Fates Warning - Awaken the Guardian (1986)Release ID: 2307
Connecticut progressive metal legends Fates Warning & I have a very long association going back over three decades now. I’ve always held them in high esteem since becoming infatuated with their classic “Point of View” single in 1991 & subsequently purchasing the “Parallels” album on CD but strangely my enjoyment of that album didn’t see me exploring the rest of their back-catalogue much until Ben & I conducted our research on their earlier releases for the Metal Academy podcast in the mid-2010s. Fates Warning’s crude 1984 debut album “Night on Bröcken” certainly had its charms with its American take on the NWOBHM sound often resembling Iron Maiden a little too closely to see the band differentiating themselves from the pack. Their 1985 sophomore album “The Spectre Within” was another story altogether though as it saw Fates Warning fully indulging in their more progressive Rush influences &, in doing so, virtually creating what we know now as the progressive metal sound. Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly a few earlier underground records that had a crack at it but none managed to incorporate progressive elements into their sound so smoothly & cohesively & I found “The Spectre Within” to be a really strong record with even the unusual high-pitched histrionics of front man John Arch failing to tarnish the challenging & universally professional instrumentation.
This is my first focused investigation of Fates Warning’s highly praised 1986 follow-up “Awaken The Guardian” though & my expectations were very high off the back of “The Spectre Within” which I awarded a well-deserved four star rating during the podcast. I’d been looking forward to seeing where the band would take their sound next as “Parallels” (their sixth album) was a little more restrained from a purely technical point of view. “Awaken The Guardian”, however, sees Fates Warning surging forwards with the complex progressive approach they'd begun exporing on “The Spectre Within” in what would have to have been one of the most ambitious undertakings for metal to the time. I mean this record could very well break a few people’s brains from a purely rhythmic point of view as it’s relentless in its pursuit of unusual & ever-changing time signatures. Then when you throw in Arch’s vocals which go even further than before with their melodic experimentation you get a very unusual record that sounds like nothing before it & very few after it too.
But this brings me to my criticisms of “Awaken The Guardian”. Despite being a unanimously successful & highly revered release in my household, “The Spectre Within” did struggle a little with its balance between expansive artistic license & genuinely memorable song-writing with only album highlight “The Apparition” seeing Fates Warning creating the much sought-after "classic song” as opposed to a very impressive & interesting technical display. The rest of the material simply didn’t possess the hooks that are required to have the listener singing along for days afterwards, a task that’s already hard enough given Arch’s inimitable operatic style which requires a level of acceptance in regard to taking the good with the bad. “Awaken The Guardian” struggles a little more in this regard, perhaps due to the even more overtly progressive instrumental approach which sees Arch having to force his melodies to work over rhythms that are already hard enough to digest. Despite what fans will have you believe, Arch DOES sing out of key quite regularly here & it can be grating if you’re not able to achieve some level of respect for the aural adventure he takes you on. Personally, I’m able to achieve that balance but, despite the fact that there's nothing close to a bad track on offer, there just aren’t enough truly memorable hooks included to warrant all of the praise & I find myself relying on the heavier instrumental parts of the album that see the band dipping into US power metal territory (see “Valley of the Dolls” or “Prelude To Ruin”) to take me to greater heights. Unfortunately Fates Warning can’t quite sustain it for long enough for my liking though. The more restrained album highlight “Guardian” is certainly a strong track but is it a genuine classic like “The Apparition” was? I don’t think so personally & things aren't helped by a fairly thin production job either.
Look, if you’re a prog tragic then “Awaken The Guardian” is probably a bit of a no-brainer but I can’t say that I regard it as highly as “The Spectre Within” or the better works from prog metal contemporaries like Queensryche & Dream Theater who are simply better at getting that technicality vs song-writing balance right. Admittedly both benefit from much more traditionally talented front men but I would happily have accepted a bit less rhythmic extravagance & a little more of a focus on making the sort of captivating heavy metal anthems that Crimson Glory are so successful at.
For their third album, Fates Warning followed mostly the same sound of their acclaimed sophomore album, The Spectre Within. The band’s highly melodic and often progressive yet deceptively simple music offers accessible entertainment. Most of the power metal influence from their last album is gone unfortunately, resulting in a slower and more sustained delivery.
John’s vocals, while never outstanding, are certainly stronger here than ever before, and his passionate delivery accompanied by the somewhat neoclassical musicianship add a flavor of theatrical atmosphere to the music. The long songs are never boring, containing multiple movements and layered with harmonies. While I miss the speed of their previous release, they certainly check every other box of 80’s Heavy Metal very well.