With Ray Alder recently releasing his second studio album, it was time to take a look back as well, to an album that was released before DPRP.net started. Read about Fates Warning's sixth album Parallels and then Ray's new studio effort simply entitled II.
Ray Alder — II
Widely regarded as one of the finest vocalists in metal, for more than three decades Ray Alder has delighted fans as the frontman for progressive metal founders Fates Warning. If that wasn't enough, he was also the voice on five acclaimed albums with prog-metal crew Redemption. His melodic tones have been added to countless other projects spanning his first side-project Engine, to last year's A-Z.
With Fates Warning now seemingly put to bed after the release in 2021 of Long Day Good Night, Alder has made it clear that he still has musical adventures to complete.
In 2019, he ventured out as a solo artist for the first time, releasing What The Water Wants, a surprisingly melodic collection of songs, co-written with guitarists Mike Abdow (Fates Warning's touring guitarist) and Tony Hernando (Lords Of Black), and with long-time friend Craig Anderson (Ignite, Crescent Shield) fulfilling drum duties.
With that album gaining plenty of plaudits and an appearance at the prestigious ProgPower USA festival, Ray Alder has kept faith with the same musicians and studio folk in creating this follow-up; simply entitled II. Although still several musical sub-genres removed from Fates Warning, these nine new tracks are demonstrably more progressive, exploratory and immersive than those on the debut.
The immaculately-crafted This Hollow Shell, is an impressive start. The opening groove, with its melancholic edge, is stellar. The build to the melodic hook is Alder at his very best.
Ditto for My Oblivion, which reminds me of a cross between Point Of View and Eye To Eye from the Parallels album. The guitar makes lovely use of that contract between the cleanly-stroked strings and the more grungy riffs, on which Fates Warning often built their sound.
"The songs on this album are much longer," states Alder. "The first one wasn't that heavy. Back then I was looking for something else, something different to set me apart from what Fates usually does. I think we accomplished that, but with this one, I wanted to be darker and I wanted to be heavier. I think actually it's probably more in the vein of Fates in terms of the melodies. There are a lot of harmonies. I think it's much bigger than the last album, and definitely heavier."
That's certainly the case with the explosive bombast of Hands Of Time and its bouncy, pop-fueled chorus. Not so sure how that applies to the following tracks though.
After a sorrowful opening, Waiting For Some Sun incorporates some djenty bursts and soothing electronica. Very modern and, for Alder, very different. File under 'interesting'.
Silence The Enemy offers a very bright vocal and a stomping, rolling, Zeppelin-esque riff. It's a little too straightforward, with a chorus that's more REM, and a guitar solo that's more Winger than fans might expect.
Keep Wandering is more lounge-bar jazz. Its mellow ebb and flow is a brave inclusion. The Larry Carlton style of guitar isn't to my tastes. The late burst of power, is little redemption.
Those Words I Bled also reminds me of Winger, albeit with a Fates Warning edge to the guitar. A song of several parts and changes in dynamics, the chorus is one of the best on the album.
After a mid-section that struggles to get me too excited, we close the album with two fantastic songs. Both Passengers and Changes could have slotted into the final Fates Warning albums. Nothing more needs to be said.
I must mention Alder's word-smithery. In Fates, the pen was always handled by Jim Matheos, leading to the thought amongst many fans that Alder was no more than a great singer. Here, and on the previous album, Alder's words skim easily across the musical backdrop of the songs. A dip into the lyric sheet, shows that he has plenty to say and a subtle turn of phrase.
"Happy records aren't really my forte, you know?" Alder admits. "I'm a happy guy, but I don't see it that way when I listen to music. These lyrics are definitely darker and a bit more sombre than the last album, but that fits with what's happening with the music, and with what's happening in the world, I guess."
So overall, I've mixed feelings about this album. On one hand I have to admire Alder's desire to explore new sounds, and to not merely stay in his comfort zone. Equally, for someone in his mid-60s, you can but admire the power and emotion he has retained in his vocal.
On the other hand, the middle five songs (more than half the album) explore styles that I'm not really a big fan of, and these songs lack the big hooks that I enjoyed so much on the last album.
Whilst II is not really what I wanted it to be, I have been able to enjoy it for what it is.
Fates Warning — Parallels
Isn't it funny how the best and longest-lasting relationships in one's life often get off to a rocky start? Without a bit of persistence, they may never have got beyond a first encounter.
That was certainly the case with me and Fates Warning.
Back in my teenager days, I only had three ways to discover new music. Reviews in Kerrang! and Metal Forces magazine, albums bought by friends and copied onto cassette for me to try, and the two hours every Friday at 10pm that Tommy Vance had a show on BBC Radio One (the only nationally available outlet for metal music).
The first was limited to a written description; helped eventually by knowing which writers I shared a musical taste with. The second was limited by friends' tastes (or lack of), and further limited by our inability to afford more than one new record each, every few weeks. The third was limited by only ever hearing one track from an album; often the only good one!
Thus deciding which bands and albums to buy always had a very random feel. Finding a band/album you really loved, owed a lot to luck. In latter years I've often rediscovered great bands that I had dismissed back in the day, based simply on buying their worst album!
That could so easily have been the case with Fates Warning. It was the very late 80s. I was in my late teens. Hearing Tommy Vance play the song Through Different Eyes, I went straight out and bought Perfect Symmetry. The complex, long, rather cold and clinical collection of songs and high-pitched vocals, were too much of a step forward in my musical journey. I played it once and put it on the shelf, never to be touched again. Or so I thought.
Two years later and thanks to glowing reviews in both Kerrang! and Metal Forces and TWO songs on the Friday Rock Show, I went out and bought my cassette copy of Parallels. I now own every FW album and side project and consider Fates Warning my all-time favourite band.
