Sunday Old School: Fates Warning
The band I bring you today has special significance to me, because looking at its history is almost like looking at a mirror image of my own. Thirty years ago this year, when I got my start on college radio, these guys were the first band I ever sat in on an interview with. That interview was done by the other metal DJ on WNHU, with Joe DiBiase and John Arch sitting behind the mic with a demo in hand for their new band Misfit. That session was also one of their very first interviews as a band. Special times from a period long ago indeed.
The name Misfit didn't stick with the group for very long for obvious reasons, but as Fates Warning they would go on to achieve the pinnacle of success as America's premiere and arguably one of the first progressive metal bands. Whereas many of the independent wave of bands went for the thrash sound, Fates Warning knew from the beginning how it wanted to convey powerful metal. Their track "Soldier Boy" appeared on Metal Massacre V, leading to the debut "Night on Brocken" via Metal Blade records. They stuck to that sound, only changing to enhance it into even more progressive and technical material.
In the beginning, Fates Warning elicited the usual Iron Maiden comparisons. I suppose many true metal bands would get that back then since there was sheerly so little to compare anyone to. They would find their niche by the next album, though. The scene in Connecticut had finally yielded a band that would go on to endure the test of time long beyond its status of being on a label, like fellow bands Liege Lord or Obsession. The first line-up for the band consisted of three Connecticut-born musicians and the two core members of Massachusetts-born guitarist Jim Matheos and vocalist John (Arch) Archambault, who had moved from Colorado Springs earlier in his life.
"Night on Brocken," many years down the road expanded and re-released with more tracks, started what would be an illustrious and lengthy career for the band. The title referred to the Walpurgis night mentioned in Goethe's 'Faust,' but the cartoonish album cover didn't do any justice to the powerful collection of metal compositions like "Buried Alive" contained within. (Later down the road, it would be reissued with that 'moon' cover). Recorded at The Gallery in East Hartford, it would be a few albums later before the band returned to its home state to record another release. Thus began the songwriting and lyrical combination of John Arch and Jim Matheos, an enchanting collaboration that would inspire prog musicians in the decade to come. At the time, though, Fates Warning had not reached its apogee in terms of potential.
That album also marked Fates Warning's longtime afilliation with Metal Blade. Throughout its career it has consistently stuck with that label and has never denigrated it, like so many bands seem to do. Seeing Brian Slagel interview John and Jim last year bore witness to that. Then again, Brian's team sat in on the production of several albums following the debut. By "The Spectre Within" in 1985, the band had partially relocated to LA for the recording process. Their trademark song from this polished release, "Kyrie Eleison," made in onto the River's Edge soundtrack. Songs such as "Orphan Gypsy" and "Without a Trace" were college radio staples and the cover art of this album and the next one were the professional work of Connecticut-based Greek artist Ioannis Vasilopoulos.
Ioannis and his brother Giorgios (George) were old friends of mine and hung out in the same circles at the radio station. In fact, George had his own radio show on Wednesday nights playing progressive rock and went by the name 'The Great Deceiver' (after the King Crimson song). Ioannis' artwork also adorned "Awaken the Guardian," beginning his career with Vivid Images Creative in New Haven - doing visual art and set design for a virtual who's who of metal and rock artists ranging from Voivod to Blue Oyster Cult. George has his own company with Ioannis now called Dangerous Age.
As "The Spectre Within" began to explore more progressive territory, "Awaken the Guardian" had a bit more of a mythical side. In 1986, guitarist Victor Arduini left the band to welcome his first daughter Jillian, limiting his involvement to a few local acts from Freedom's Reign to The Head Trip around the New Britain area. He loves being a father many times over and says, to this day, that he has no regrets. Popular local guitarist Frank Aresti assumed the open spot and went on to have a long run with Fates Warning, except for a few absent periods. Little by little, as his involvement with the band drew longevity, Frank would put more of his ideas into the songwriting process with Jim.
"Awaken the Guardian" was a captivating album that contained such classics as "Fata Morgana." To this day, Jim Matheos will not play material from those first three albums, as the band progressed into divergent musical territory. He says that as we all age, our interests and styles change and that he doesn't 'feel' that early material anymore. Then again, John Arch was on the first three albums and it could be a logical choice to play material originally done with Ray Alder. In 1987, John Arch left Fates Warning. A classy and humble guy, he gave only cryptic messages as to why. Some say it was because he had to choose between more involvement with the band and his job. Other suppositions were that he didn't want to tour. The statement that John made a few years ago was that he didn't 'want his means to end to become an end to his means.' The pragamatic vocalist dissolved into everyday society making cabinets and woodwork.
A major search for a vocalist ensued, Fates Warning's first choice having been Chris Kronk. He didn't work out, so the band flew in another San Antonio, TX native by the name of Ray Alder. Ray was only 19 years old and a bigger fan of John Arch than he was of even Steve Perry. Ray literally worshipped John Arch's singing and had a dream to one day sing for Fates Warning. He had a different type of vocals, but would come to be embraced by the fans of the band for his own style, enthusiasm and dilligence. Ray's voice imbued the next album with his versatile range. While John had a unique 'head voice,' Ray possesses what is possibly more of a 'chest' voice along with the 'falsetto' voice they both belt out.
