Author Topic: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray  (Read 3019 times)

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Offline LudwigVan

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[Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« on: February 01, 2010, 09:25:57 AM »
Reviewed By: Gordon Eng (LudwigVan)
Artist: Fates Warning
Album: A Pleasant Shade of Gray
Genre: Progressive Metal
Year of Release: 1997
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Pleasant-Shade-Gray-Fates-Warning/dp/B000001C9V/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1265039515&sr=8-12

As part of the original Prog-metal triumvirate, Fates Warning tends to be overshadowed by its more famous brethren, Queensryche and Dream Theater.  Jim Matheos and his boys always seemed to toil away under the specter of being the least accessible band in a sub-genre that was already commercially challenged.  True to form, Fates Warning released A Pleasant Shade of Gray (APSoG) in 1997, a concept album that was muted in every way imaginable when placed alongside Queensryche’s spectacularly successful Operation: Mindcrime and Dream Theater’s conceptual opus, Scenes From a Memory.  Everything about APSoG comes off as subdued and ‘gray’, from the album title to the cover art and song titles: 12 ‘pieces’ generically labeled Parts I-XII.  Looking at the washed-out colors of the CD booklet and the listing of Roman numerals for songs, you just had to wonder: What were these guys thinking?  Were they trying to become masters of starkness and sterility?  Critics and fans complain about metal bands laying on too much cheese, but in the case of APSoG, the absence of any cheesiness was almost disturbing. 

Leading up to this, their 8th album overall, Fates Warning had made several solid albums in Perfect Symmetry, Parallels and Inside Out, with each successive album attaining a slightly more melodic and commercial sheen.  It was a fine trilogy of albums that many would consider the peak of their career.  Nevertheless the albums failed to make a dent in the music charts, and the band abandoned this tack with A Pleasant Shade of Gray, a decision for which the prog world can be eternally grateful.  Make no mistake, this is not a hook-laden, prototypical headbangin’ metal album in the tradition of Awaken the Guardian or Disconnected.  The album leans toward the proggier, atmospheric side of things, frequently taking on the ambience of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

My first listen to A Pleasant Shade of Gray was essentially a non-event, as there was nothing that jumped out and grabbed my attention.  I realized at the time that this phenomenon was typical of prog and Fates Warning in particular, whereby it took several spins for the music to set in.  The fact that there were no real song titles was also an obstacle because it was quite cumbersome to constantly refer back to numbered movements.  “Okay, I especially liked that riff in Part 7… oh wait, or was that in Part 9?”  It soon became obvious that the album was meant to be digested as a unified whole.  So one night I slipped on the headphones and, paying no heed to numbered parts, gave it a good solid listen from beginning to end.  That’s when it started to dawn on me that this album was really something special.  I began to get a sense for Jim Matheos’ grand musical vision. 

The album’s lyrical concept is so simplistic, it’s almost laughable.  Political assassination plots (Mindcrime) and convoluted tales of reincarnated murder victims (Scenes) aside, A Pleasant Shade of Gray takes you through the tortured thoughts of an anonymous soul who twists and turns with feelings of regret, all of which takes place within the span of one long sleepless night.  Not exactly the most imaginative or inspiring of concepts you say?  Well, in reality, the essence of the album’s “concept” lies not in the lyrics or storyline, but in the structure of the music itself.  APSoG owes more to Bach’s 30 Goldberg Variations than it does to any traditional rock concept album about messiahs or murderers.

Part 1 opens with a single baleful chord which works to state the album’s basic musical theme.  This lone chord is stretched out into a linear 5-note melody played first by guitar, then echoed by keyboards, after which Ray Alder’s haunting vocals come in to pose the question, “So where do we begin and what else do we say?”   From this innocuous opening, Matheos proceeds to shape and reshape the one theme into 12 different ‘shades’.  The subtle variations that he comes up with are astonishing in their ingenuity, at times approaching a minimalism unheard of in the annals of prog-metal.  An example of this sparseness comes in Part 6, which revolves around an angular bass line.  At the middle section, I found myself literally holding my breath as Joey Vera played the same single bass note in a repeated pattern, accompanied only by Alder’s melancholy vocals floating high above.  The tension created by this interplay is finally released with a climactic section to close out the song with appropriate Dream Theater-like bombast.  “Whoa”…I exhaled.

