(Metal Blade Records)
Imagine the following scenario, if you will. You find yourself trapped inside a narrow hallway, struggling to stay afloat in turbulent waters. Concrete walls surround you on both sides. The sky above shines incendiary red and charred clouds, a mortal firestorm. A padlocked pair of doors loom ahead, labeled in red capital letters, “No Exit.” Retreating is not an option. It’s time to face your destiny.
This ominous image serves as the perfect accompaniment to Fates Warning’s fourth album, No Exit. An album as controversial to longtime fans as it was transitional in the band’s catalog, No Exit is often viewed either as a masterpiece or an unmitigated disaster. I remember discussing my love for this album with some email metal buddies in the mid ’90s, and some of them absolutely despised it. Scouring Internet message boards and Amazon.com reviews reveals similar sorts of extreme vehemence, some calling it “meandering,” “unfocused,” or, dare I say, “boring.” Others praise its ambitious scope, fantastic musicianship, and uniquely dark vision. Falling squarely in the latter category, I think it’s time No Exit gets its just due. Let’s certainly not let it drown in the ivory gateway of shattered dreams.
If the ominous cover art personifies the dark musical direction contained therein, then the album’s title mirrors the crossroads Fates Warning itself had reached. In 1986, they released the magnificent Awaken the Guardian, an album many consider the apotheosis of American heavy metal. Guardian expanded upon the riff-oriented, NWOBHM-inspired melodic metal of their first two records with more complex arrangements and mystical lyrical themes. The stirring vocal melodies and unique tone of vocalist John Arch were beyond reproach, as well. For so many Fates Warning (and metal) fans, Guardian stood tall as one of the first, and best, recordings in the fledgling progressive/power metal field. This achievement would be hard to top, but band leader/guitarist Jim Matheos and co. were still hungry for further musical evolution.
Change was forced inexorably upon the Fates when Arch decided to leave the band in 1987 to focus on raising a family and other career endeavors. Enter 20-year-old singer Ray Alder from San Antonio, Texas, who possessed a profoundly wicked vocal range. Arguably, Alder lacked the distinctly beautiful tone of Arch, but he was a pure, high-pitched belter in the tradition of Geoff Tate or Halford at his most piercing. Alder’s raw vocal talent would help lift No Exit to among the top of 1988’s crowded best-album heap. The vocalist change also coincided with a subtle shift in musical direction for this new album. Fates Warning maintained their core progressive/power metal sound; yet the arrangements became even more complex, the rhythm guitar tone thrashier, the general tempos faster, and the overall attitude of the album was angrier and uber-aggressive. Lyrically, the poetic, mythical themes from the previous albums were abandoned in favor of real-life darkness: social disarray, desperation, religious corruption, depression, hopelessness, etc. Did I mention the lyrics are rather depressing? But as a 19-year-old college kid, who was dealing with some tough times when I first heard the album in the mid ‘90s, Matheos’ and guitarist Frank Aresti’s lyrics struck a particularly healing chord.
Add Alder’s stratospheric vocals to these other extreme elements, and we have one magnificent whirling dervish of a masterpiece on No Exit. For the truth is that no matter how fast the tempos get, or consistently high-pitched the vocals are, or how odd the juxtaposition of riffs and time signatures, the melodies always ring true. This is one hell of a melodic, infectious, and downright fun blast of speed metal. In fact, by the time the last melancholic acoustic guitar notes of “The Ivory Gate of Dreams” fade, the listener is left panting and wanting more; that’s more glorious hyper-melodious solos and neo-classical harmonies, more uber-precise and galloping thrash rhythms, more blazing speed, more ear-drum-breaking shrieks, and more emotionally-draining moments of catharsis.
With the opening galloping triplets and ripping leads of “Anarchy Divine,” No Exit is off and running. This is a particularly blistering and speedy tune, with Alder shrieking to the bloody heavens, “Save me, someone’s come to change me/Mislead, delusions color real/black and white, they’ll never paint me/never see until you feel.” “Silent Cries” begins with a whirlwind of crunchy eighth notes, but it actually is a moody and dynamic tune that is as beautiful as it is exhilarating. Darkness reigns supreme on the slow, acoustic-based “In a Word,” which finds the narrator crying forth in desperation, “How much more can I take? And how much more ‘til I break?” “Shades of Heavenly Death,” by contrast, is a wicked juggernaut of technical and complex thrash riffing. Just try to keep your neck vertebrae intact after that one.
Finally, No Exit closes with the inimitable concept suite, “The Ivory Gate of Dreams.” This eight-part, 22-minute-long musical ode to crushed life dreams is more dynamic and gorgeous than one could ever accurately put into words. It’s really best to just listen to the song. This devastating story of the “daylight dreamers,” who seek temporary solace from their waking sorrows through the sanctuary of sleep, embodies all the best qualities that No Exit, and great metal, delivers. When I had the extreme fortune of seeing Fates Warning perform “IV. Quietus” from this suite last fall, I could barely contain my emotion.
And that, said Forrest Gump, is all I have to say about that.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot