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Classic Review: Fates Warning - Awaken the Guardian
Fates Warning
Awaken the Guardian

Label: Metal Blade Records
Year released: 1986
Duration: 47:45
Tracks: 8
Genre: Progressive Metal


Review online: January 22, 2009
Reviewed by: Larry Griffin
Readers' Rating
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Rated 4.73/5 (94.55%) (88 Votes)

I like Heavy Metal, don't you? (No, we're just here because the rest of the Internet is down :p — ed.) Catchy riffs and guys in denim jackets and long blond hair and headbanging, right? Fuck yeah, man. Throw up the horns, bang your head against the stage, hail Eddie, all of that good stuff. I'm not being facetious or sarcastic, either, that's really my favorite part of the genre right there. Back in the 1980s, metal bands didn't seem to feel embarrassed about indulging in that kind of talk, in the age of tape trading and the golden era of the underground. And I love it, even now, twenty years later. I love every bit of it, from the thin, guitar-heavy production to the straight-out belting pride that bands like Savatage, Jag Panzer and Liege Lord possessed and to the sense of adventure that Iron Maiden inspired in me the first time I heard Piece of Mind. However, there were some albums, even back then, that simply transcended all stereotypes and conventions and created something truly timeless and beautiful, even by the standards of people who turned up their noses at the genre without even hearing a note of it.

Fates Warning's Awaken the Guardian is one of those albums. You know, in case you couldn't already guess that, or something. Anyway, though, this was the band's third album, straight off the heels of their almost equally excellent sophomore effort The Spectre Within, and it is truly a love-or-hate affair, just to get that out of the way now. While its staggering reputation makes it almost impossible for even the most ardent of metalheads to claim they dislike it, Awaken the Guardian has been subject to some rather polarized opinions. They don't get it, they say. John Arch's vocals are annoying, they say. I used to try and tell them to keep listening to it, because maybe they'd "get it" after a few more spins, but now I don't think that is completely true. This is indeed an album that will grow on the listener with subsequent plays, but there is also another level beyond that: some people will just not ever get into this one. It's not overly technical or anything, it's just one of those albums that was crafted like a Rubix cube, and thus is extremely hard to truly wrap your head around and appreciate. That isn't saying anything negative about the people who don't get it, just that this album wasn't really built for everyone. It's esoteric, it's weird, and for those who it does manage to reach completely...they will never forget it.

Let's talk about John Arch, then, because he is perhaps the biggest target for all the detractors' disdain over this album. His nasally wailing takes an acquired taste to really get into (or just a desensitization to "weird" vocals, which I think I have), and while it might sound prepubescent or whiny at first...well, I'm not going to say "on further listens" this time, it just isn't prepubescent or whiny, at all. While it might sound that way at first, it really has this ethereal, almost eerie, ghostly quality about it. The stuff he's singing is all quite unorthodox and strange, with his vocal melodies soaring and diving and creeping and crawling around the riffs in a fluid, ambidextrous manner that assures that Awaken the Guardian sounds like nothing else on this world or any other.

This band came from a time before metal started experimenting with different genres and before "progressive" meant that a song had to be ten minutes long with super-clean production and a vocalist that sounded like Geddy Lee or James LaBrie (read: the days when "progressive" actually MEANT something in the larger part of the metal world). Awaken the Guardian is what I would call a progressive album, but by virtue of the dense complexity of the songwriting, which is juxtaposed with the rather simple, headbangable riffs and the subtle melodies that become more and more apparent with subsequent listens. They all sort of mesh together into the huge, thick, murky production to create elaborate and towering songs - eight of them, no less - that just sort of work together. Riffs build upon each other, galloping on in an Iron Maiden-esque way and then sometimes getting slower, sometimes dropping out entirely to launch into a moody, melody-laden solo piece, and the vocals just sort of spiral around them, and the whole thing just works. Yes, Jim Matheos is an amazing guitarist, with a lot of subtlety and control to his playing that only makes it more amazing when you realize how cool most of the stuff he plays on here really is, Steve Zimmerman's crushing drum-work adds a lot of weight to the sound, and John Arch's unforgettable nasally wailing adds a charming touch to the whole thing, but the songs here don't really act as songs, they just sort of exist on their own, like living and breathing beings. There is no one element that makes them so good; it's the sum of all their parts.

It's the feeling they evoke, the mystical, otherworldly hum that seems to rise up when all of the instruments clash to take you away to a place you've never been before. It's not something I can describe on paper, because it will be different for everyone. This isn't an album you hear, it's an album you experience, if you're one of those that does really end up getting into this album. Right from the opening romp of "The Sorceress," this album captivates, following up with similar slabs of strange, erudite goodness like "Valley of the Dolls," the mammoth, driving stomp of the planet crushing "Prelude to Ruin," the quirky, jagged melodies of "Fata Morgana" and of course the poignant, show-stopping journey that is "Guardian," with its absolutely wonderful chorus and slow, searing melodies. This is how you do a Metal ballad, and even then, nothing else has really sounded like this since. The album closes with "Exodus," a long, hypnotic epic with droning, swirling guitar harmonies and that chorus, which I once fell asleep to, and which will transport you to worlds you never could have believed existed before this, with a hook the size of the moon and enough layers to make it positively mesmerizing and thoroughly unforgettable. Like I said, I once drifted off to sleep to the final choruses of this song, and I think that was the moment I really got this album. Others have said that the previous album The Spectre Within is better, and maybe someday that one will grow on me to the level this album has, but for now, nothing touches this album for sheer Heavy Metal magic. In fact, this hasn't been so much a review as a testament to the album's greatness, as I don't think I've really, accurately described what is so good about this. I don't think anyone can, but after I heard those final notes of "Exodus" with my head in a sleep-laced daze, I was sold, and maybe, just maybe, you will be, too, on some cold, misty night, after the lights are turned out, and the first notes start to play...

More about Fates Warning...
Review: Awaken the Guardian (reviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
Review: Awaken the Guardian (Re-issue) (reviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
Review: Inside Out (reviewed by Mjölnir)
Review: Live At The Dynamo (reviewed by Michel Renaud)
Review: Live in Athens (reviewed by Michel Renaud)
Review: Long Day Good Night (reviewed by Mjölnir)
Review: Night on Brocken (reviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
Review: No Exit (reviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
Review: Parallels (reviewed by Mjölnir)
Review: Perfect Symmetry (reviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
Review: The Spectre Within (reviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
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