"No Exit," the band's fourth, came out in 1988 and saw Fates Warning rock up the billboard charts to number 111. This and the next album were pivotal commercial successes for them, landing the group of several big name tours. For this album, the production shifted back to the Carriage House studios in Stamford, CT. Heavy hitters such as "Anarchy Divine," where he's all over the guitar, show why Jim Matheos is such a contending force - especially when you see how quickly he can shift gears into the eight-part acoustic movement of "Ivory Gate of Dreams." Jim, always a man of few words, just shrugs it off. He views his guitars as 'power tools' - something to do a job with. They are his instruments, not his collection.
The next personnel change in the ranks came a year later, when Steve Zimmerman was replaced on the drums by Mark Zonder. Mark had been in that classic old-school metal band Warlord, but had recently been occupying his time in an electronic pop band when this opportunity came up. "Perfect Symmetry," the next commercially successful release for the band, came out in 1989 and featured such memorable fare as "A World Apart" and the track "Nothing Left to Say," which made it onto the Freddy's Dead movie soundtrack. By their next album they would be working with Rush producer Terry Brown.
Their "Parallels" album a couple of years later featured guest vocals from James LaBrie of Dream Theater, who did the harmonic backing on "Life in Still Water." This would be one of many collaborations between members of Fates Warning and Dream Theater, two bands that enjoy brainstorming so much that they share tours and even bring Queensryche in here and there. Mike Portnoy has even gone on record saying that Fates Warning was the first American prog metal band, even before them. (Fates Warning did start the same year as Queensryche and put out its first album the same year as they put out their first EP - so it's close).
1994's "Inside Out" was a juncture for the band, as it was the last to feature Milford-born bassist Joe DiBiase and Frank Aresti (who would come back and lend himself to future projects). A compilation, "Chasing Time," was released a year later, followed by the conceptual album "A Pleasant Shade of Grey" in 1997. This unique 53 minute album was one song comprised of twelve movements, not a new feature for Fates Warning - but the first time the band had only one 'official' song on an album. The lyrical fare of lone original member Matheos, who makes a practice of not explaining the meaning behind songs since everyone derives a different imagery from a composition, possibly emotes that time before you fall asleep. Your thoughts race into a million fragmented directions of what is and what could be, and is truly an introspective masterpiece. Dream Theater's Kevin Moore and Armored Saint's Joey Vera came on board for this album.
The 1998 live album "Still Life" featured a cover of the Scorpions classic "In Trance," filling the gap until "Disconnected" ushered in the millenium. That album is one of Ray Alder's favorites, since he liked running the gamut from the heavier material such as "Pieces of Me" to the misanthropic feel of "Something for Nothing." It would be a full four years before Fates Warning would release its next, and tenth, album "FWX." That doesn't stop Jim Matheos from having tons of material in reserve that he feels compelled to use and create something. In his years of down time, he starts offshoots like OSI (Office of Strategic Influence) and works with that same tight-knit cabal of under a dozen musicians that he feels comfortable with. Jim, along with Kevin Moore, Porcupine Tree's Gavin Harrison and others, has put out four full-length albums with this project since 2003. 2012's "Fire Make Thunder" was a standard bearer for prog metal.
In fact, on the first OSI release Jim had wanted his old friend John Arch to sing, but John had other obligations at the time. So, John gave him a rain check - which ended up as the majestic two-song release from John Arch titled "Twist of Fate." The year was 2003 and John had been dormant for 17 years. Either the period of rest preserved John's pipes or he is just a great anomaly of nature, for the tracks "Relentless" and "Cheyenne" were as if time stood still. John has a unique timbre to his voice and a way of inflecting and narrating that are transfixing and just draw you right in. The irony is that it's John's sister who is the one with classical vocal training, while John does it all on instinct. Arch made several trips up to Jim's New Hampshire studio in advance of the release, along with in-demand sessionist Bobby Jarzombek. Besides the guitar, Jim was also very handy on the keyboards. This EP paved the way for the two working again, which would happen eight years later.
2004's "FWX" was the last album from the band to date, but by no means have they called it a day. Jim is always busy with his other projects, but always comes back home - so to speak. Besides the "Live in Athens" DVD a year later, Fates Warning played dates in 2010 to celebrate the reissue of the "Parallels" CD - playing with that album's line-up. Jim and John once again worked together in 2011 for the Arch/Matheos collaboration "Sympathetic Resonance," which also featured a track written exclusively by John - "Incense and Myrrh." An official video for "Midnight Serenade" was released from the album and brought a sense of joy to those of us, who thirty years earlier, watched Fates Warning in its earliest incarnation at the Twilight Zone or Toad's Place. 2013 has rolled around, along with plans for the group to put out an eleventh album. It has been a long road indeed, with more memories to come.
Fates Warning - "Kyrie Eleison"
Fates Warning - "Valley of the Dolls"
Fates Warning - "Anarchy Divine"
Fates Warning - "Still Remains"
Fates Warning - "Point of View"
Fates Warning - "A Pleasant Shade of Grey XI"
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