Grey's Retro Review #1: Fates Warning- Awaken The Guardian

Fates Warning- Awaken The Guardian

By: Grey Banner, Contributing Writer

 

 

Rating: 8/10

 

A long time ago, back before iPods, mp3s and even CDs, people used to head down to their local record store and search through bins of albums and cassettes to find music.  Naturally, you would look for stuff from your favorite bands, or perhaps something new you had just read about.  But every once in a great while, you would find an album that had such a cool cover, you just couldn't pass it up.  Such was the case for my 13 year old self when I came across the album Awaken the Guardian by Fates Warning.

Most of the music world is more familiar with Fates Warning starting immediately after this album when they replaced original vocalist John Arch with Ray Alder.  Alder's voice was much more versatile than Arch's, but oh man.  If you can come to terms with the way Arch sings, you are in for a treat.  And you may, like me, even come to really love his style.  The split seems to have been somewhat amicable, as Fate's Warning founder, guitarist and principle songwriter Jim Matheos would reunite with Arch for Arch’s solo album A Twist of Fate in 2003, as well as for the Arch/Matheos album Sympathetic Resonance in 2011.  This album should have, by all rights, been an official Fates Warning album, as it featured Arch, Matheos and original lead guitarist Frank "X" Aresti, all core members of the band for many years, but it was not to be.

Awaken the Guardian is a pure 80's metal gem.  Upon listening, you will be thrilled by tales of witches, giants, hydras and more; standard material for any headbanger growing up in the era.  But there is more at work here.  Arch's lyrics are very literate, containing references to the Salem Witch Trials ("The Sorceress"), Arthurian villainess Morgan La Fay ("Fata Morgana") and even the three Fates of Greek mythology ("Prelude to Ruin").  Lyrical themes of witches and guardians pop up throughout the album as do vultures and magic in general. 

And while it would be a stretch to call this album "progressive" as it is, there are absolutely elements of it percolating just under the surface.  In its then-current form, the band (consisting of Arch, Matheos and Aresti as well as bassist Joe DiBiase and drummer Steve Zimmerman) still rely heavily on traditional metal tropes and formulas.  The main separator here is again Arch's almost King Diamond-like wails which, while lacking the lower ranges of contemporaries such as Bruce Dickenson and Rob Halford, still find a nice place to rest in the overall mix.  Yes, you will hear Maiden gallops and some Sabbath-y grooves, but taken as a whole, the band and the album have a definite sound and charm. 

Ironically, Maiden would perhaps pay respect to Fates Warning as they penned the track "Fate's Warning" for their 1990 album No Prayer for the Dying.  Then on Maiden's following album, 1992's Fear of the Dark, they wrote a song called "The Apparition" which is also the title of a Fate's Warning song found on Awaken the Guardian predecessor, The Spectre Within.  Coincidence?  You decide.

Musically, the band is solid on this release.  Matheos proves no stranger to writing some monster riffs that sublimate the listener's ear in a way reminiscent of classic Rush.  That is to say that, upon critical listening, one will find the odd time signatures and dramatic shifts in tempo that are hallmarks of the progressive metal genre, but the band is able to pull these musical feats off without distracting the listener's attention from the larger scope of the overall song. 

Of course, this doesn't always work, as evidenced by the album's weakest track "Giant's Lore (Heart of Winter)."  This is most likely do to it being the only track where Matheos is not credited as a writer.  Aresti's main riff is pretty good, but annoyingly placed snares try too hard to work against the rhythm of the song and prevent the verse from ever gaining any momentum.  The rest of the song fares no better, with underwhelming lyrics and not much by way of the soaring choruses found on almost every other track on the album.

The highlight and centerpiece of this album is, without a doubt, "Guardian."  In fact, I would rate this composition as a perfect metal song.  From its beautifully orchestrated opening of ominously plucked arpeggios into the majestic chorus riff, the mood of the track is established early on.  And what of this mood?  It seems different from the rest of the album.  While other tracks deal with mythological monsters, this one seems to be a little more rooted in reality. 

 

Arch sings: "Karen's been asleep forever / I know she hears me / She has so much to say / Machine tools spark through her egg shell mind / Tears stream from her face / In to my hand, in to my heart."  These haunting lines paint the portrait of a loved one in the throes of a coma or some other medical malady, perhaps.  Much heavier stuff that sleeping giants and magical tomes, to be sure.  You can also hear the difference in Arch's voice.  Here he sings with a little more heart, a little more emotion.  Musically, the song winds along from section to section seamlessly, including some wonderful lead work.    It builds and builds into a monstrous thrashing bridge, then returns once more on the majestic wings of the song's earworm of a chorus.  Even if you don't care for Arch's voice, you will have a difficult time getting that chorus out of your head.

It's funny just how strong music can bond with memory.  Honestly, I had totally forgotten about this album as it wasn't a favorite when I was a teenager.  Most likely, it was a little too "out there" for my listening tastes at the time, which were much more Ozzy, Crue, Metallica, etc... And I didn't know what to make of John Arch's vocals.  But when those first few notes of "Guardian" hit my speakers as an adult, some 25 years later, I am instantly transported back to being 13 years old.  I could see my old stereo, my old room...I can even remember playing NES games while listening to this record.  Arch sums it up perfectly during the chorus refrain: "I remembered you / Will you remember me?" So, while not a genre classic, I think that if you're a fan of 80's Progressive Metal in the vein of Queensryche, Iron Maiden, Rush or King Diamond, you should give this disk a spin.  Just check it out!   

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