"s and "no"s between the first and second verses strengthen the schizoid and nihilistic mood, and the descending last phrase of the first section takes the song into the frantic second section with a deathly suggestion. In the second section relating to the dying process, the morbid vocal melody, the mad speed at which the lyrics are spouted out, and especially repetition of "afraid to die" at the end in a hysterical tone, with the omission of the "I'm not" part, hints at the presence of ambiguity in the narrator's acceptance of death. The soft, wraith-like singing and the ghastly keyboards in the third section create a dreary atmosphere and a sense of fading away. The interwoven development of riffs, almost choral vocals and symphonic keyboards in the fourth section act as a requiem of magnificence, but it ultimately fades out, perhaps suggesting the reduction to nothingness, mirroring what has been discovered in 'The Apparition.'
'The Spectre Within' is a masterpiece of a level previously unreached. As one of the most vocally complex albums in the realm of popular music, it conjures up sophisticated darkness and deathly contemplation without losing the sharp metallic edge. It was the most compositionally advanced metal album by 1985, towering above even the likes of 'Hell Awaits' and 'Seven Churches,' and to this day remains as one of the greatest and most unique albums of all time. Truly, it is without reflection.
"Time, what is time?" Blind Guardian once asked. In the world of Fates Warning, it's nothing. In 1985 they released The Spectre Within. It didn’t seem to matter to Fates Warning that there wasn't any other music on the planet that sounded like it, or that just one year before they were bedheaded late-for-dinner NWOBHM-worshippers. To the pundits and plaudits of the era, it must have seemed like Fates were coming from another universe, this new blistering approach to progressive metal that thoroughly exploded the more behaved diddling of Queensryche. Time isn't relevant when you are capable of laying down heavy metal like this. When you have the opportunity, you conjure the magic and by God Fates did not miss their moment.
Within a minute of opening tidal wave "Traveller in Time" it's obvious that something quite new, exciting, and even beautiful is going on here. Where Night On Bröcken riffed it's way down paths beaten flat. metallically pleasing but lacking in instantly identifiable character, Spectre seems possessed by something other. There are more riffs, better riffs, riffs coming from every corner of the room like exploding glass, this technical kaleidoscope of power chords wrecking the listener's neck in heretofore unexplored ways. There is a detectable uptick in Mercyful Fate-mania, the riffs sounding simultaneously older and more venomous, yet progressive even beyond Sherman and Denner's crew. Fates Warning were, even more so than Mercyful Fate, attempting to create a feeling of dense musical complexity, the band allowing the kind of riffic chaos usually reserved for breaks flow out into the verses as Arduini and Matheos rarely play a riff completely straight for more than a few measures without throwing some tricks at it. "Pirates of the Underground" is a good example of this, the song lurching to just over seven minutes but seeming to be comprised of a good dozen quite individual movements of wildly varying tempos, drummer Steve Zimmerman somehow managing to find a through-line and maintain a drumming style that is consistent even as it exhibits wild variance. This isn't quite the insane cut-and-paste pastiche of Watchtower or early Thought Industry, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to cite early Fates as one of the predecessors of the movement.
To anyone familiar with the band's classic period, the band is musically instantly identifiable. Therefore, it truly says something when it is universally agreed that John Arch's vocals were the most unique part of Fates Warning's sound. Much like King Diamond, Arch was known for his bold use of unusual melodies, often wailing along independent from the music beneath him. John would often take parts Matheos had written to perform a solo over and create complex vocal harmonies in it's place. Although there were a few hints of his classic style on Night On Bröcken, Spectre represents a sudden bloom, Arch keeping pace with his surging bandmates by arriving ready and willing to weave his remarkable sonic spells. "Kyrie Eleison", “Orphaned Gypsy”, and "The Apparition" in particular are almost daunting (unless you've heard Awaken the Guardian), Arch high upon high and somehow omnipresent in spite of the surprising lack of obvious vocal overdubs.
Still, there are plenty of albums that innovate and impress. The reason that Fates Warning's early work generates such fevered and frenzied passion is the emotion and imagery that it generates. I've weathered many a sonic firestorm and inhuman rampage (*nudge nudge wink wink*) and come out numbed and annoyed, but the seven riff monsters on Spectre really effect me on some level. I think some of it is in the touch of doom that flavours their compositions, the Candlemass forecast mood that encloses fog-clogged uber-epic "Epitaph" with riffs like rain-drenched foundation stones, the sobbing wordless lamentations that carry the listener through psych-folk dreamscapes towards black, black, and the end of the CD. I think some of it is in John Arch's lyrics, which while not nearly as fantastic as some would have you believe, are illustrative and so loaded with imagery that one can't help but see the sodden steppes of whatever medieval hell he's seeing.
It is these factors and many others that have lead many to compare Fates Warning to various black metal artists. It is because Fates is both evocative and uncommunicative. Their arcane style lends itself to florid descriptions like the ones I so often find myself indulging in, while their self-serious and brooding disposition seems to speak of a conceptual depth that only Matheos and Arch could hope to truly illuminate. It is amongst the most striking examples I've seen of finding a product made with care and competence, a work worthy of love, and taking it so deeply into oneself that one can apply worlds of (possibly) imagined narrative and subtle intent within it's margins.
What it comes down to is this: The Spectre Within is a great, great metal album and Fates Warning is a great, great band. Whether you choose to analyze it as a philosophical treatise or a piece of smoking metal might is up to you. Shit, my favourite track is "Without a Trace" and that's about as straight-up obvious as this band ever got. It’s just speed metal, that’s all. And yet, even such a simple OTT highball is approached with such hypnotic brilliance that it seems the product of some wizardly medieval conjuration.
See, now they’ve got me going again. That’s what intriguing, well-crafted music can do to you. And I can think of no better description for Arch-era Fates than that.
Stand-Out Tracks: "Without a Trace", "Traveller in Time", "The Apparition"
The more I listen to this album, the more I realise how completely fucking impressive and brilliant it is. I had to bump it up four points from an incredible 95 to an unheard-of 99. Yes, it's just about as good as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. You get these two albums and you have the cream of the crop as far as epic classic/power metal goes.
The most distinct feature is John Arch's vocals - the vocal lines are something totally insane, as they are not just generic shrieking, but entire complex melodies. This is probably best evidenced on "Traveller in Time", or "The Apparition".
The highlights: EVERY song is great in its own way. Lots of variety here. "Kyrie Eleison" is the obvious speed metal choice - on every classic or power metal album, there is one speed metal song. It's a law, and here is how this album obeys. "Traveller in Time" has awesome vocals, and "Orphan Gypsy" has some very catchy verses. "Epitaph" is over 11 minutes long without getting at all boring (something FW would have problems with later in their career). "Without a Trace" has a masterful chorus, and "Pirates of the Underground" has a lethal guitar section in the middle with one of the best solos ever recorded - total Ritchie Blackmore worship and they pull it off brilliantly. Finally, "The Apparition" is just about perfect - total guitar madness, combined with great lyrics (the whole album has great lyrics, but this most of all) - "no reflection at all!!!".
As mentioned, this album has probably the best production I've ever heard. Every instrument is heard, and everything has its own distinct place in the mix. I've not ever heard better utilisation of aural space, ever. There's always something going on, and it neither overwhelms you with excess technicality, nor bores you with crappy repetition.
This is one of those albums every metalhead MUST own - especially if you are anywhere near a fan of power metal.