Fates Warning’s previous work, The Spectre Within, was a masterpiece which essentially set the standard by which most metal – almost certainly all prog metal after it – should frequently aspire to (and often never does). Following up such an album is a tall task for anybody; almost nobody could. Fates Warning weren’t like any other band in metal – not now, and sure as shit not back in the 80’s either – and as such they proved capable of following it up with something even more monumental. The Don’t Break the Oath to Spectre’s Melissa, if you wanna compare ‘em to other all-time great albums.
Awaken the Guardian is a little bit difference from its predecessor – it is even more progressive, a little bit more technical, and generally has more of a thrashy edge to it than The Spectre Within had. Chalk it up to newcomer guitarist Frank Aresti’s contributions to the group. It is more outwardly aggressive, but overall it isn’t really as dark as its predecessor was – it certainly has some very heady, weighty moments, but it isn’t nearly as morbidly pre-occupied with impending death as The Spectre Within was. The band certainly has their past influences – but by this point, they’d internalized and expanded on ‘em to the point where they’re almost unrecognizable. I’d said it for Spectre but it applies even more to Awaken the Guardian here – nobody really sounds like Fates Warning; not then, not now, not ever.
This album is essentially the ultimate marriage of unencumbered imagination with technical skill and just enough discipline to tie everything together. At their core, Fates Warning were all about melodic interplay – between the guitar riffs and the harmonies, and the stunningly impeccable vocals of John Arch; the manner in which the band weaves these together and sets it against the jazzy (yet exceptionally tight and hard hitting) rhythm section allows the band to tap into memory and dream, thoroughly auralizes those things, and brings them to life. It is one of the most blatantly pure forms of escapism in metal – a genre that openly embraces it and, by way of its finest practitioners across the genre, tosses the dreary and mundane aside in favor of using the fantastique to find the things actually worth exalting in life – if nothing else but because the band imbues it with such raw passion and emotional pathos. In turns, it informs the high degree of skill which with Fates Warning craft and play these songs. It couldn’t be anything less like the dreary sterility that most prog metal devolved into by the 90’s. (or most of the tech-thrash of the same decade, albeit with a few sterling exceptions)
Every passage on Awaken the Guardian feels as if it was born of both pure intuition and necessity. I harp on it a lot; the ideas of structure & arrangement being such deciding factors in whether an album is any good or not. It’s really albums like this that illustrate such qualities, however – the way the songwriting comes together on this album makes it apparent that this material was as second nature as drawing breath is. There are easily discerned passages, of course; tons of riffs, harmonies, and hooks. But everything about the album is painstakingly crafted while also flowing with staggering ease from part to part. It’s genuinely imaginative, and basically never comes across or threatens to turn into a mess. Not once. Each passage just falls together perfectly; in doing so, it underlines that it is genuinely dream-like, unearthly music, and it does so without ever resorting to the boring post-production tricks that are used to crudely signify that This Is Actually Deep And Sensitive Music made by Deep And Sensitive Artists.
Remember: if you really are that, you never have to come out and brag about it; you’re just that to start with and never have to beat your own chest to show it.
At any rate, each riff on Awaken the Guardian is a mini-masterpiece in and of itself. Matheos and Aresti both have such an engaging riffing style – steely, ferociously sharp and vividly colorful– and in doing so, embodies the best of both the physically heavy and melodic approach that all genuinely great traditional metal aspires to me. There’s something to be said about the way the ominous intro to the opener surges into its main riff; the effortless flight of fancy that is the opening harmony to “Fata Morgana”; the bruising quasi-thrash riffage of “Prelude to Ruin” – that under-verse riff is fuckin heavy as anything else you’d care to mention in trad – the main one to “Exodus”, etc, the super riffy bridge and odds twists “Valley of the Dolls” delves into without becoming a tangle mess, and more. You could seriously spend all fuckin day talking about the best riffs on this album, because the answer is just about “all of ‘em”. Every riff on this album is absolutely immaculate, playing perfectly off Arch’s voice (whether as spring board or counterpoint, eg the former in “Giant’s Lore” and the latter in both opener and closer) and fundamentally underlining how untethered and soaring.
It’s genuinely ethereal music, unbound by conventional social graces involving “taste” and “class”; really all the shit polite society tells you to stop enjoying after your teens, and it disregards such concerns as again, the useless clutter it really is. The lead guitar work is equally as brilliant as the riffing – Matheos and Aresti’s work constantly acts as pivotal moments of revelation, or as simply excellent climaxes to the songs they appear in, equal parts tasteful and classy; occasionally flashy, without ever being gratuitous or hollow like a lot of 80’s shredders were. They fit almost as perfectly into the context of these songs as did the work of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner on those Mercyful Fate records mentioned above. The rhythm section is, similarly, excellent; Steve Zimmerman plays with an unusual swing that was absolutely essential to the band’s attack, and juggles doing a lot of odd little flourishes and meters without turning into a flashy, demonstrative mess – it’s a supremely musical performance he lays down on his kit. And Joe DiBlase weaves in between everybody else while also remaining as an anchor for the rest of the band to refer back to, the reliable backbone that’s necessary to keep things together.
As always, the deciding factor for most people when it comes to this band is the vocals. John Arch sounds even more nasal and unmoored from normal concerns of taste as he did previously – the former traces of Bruce Dickinson’s influence turned into something entirely his own, ever more ethereal and dreamlike than previously. People will talk their ears off to you about how demanding Arch’s performance is technically – it’s true that he hits some absurd notes, and the way he weaves his vocal melodies with and around the guitars certainly requires a level of talent most people don’t have. Once again, though, technical skill is largely irrelevant when you don’t have the imagination or intuition to pull it off (something most EUPM vocalists fail to realize, incidentally). Arch, thankfully, had both – the vocal melodies on this album are absolutely sublime, both in the way they fit the guitars and help guide the course the songs, again, as if it’s second nature. He imbues said vocal melodies with a level of raw emotional power and heft that it becomes almost tender, in its own way, without turning into pure corn-syrup-riddled schmaltz.
The performance Arch gives in “Guardian” is one of the most honest performances ever laid down, in its own oblique way – this achingly heartful paean to be a defender to the weak, the crippled and the otherwise vulnerable. And, in his own typically unconventional way that mirrors the rest of the band’s playing, there then emerges a sense of strength and resolve, born out of that vulnerability. That’s some of the most honest, real shit in music, and Arch was a man who could effortlessly work such emotion into the music without it disintegrating into total kitsch. You hear it, you feel it, you come to understand it. I can get not liking Arch’s voice, but I can’t ever understand saying this would’ve been better with any other metal vocalist – because it isn’t Awaken the Guardian, not even remotely the same type of album without him. (and incidentally you could hear that all over the following record… not to crap all over a really good album or anything)
I make no bones about this being my favourite metal album of all time. There are metal bands who do certain things better than Fates Warning, sure. But, as something that exalts escapism, adventure, drama, passion, honesty, and in its own rather abstract manner, certain ideas to live with in quiet opposition to a reality that only cares for Making Number Go Up ™ and nothing else – then there’s virtually nothing made better than it. Absolutely fucking essential and don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise. Fates Warning forever.
Album rating: 100/100
Favorite Track: Fata Morgana