There are a few bands that I've consistently struggled with for reasons other than their quality, Fates Warning being one. I heard them early, courtesy of Tommy Vance and the Friday Rock Show and rather liked their Night on Bröcken album, even if they were a dollar store Iron Maiden knockoff back then. That was 1984, though, and they grew and expanded their sound, becoming major pioneers in the US prog metal scene, along with Queensrÿche and Dream Theater. I don't know when I stopped listening to Fates Warning or why, but they somehow drifted away from me and stayed elusive any time I tried afresh. They've long been really good at what they do, but I haven't managed to connect with that.
This is their lucky thirteenth album, showing up four years after Theories of Flight and with the same line-up. Guitarist Jim Matheos is a founder member and singer Ray Alder has been at their mike since 1987; he's been on every album except the quick first three. Armored Saint's Joey Vera has played bass for them since 1996 and even new fish Bobby Jarzombek has occupied their drum stool for over twelve years. They clearly know each other well and they complement each other's styles impeccably without thinking.
So, can I get into this album when I struggled with earlier ones? Actually, that seemed likely for quite a while, because it opens pretty well for me. The Destination Onward is ambitious but seemingly easy in this band's hands; at eight minutes, it's one of a pair of long songs here, though long is a relative term when you've released an album containing only one fifty plus minute track. This is a good one, a neat sense of dynamic play keeping it vibrant. Shuttered World and Alone We Walk are shorter but I'd say they succeed in similar ways. I especially like the intricate rhythms on the latter, which ends with a real snap.
Unfortunately, while there are other points to praise, there's little consistency and the album is much too long. It clocks in close to the limit of a CD, but ditching three blah songs, and another better one that would seem out of place without them, would leave it close to fifty minutes. The good one is Now Comes the Rain, an easy on the ear melodic rock song with effective backing vocals, and it deserves to be heard. Maybe it might work alongside When Snow Falls, the soft song here that really works, never failing to be interesting when its fellow soft songs are just bland.
How bland? Well, Under the Sun is mildly elegant, with a lonely violin and cello, but its seems to be a lot more inspired by the Eagles than Iron Maiden. It's nice. And inoffensive. The Last Song is nothing more than, well, the last song. The Way Home is the real turkey though, spending half its time as such a soft ballad that it answers the unasked question of which Fates Warning song we'd choose to play at a widowed parent's second wedding.
Fortunately, much of the rest is far from bland. In fact, when Scars kicks in, we realise just how soft it had all got for well over a quarter of an hour. That was quite the shock. Scars has some soft edges too but it's harder and more vibrant and intricate and it also ends snappily. Begin Again and Liar have some punch to them as well and they show that Fates Warning can still play metal. The Longest Shadow of the Day, at eleven and a half minutes appropriately enough also the longest song, rocks out and well too, even if it starts out as jazz fusion for a few minutes. It has an excellent solo in the middle too.
And, after praising The Sunrise for trawling in a whole slew of different genres, I find that I don't like it when Fates Warning do the same thing. It's not that there's jazz fusion there and yacht rock there, it's that there doesn't seem to be any purpose to it. This works when the band are playing prog metal, whether it's with power and emphasis or with intricacy in quieter moments. It doesn't work when they apparently transform into a completely different band for a while.
And so this is maybe half an hour of an excellent album, with another fifteen minutes of a decent one, but half an hour that I just don't get at all. Fates Warning continue to elude me.