Today, I launch my (completely subjective) list of metal albums that, for one reason or another, didn’t get the attention they deserved when they were released … and I can’t think of a better album to start this series with than “Awaken The Guardian,” a 1986 masterpiece from East Coast progressive metallers Fates Warning.
Like a lot of bands in the 1980s that later rose to greater things, Fates Warning started life as an Iron Maiden clone. The band’s first album, “Night on Bröcken,” was the rough sound of a band still trying to find itself. But the band began to evolve beyond its Maiden roots – and started creating its progressive, signature sound – with their second album, “The Spectre Within.”
“Spectre,” which was released in 1985, feels like a draft for what followed with “Awaken The Guardian.” Guitarists Jim Matheos and Victor Arduini and vocalist John Arch were already grappling with the elements of progressive metal that Matheos would perfect one year later. “Traveler in Time” experimented with time changes and acoustic instruments to good effect, while the 11-minute “Epitaph” incorporated intricate changes in mood into distinct movements.
But the compositions on “Spectre” were still unpolished and sometimes grating: “Epitaph” in particular suffered: A good song, “Epitaph” was prevented from being great by its disjointedness, as if the band hadn’t yet discovered how to incorporate their diverse ideas into one complete piece. Despite some very strong works, the album was musically inconsistent.
But “Spectre” held out the promise of better things to come. “Awaken The Guardian,” released just one year after “Spectre,” was a great musical leap forward.
In the year between the two albums, Arch and Matheos (Arduini had left the band, to be replaced by Frank Aresti) had overcome the shortcomings that had made “The Spectre Within” such a disconnected effort. The compositions improved dramatically, the lyrics became both darker and more finessed and the songs lost their rough transitions without sacrificing the band’s metallic edge.
The first track, “The Sorceress,” slides in with an ominous, acoustic 12-string into, before a distortion roar overwhelms the final note and the main riff attacks. The song’s verse-chorus-verse formula is discarded after what would traditionally be the bridge by a darker, heavier time change. After the solo, a drum role ushers in the main riff again – a seamless transition of the kind that had been so desperately lacking on “The Spectre Within.”
“Valley of the Dolls” is a thrash song and the heaviest on the disc, which brings up an important point: “Awaken The Guardian” era Fates Warning was metal, not “progressive metal” or “melodic metal” but in-your-face metal. It’s not hard to imagine “Guardian” era Fates Warning playing shows with Metallica or Slayer back in the ’80s.
John Arch had a operatic voice, but the band was worlds away from the hair metal pretty boys who specialized in falsetto vocals and lipstick over musicianship. “Valley of the Dolls” pokes fun at the hair metal horde, with Arch chiding them for “stealing mommy’s make-up” while waving “ghost guitars.” It’s a merciless dismissal of the false metal that ruled MTV back in the mid ’80s.
“Fata Morgana” again shows the band effortlessly blending time changes, while Matheos and Aresti harmonized on the twin guitar riff. Like most of the tracks on “Awaken The Guardian,” Arch’s lyrics are supernatural and mythical here, and he wails like a banshee. The song, despite the thrash metal bridge, is the most accessible on “Awaken The Guardian.” If there had been a single – and metal radio to play it – “Fata Morgana” would have been the best choice.
“Guardian,” however, is the album’s epic. Beginning with a beautiful 12-string intro, “Guardian” then flies into a blazing metal solo before a soft fade leads back to a different acoustic melody. A dark yet hopeful song, Arch’s vocals are interlayered, with melodies on top of one another, leading listeners to a chorus that erupts suddenly and blazes. The bridge rages briefly, before another time change takes over before the solo. Yet another perfectly coordinated time change follows the solo, leading back to the chorus and fade out. “Guardian” was the album’s showcase, and it’s a masterpiece.
“Prelude To Ruin” is a complete shift in mood. Where “Guardian” was optimistic in the face of despair, “Prelude” is apocalyptic. The song is crushingly heavy, with a twin guitar intro and a churning bridge thrown in between the chorus and second verse, to give the song an extra urgency. The song changes melody slightly between the first and second verses, with rapidly picked moments between vocal lines and the solo. At the solo’s climax, the song drops tempo into an eerie, ocean-deep electric-acoustic melody line before swinging back to the chorus and the vocal wail Arch used to open the song. It’s difficult to keep track of all the musical ideas in play on “Prelude To Ruin.” So many elements together shouldn’t work, but the band succeeds beautifully.
Compared to “Prelude To Ruin,” “Giant’s Lore (Heart of Winter)” is practically conventional, although Arch’s vocals melodies are anything but mundane. While not as challenging to the ear, “Giant’s Lore” is a beautiful track.
“Time Long Past” is an acoustic/electric interlude not two minutes long, but it’s hardly a throwaway track (there were no “filler” songs on “Awaken The Guardian”). Rather “Time Long Past” is a sweet bridge between “Giant’s Lore” and “Exodus,” an intricate march of a song that again blends the band’s gift for melody with their natural heaviness. The major chord chorus, coupled with Arch’s multiple vocal lines, elevate the song to epic status … but it’s the time changes that slay. The first change, a slow acoustic interlude, is followed by a rapid double-time attack, before song shifts back to it’s original riff and chorus. As the song fades, the album ends on a wind-rush of synth noise.
After “Awaken The Guardian,” Arch was replaced by vocalist Ray Adler, who sings with the band to this day. Adler has a great voice, and the band went on to critical praise with later albums … but “Awaken The Guardian” was Fates Warning’s forgotten classic.