Part 8 is an instrumental that starts out with Kevin Moore playing a strange embryonic piano figure accompanied by staccato guitar riffs.  Quite suddenly, the piano theme opens up like a flower and the chunky riffs are replaced with an acoustic guitar plucking notes that weave and dance in-between Moore’s shining piano riff.  Practically an inversion of this piano/guitar motif, Part 9 opens with an acoustic guitar strumming rich chords reminiscent of Floyd’s 'Wish You Were Here'.  Delicate piano chords start to fill in the spaces before Alder comes in with a laid-back melody. 

Moving from part to part, it’s evident that Matheos uses all five band members to maximum effect, arranging and experimenting with an array of instrumental combinations in order to create variations in harmony, melody and counterpoint.  Speaking of counterpoint, drummer Mark Zonder proves himself a prog beast on this album, but it suffices to say that all the players shine here on APSoG.     

“So where do we begin and what else do we say?”  Well, in some ways APSoG surpasses contemporary concept albums with its pure, unadulterated musical premise.  There’s little doubt in my mind that it had an impact on bands like Riverside and their well-received Reality Dream trilogy of albums.  I’ve rated it 9.5 out of 10, nit-picking half a point for the anonymous nature of the album’s storyline and song-numbering convention.  In the end, that can’t take away from the musical brilliance of A Pleasant Shade of Gray, a bold experiment put forth by one of the elder gods of prog-metal.  If nothing else, this album proves that for Fates Warning, it really is “all about the music.”

Review inspired by DTF members Samsara and TAC
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Offline pogoowner

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2010, 09:50:24 AM »
Nice review. I agree with you pretty much 100%.

Offline Perpetual Change

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2010, 11:56:52 AM »
Yeah, great review here.  Part of the reason I haven't been able to digest APSOG yet is because nothing about it really stands out, especially compared to all the fantastic hooks and instrumental fireworks you can have just an album or two back in the discography.  You can tell immediately that this album is something special, but it's allows itself to fade into the background too easily, especially if you're not focused.  I think I'll do what you suggest, and make sure I give it my full attention when I listen to it again later.

Offline Parama

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2010, 02:46:23 PM »
I agree, this is a fantastic album. And there is no way in hell you will be able to appreciate it without listening to it all at once. It doesn't work any other way but that.

Offline Perpetual Change

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #4 on: February 01, 2010, 04:22:19 PM »
Man, I layed down with headphones and tried to listen to this all the way through today between classes, but by part 9 I was so exhausted from listening that I couldn't finish.  What I heard was good.  I definitely appreciate it.  But I was also dozing in at out.

Offline LudwigVan

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #5 on: February 01, 2010, 08:12:20 PM »
For sure, APSoG is not "easy". The album demands a degree of effort on the listener's part, even to the point where trying to hear all the subtleties and changes can be a draining experience. The nondescriptness of it all doesn't help either, as it leaves no easy 'signpost' for you to mark the album sections by.

 The feel of the music is definitely much more "abstract" than your typical prog-metal fare...the music makes reference to thoughts, feelings and emotions, rather than to specific people, places or things. No Dark Masters or Sister Mary's in this music.

 As a matter of fact, even though it's one of my favorite FW albums, I find that I pull it out the least among all their discography. It's just so much easier to rock out to Parallels or Disconnected.
"There is nothing more difficult than talking about music."
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“All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff.”
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Offline Samsara

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #6 on: February 02, 2010, 02:46:29 PM »
I'm a big FW fan and it took me awhile for APSOG to really hit home. When it did, it was a wave of emotion. The problem with the record is, just like QUeensryche's Promised Land (which is in a similar vein, IMO), it requires the listener to really sit down and immerse themselves in it for awhile. APSoG will never be my favorite album from FW, as it isn't very accessible. You can't throw it on and rock out or listen casually to it, like you can with Promised Land and still get it. But that aside, it's a really good record and made me really appreciate the work Jim and Ray put into it (along with Joey).
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Offline Dublagent66

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #7 on: May 18, 2010, 12:21:01 PM »
I found this album to be quite odd at first but it really grew on me bigtime.  Now, I think it's a FW masterpiece.  Absolutely love it.  :tup
Prog-metal band does musical?  Maybe next time they'll do a prog-metal rendition of The Sound of Music. :p

Offline Cyclopssss

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Re: [Music] Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade of Gray
« Reply #8 on: November 21, 2011, 01:53:02 AM »
This is the album that finally pushed me over the edge towards progressive rock/metal.  I bought it without knowing anything about the band, pure on the strength of a review it got. I played it to death, instantly fell in love with it. After that I proceded to order every single release by them I could find.

PSOG is in a league on it's own, though, the only one that comes even remotely close is 'Disconnected'.  :metal
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