The Spectre Within is a peculiar album, both out of context and within the one of Fates Warning’s career to that point. Night on Brocken, their debut, was an album that was frankly, very derivative Iron Maiden worship. It isn’t really a terrible album so much as one that shows a young band very unsure of their direction and what they’d actually want to do (Jim Matheos, the main songwriter of the band, reputedly never liked it very much). I submit that The Spectre Within, its immediate successor, represented one of the biggest leaps of maturity and quality in metal history, at least up to that point. And, for a vanishingly small window, it helped position Fates Warning as one of the unquestioned masters of metal genre, both of their era and of all time.
The easiest way to describe this album to a newcomer is that it’s essentially a darker, more progressive & Americanized take on the NWOBHM. That’s admittedly pretty reductive of what Fates Warning does here, mind you – Maiden still is an influence, but the blunt-force power of riffage like in “Orphan Gypsy” or the main one that “The Apparition” is built around suggest more of a subtle Diamond Head influence. Most importantly though, while those bands and a couple others are reference points (Mercyful Fate), nobody else really sounded like Fates Warning around this era, and the same thing goes for its successor barely over a year hence. By this point, the band had sounded like they’d internalized their influences, and had used them as a springboard for crafting something unmistakably their own.
I guess if there’s a key to this band, it is in figuring their song structures and their melodic interplay, and how both dictate the emotional heft of the music here. Of the former, Fates Warning’s songwriting was an early version of prog metal, but on the whole it lacks the emphasis on brainless virtuosity and overwhelming sterility that came to typify prog metal as it rolled into the 90’s. Fates Warning’s style has more than few flashy leads and harmonies, but by and large their writing is actually very riff-centric, and alongside John Arch’s voice, are basically what drives and dictates the direction that the songs go on. While still verse/chorus like you’d expect, Fates Warning’s writing is jam packed full of interesting twists and turns constantly, riffs rolling & swinging intuitively into the next passage without coming across as overschematized. Rather, each riff & passage intuitively emerges from the previous one, dictated purely by the mood & overwhelming sense of atmosphere the band creates. Simply put, their songs are always going somewhere and doing something interesting, with strong care placed on things adding up to a greater whole than anything else. “Epitaph”, for instance, is an almost 12-minute epic that closes out the album, and yet it doesn’t feel remotely labored or overwrought as it gainfully builds on its initial riffs/melodic themes, expands and builds on them brilliantly as its winds further and further down the roads of despair. I could babble about that song for like 20 minutes but I won’t because this review is already very long; suffice to say that it is the prog metal epic pretty much everything should be measured against – and found severely wanting in the 30+ years since.
As for the second point relating to melodic interplay, a lot of this is the way the vocal delivery matches up with the guitars. John Arch was a very unique vocalist – at this point sounding kinda inbetween Dickinson and Yes maestro Jon Anderson – and had a willingness to use his voice in unorthodox was. He was trying to keep up with the increasingly intricate way in how the rest of the band were composing by this point. What Arch does is that he essentially uses his voice, not just to sing what’s there on the page, as it were, but uses it as an entire instrument that meshes with and plays off the guitar work of Jim Matheos and Victor Arduini, using wordless wails and such. The most obvious example is the intro to “The Apparition” – the crushing force of its intro riff being counterpointed with Arch’s wordless wail, hovering above the guitars like its namesake. There’s just a level of creativity and thought put into the arrangement of how the vocal melodies play off the guitar work – or even at times straining against each other – that most other metal bands simply didn’t have the skill or imagination to pull off. Mercyful Fate was the closest thing to what Fates Warning does here, and yet, as much as I love that band (Don’t Break the Oath is one of the five best albums ever made, as far as I care), they weren’t quite as intricate as what Fates Warning did on here and its successor in Awaken the Guardian. Not for nothing but the effect was very different too.
You can natter on about skill, technicality etc all you’d like when it comes to stuff like this. I’d argue that’s probably the wrong way to take this album. Fates Warning were incredibly gifted musicians, that much is correct; the imagination they had in even coming up with this material is the real thing to take away from their finest works. There’s a real sense of drama and genuine passion behind the songwriting on this record that leaps out – whether it’s the heady way in how the riffs of “Traveller in Time” give way to one another; the surging, boundless final couple minutes of “Pirates of the Underground” – one of the coolest riffs ever giving way into the final verse and then that ripper of a solo – or the drama of “The Apparition” and how it musically muses on the nature of the afterlife, etc. This isn’t a case of band stroking their beards and musing about how much more Thinking Man’s Metal ™ they are over everybody; there’s genuine emotional passion, drama, sorrow, longing etc that’s conveyed through these 7 tracks, almost in a dream-like fashion. It just does it with the language of 80’s metal, whether entirely intentioned or not.
The point I’m getting at is that the greatness of Fates Warning’s best works can be taken as works of pure, emotive intuition as easily as you can break ‘em down and dissect them part for part. That sounds easy in theory; in practice only a relative handful of bands in an era can create music that holds up to both, and almost always those bands are the most sublime examples of their genre. There isn’t really a dud song here – hell, not even a poor riff – and the majority of what’s laid down would be the best work most lesser bands would craft. It’s stunningly brilliant heavy metal that, even more than 3 decades on, most bands still stand in the shadow of. Close your eyes, turn it up, and let yourself go.
Favorite track: “Epitaph”
Album rating: 97/100