Thursday, January 9, 2014

Significant Albums: Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray (1997)

So where do we begin?
And what else can we say?
When the lines are all drawn
What should we do today?

Yeah, of course that is the opening line, and probably the line most associated with this record. And appropriate for this series or actually more or less anything involving thinking, nostalgia, etc.

This is my favorite Fates Warning record. It has been more or less since I heard it. And I am a dedicated and long-time, going on 18 or 19 years, fan/fanboy of one of the definitive progressive metal artists. So, I naturally hold more or less everything this band has done in high regard.

But this record is their most unique. Why? well, for one, it may be regarded as their only obvious concept album. Being that it is really is just 1 nearly 54 minute song, divided up into 12 "parts" per say. I consider it 1 song anyway.

I guess it was perfected in a lot ways. Mood-wise, it was and still is relate-able in sort of a reflective and therapeutic way. The emotion heard in the dynamics, from the vocals to the guitar. And use of sampling rain, for example, along with the piano, which especially at the time, knowing it was Kevin Moore playing on it meant a lot to me, given I was still rather down about his departure from Dream Theater. Although, of course Kevin Moore I don't believe wrote any of it, as Jim Matheos is credited for that. I wonder though, especially with any of the samples, if Kevin was involved, as that has been, and namely around that time in the 90's, something he was rather adept at finding and using.

Another part of this record that maybe gets overlooked is how Terry Brown was involved with the production/producing. Terry Brown worked with Rush and many other groups I enjoy, and I recall had worked previously with FW on Parallels, and then later on Disconnected as well. I recall reading some stuff about his writing or working well with Ray Alder on the vocal melodies. And this album has many of Ray's best vocal lines.

"Stayed up late last night...."
"But circumstance conspired, and here we are, here we are"
"But I often wonder, what could have been.."
"Let nothing bleed into nothing, and did nothing at all"

Just trying to remember some others..trying to jog my memory.

I think one of the biggest parts of this record being such a big deal to me, was it came out in 1997, not long after the band had long time members Frank Aresti and founding member/bassist Joe DiBiase leave the band. I recall tape trading with a guy and including some letters per Metal Edge's "Metal Head Directory" and talking about Fates Warning. The guy mentioned reading the news of those 2 guys leaving the band and how the band, meaning Jim Matheos, may just hang it up. I have a really distinct memory of getting my bass guitar and playing it one afternoon and then stopping and feeling incredibly depressed about Fates Warning, a band I had only recently become a fan of, but was loving everything I heard. The possibility of them breaking up. After seeing Kevin Moore leave Dream Theater, and then learning of the possibility of  Fates Warning being done.

And then this record comes out, and for my 20 year old, music-seeking self, it kind of gave me some hope for my love of music at the time. Especially in 1997, a year when a lot of music I was checking out was not up to par, like Queensryche's latest, or even the previous year's Rush album. And Dream Theater's new album seemed to be taking an eternity to come out. APSOG was an album that sort of saved my ability to listening to new-music at that time.

But on paper, it is just one of those classic concept albums, that everything was written and recorded (and perfected) for a reason. It is best heard all at once, as I mentioned, it is really just 1 54 minute song. And while it is sound-wise more modern sounding and less heavy or Metal sounding than FW's previous albums, save for maybe even the one that preceded it in Inside Out, a record I almost regard as having very little heavy moments. But I think it kind of found Fates Warning making a  more darker, progressive rock, than anything else.

It was really in a lot of ways, Jim Matheos saying fuck you to the music industry and their demand for shorter, "radio friendly" songs/music, including having to pick them off an album. Even with the tracks labeled "Parts 1, 2, 3..12" etc, it was like the exact opposite of what they seemed to try to do with Inside Out and even with Parallels. A non-commercial approach to song and album.

Many fans regard this as a turning point in sound, which it is in a lot of ways. Ray doesn't sing a ton of falsettos nor their "Metal" or "80's" sound seems to be gone. It has some industrial moments, which I am not normally into much in general, but with Fates and this kind of music, I totally go for.

The concept? I've always wondered and thought it was about a man reflecting on his life's decisions and wondering if there was anything he could do to change them. But also just his memories, sort of day dreams or dreams he had, which recall past experiences of his (or maybe others?..SciFi?).

Jim I recall never really explained what the actual concept is, or if there is an actual, defined concept with it. Probably why a lot of the lyrics, like most of his lyrics, are pretty ambiguous. So, it's up to the listener to interpret them and the music how they want, which often I appreciate as much as any more blatant kinds of lyrics or wording with music (album titles, song titles, artwork, or even artist names).

Is it an album I listen to a lot? not anymore, but for nostalgia and uniqueness, I still think it holds up and is somewhat unmatched. I often wanted to call it "A Perfect Shade of Gray" in just how perfect I find it. And I'm not sure if they will ever make anything as good as it is again, which I'd love to be wrong about that, but for a band who was 14 years into their career and now 30 or so now, I would hardly expect it.

I also recall reading an interview with Jim around the time he was writing this, online per an mIRC chatroom text, where he mentioned listening to a lot of Marillion at this time, including the double live album Made Again which had recently been released around that time.. Which maybe that was also when I started to think of these guys with Marillion.