It's an impossible question of course. But if I had to select the 'perfect progressive metal album', then Parallels would come pretty high in my ratings.
Every song on this record can stand on its own as a phenomenal piece of music. Indeed, the trio of The Eleventh Hour, Point Of View and Life In Still Water are the most frequently played songs in the band's live history.
Since their inception as a heavy metal band in the early eighties, Fates Warning had added more and more progressive elements into their sound. Perfect Symmetry had been their most progressive album to date.
Thus, many fans were expecting an even more progressive release with Parallels. Such hopes were quickly dashed.
The band started writing the album straight after coming off the Perfect Symmetry tour, which had been their most successful so far. They decided to relocate en masse to Toronto. It was the first time that the whole band had got together and worked in one place. The idea was, that it would take eight weeks or so. They ended up taking six months.
Having an unchanged line-up, the initial idea was to share out the songwriting. However, tensions soon emerged, progress was slow, and Matheos took ended-up taking on the majority of the songwriting alone.
"In the whole period of the band, that was the period in which we were most in sync with each other — all heading towards the same goal" said Mattheos. He recalled that the intention was to head in more of the direction suggested by tracks such as Through Different Eyes; shorter songs, with a stripped-down structure and catchier choruses. On the surface, that is the impression you initially get when listening to the eight songs offered here. With Parallels, Fates Warning were perhaps the first band to craft such a melodically-accessible and subtle progressive-metal release.
I do see why some people would question if Parallels is a progressive metal album or actually more as a melodic heavy metal album. However, if you listen closely to the music, you´ll find plenty of time signature changes, unusual off-beat drumming and other features. There are subtle details in all tracks that keeps me absorbed throughout. It is most certainly a progressive metal album.
The most obviously-progressive tracks on the album are Life in Still Water, The Eleventh Hour and Point of View. Stretched to more than eight minutes, The Eleventh Hour was one of the last songs written. It was felt the album needed something heavier.
A signature FW composition and a veritable vocal tour-de-force, it is crammed with adventurous transitions. The point at which the song breaks out into the heavier phase has to be one of my favourite sections of any song ever! The "oh oh" crowd sing-along bit quickly became a compulsory element of the FW live set. It's my favourite of a bunch of favourites. Jim Matheos agrees that it's one of his fave FW songs. Interestingly, it features Canadian James LaBrie, who had just joined Dream Theater. He was brought in to do harmonies, because Ray had run out of time in the studio and had to return home.
Leave The Past Behind was the first song written and opens the album in stunning style with its initial, floating guitar lines and some great rhythms.
I'd always thought that lyrically most of the songs here were about broken relationships. Indeed, the words about leaving the past behind and the long road lying ahead, have guided me through several stages of my life. Same with Point of View and its lines that recall: "My opinion is just a point of view and your position is the other side". The lyrics are actually about songwriting, coming up with fresh ideas and relationships within the band. "How can five people have so much in common, and be so different?" questioned Matheos later. We Only Say Goodbye is the only song about a private relationship.
In interviews at various times since, the band members have all admitted to having fears about fan response to the lighter tracks, especially Eye To Eye and We Only Say Goodbye. Yes they are very accessible and some people might say commercial-sounding, but all three feature subtle time-signature changes and inventive playing that ensures a progressive edge. Even now, this is an album where I always discover a little detail I hadn´t heard before.
We Only Say Goodbye is very melodic and features unusual, jangly guitars. Matheos admits that he was listening to a lot of REM at the time. You can hear the influence.
And let's not forget to mention The Road Goes on Forever. A beautiful, mellowly-progressive track. A perfect closing track and a testimony to the influence that producer Terry Brown had on this album.
The album was recorded at the Metal Works studio (then owned by members of Triumph). With a swathe of modern tools at his disposal, this song allows lots of electronics and delays to paint a landscape, instead of relying on the riffs. There is plenty of spatiality. It's a dark, yet pretty song. The lead guitar part towards the end of this track is just beautiful. There is a clear Peter Gabriel influence and Matheos claims he was listening to a lot of The Fixx at the time. He even saw them play live while in Toronto.
One of the defining characteristics of the FW sound from this stage of their career is how the two guitarists (Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti here) compliment each other. Matheos plays a lot of clean parts. Aresti delivers a more distorted rhythm and lead sound. The resulting layered soundscape gives a fascinating dynamic with mellow/clean guitars playing at the same time as heavy distorted guitars.
For Ray Alder the vocal style on Parallels is very different from that on his first two albums with the band. Then he sang in a very high-pitched, screaming vocal style. All rather cold and technical; like the music.
While his vocals are still occasionally highly-pitched, on Parallels he mostly stays in a mid-register, developing greater emotion and a very effective vibrato with lots of nuance. I think it's the most varied and best performance of his career.
However, for me the absolute high point of this album is the drumming of Mark Zonder. I often just play this album and concentrate on what he is doing. Producer Terry Brown described Zonder's performance as "over and above anything I've ever experienced before". As he had previously worked with Rush and Neil Peart, then that ain't a bad testimony.
Over the years, I have probably played this album more than any other in the Fates' discography. From the first note, Parallels grabs my attention and doesn't let go till the last note.
In the words of Mark Zonder, speaking in 2010, "Parallels was about as far as Fates Warning came to a perfect album."
Parallels was the band's sixth full-length studio album. It was released in October 1991 by Metal Blade Records. A remastered special edition came out in 2010 with a bonus CD containing a live set and some fascinating demo cuts, plus a bonus DVD with another live set and an interesting "Making Of" documentary. This is the one to get.