“Very often fans and critic credit Dream Theater for creating a whole new genre of progressive metal music in the late ‘90s/early ‘90s,” writes Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, “But the truth is Fates Warning were doing it years before us.” Indeed, while Dream Theater popularized the distinctive, technically adventurous, operatic sounds that became known as prog metal, a handful of young bands during the early ‘80s had already laid the groundwork. Heavily derived from equal parts Rush and early Judas Priest, young bands such as Queensryche, Crimson Glory, Savatage, and Fates Warning brought a sense of musical flash to the fledgling American metal underground, combining complicated arrangements with powerful, British metal riffs, sung by supremely skilled, charismatic frontmen.
While the collective talent of these bands was undeniable, theirs was a style that was challenging, even to the metal crowd, and it wasn’t until late in the decade that the sound would begin to grow in popularity. Queensryche toned down the bombast in favor of a more accessible sound, with very successful results, Savatage flirted with the big time before the onset of grunge and the death of a member cut their run short, and Crimson Glory simply faded away. Fates Warning, however, have faithfully stayed the course for over 20 years now, and thanks to a superb reissue by the band’s one and only label, Metal Blade, we can experience the best album in their catalog in depth.
The third volume in what is turning out to be an outstanding series of deluxe treatments of classic Metal Blade releases, Fates Warning’s 1986 opus Awaken the Guardian, could not be more deserving. Regarded by the majority of fans as the band’s finest moment, the album became an instant underground classic when it was originally released, setting the template that such bands as the aforementioned Dream Theater, Symphony X, and Nevermore would follow in the next decade. For the longest time, though, it remained somewhat of a buried gem. While American metal was exploding in popularity, labels like Metal Blade were left trying to compete with all the major label signings (including Slayer, who left Metal Blade in 1985). It was bad enough radio wouldn’t touch metal music, mainstream or otherwise, but on such a small label, it was next to impossible for bands like Fates Warning to raise the money to film videos, the most effective method of promoting metal at the time, and as a result, were forced to rely strictly on word of mouth.
Those who did catch on the band during the mid-‘80s knew they were witnessing something special. Like practically every other young American metal band at the time, their 1984 debut Night on Brocken was fairly run-of-the-mill British metal homage, but 1985’s The Spectre Within was a major breakthrough, as the band started to dabble in more creative songwriting (see “The Apparition” and “Kyrie Eleison”), led by guitarist/primary songwriter Jim Matheos and the multi-octave vocal stylings of singer John Arch. If The Spectre Within nudged the door open, the follow-up Awaken the Guardian kicked it down, and the new reissue only further proves how truly one of a kind this record is. Like the softly-toned, eye-catching cover artwork, the music lives in a world of its own.
If there’s any other record that can compare sonically to Awaken the Guardian, it’s Queensryche’s debut full-length The Warning, as it possesses the same heavy tones and the same shrieking lead vocals. But where Queensryche tentatively delve into progressive sounds, Fates Warning lose themselves in them. Each of the eight tracks are epic in scope and dizzying in their ambition, and to this day, it requires several listens before it can begin to settle in.
A normal band would have taken a fantastic riff like the opening chords of opening track “The Sorceress”, and constructed a simple, catchy tune around it, but not Fates Warning, who launch into verses laden with complex vocal melodies and bookish lyrics, Arch’s slightly nasal alto voice careening in every direction imaginable. Only the barest trace of a hook is discernable: after an extremely dense, decidedly non-catchy chorus of, “She flies the ocean shores of Kildare / Over tombs of the happy fields / Lonely girls ride the great beast,” right as the song is on the brink of losing the listener for good, Arch pipes in with the line, the song’s one brief hook, “Virginal goddess of hunt, Diana,” as the opening riff returns. That sly use of innocuous melodies and fleeting reprises of opening riffs is ingenious, as the band toss listeners a quick bone before flying off into unpredictable territory once more.
The remastered album, which sounds more powerful than it ever has before, is loaded with astounding moments. “Valley of the Dolls” is the closest thing to a straightforward metal song, with a mere three time signature changes, highlighted by a glorious, stomping opening riff. “Guardian” achieves an understated majesty, shifting from acoustic guitar-driven verses to a gently soaring, remarkably subtle chorus, before exploding into a brief, Iron Maiden-style gallop during the bridge. The stunning “Fata Morgana” is the best example of the band’s increased skill at crafting unique melodies, featuring great dual guitar melodies by Matheos and Frank Aresti, Arch’s verses punctuated brilliantly by a contagious backing vocal hook. “Prelude to Ruin” steals the show, Matheos and Aresti’s guitar work sounding titanic, and Arch’s vocals downright Olympian, the trio flying off on wild tangents that rival Mercyful Fate’s 1984 classic Don’t Break the Oath, the song held together flawlessly by drummer Steve Zimmerman.
Like the recent re-releases of Armored Saint’s Symbol of Salvation and Voivod’s seminal War and Pain, Awaken the Guardian is crammed with extras designed to thrill longtime fans, but might prove to be too much for first-time listeners. The second disc features demo versions of “The Sorceress”, “Valley of the Dolls”, and “Prelude to Ruin”, as well as a handful of live tracks, including a great version of early track “The Apparition” and a scorching cover of Black Sabbath’s “Die Young”. The third disc, a DVD featuring the only known video footage of the band during the John Arch era, is decidedly lacking in quality, but despite the roughshod, amateurish camera work and the muddy audio, the Long Island, New York club performance is nonetheless a valuable piece of history, an ultra-rare glimpse of the band at their creative peak.
Awaken the Guardian hearkens back to a period where the sky was the limit for American metal music, where, it seemed, a classic album was released every couple of months. It was a time where bands were completely unafraid to be unique, when they cared about a song’s melody and structure as much as they did the sheer brute force of the music, something that seems to be lost on many young bands today. Arch would eventually leave the band in 1987, and although the band’s late ‘80s albums with new singer Ray Alder would net stronger sales, such a stirring combination of traditional metal and progressive sounds would never be duplicated by the band. Awaken the Guardian still resonates with life today, and this fine reissue only solidifies Fates Warning’s place in metal history.