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
. 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