June 22, 2023

Lots of folk still believe that Fates Warning are one of the most underrated and under-appreciated prog-metal bands of the eighties and nineties – and indeed to this very day. They were right up there with Queensrÿche and Dream Theater without perhaps having quite the same level of international fame as those two bands – even though the Fates have sold over one million albums globally. Frontman Ray Alder has been with the Fates since 1986, and remains happy in that role given that the band all continue to enjoy doing side-projects of one sort or another. During that time Ray has also fronted the bands Engine, Superholic and Redemption.

Ray in pensive mood

2019 saw Ray’s first solo effort What The Water Wants released, which saw much praise lavished on it. The album also featured the Fates’ guitarist Mike Abdow who helped out with some of the song-writing, Tony Hernando (bassist for Lords of Black) and drummer Craig Anderson (Crescent Shield and Ignite). The album was recorded across each of the band members’ own studios, and generally had more of a melodic hard rock vibe to it than progressive metal.

Ray has now followed this up with II, a second “solo” effort – although he’s stuck with what is clearly a productive and creative ensemble in the shape of the aforementioned Tony, Mike and Craig; and again the songwriting duties are shared out across what feels like a genuine band in itself.

Okay – by Ray’s own admission, II is darker and more introspective than his debut solo – characterised by longer songs, deeper lyrics and pushing himself further vocally. This all sounds extremely promising to me!

And in we go…opener This Hollow Shell is intriguing….the mix and production is immediately crisp, spacious, immersive. It might not suit full-on Metalheads in that it’s ever so slightly laid back, polished and melodic, an altogether slick performance. Vocals are impassioned but in control, smoooth! How this guy has kept his larynx in one piece over forty-odd years is a feat in itself! Don’t forget to check out the acoustic version on YouTube, there’s some rare talent at work here. My Oblivion gets heavier, but not in a express train way, this album isn’t designed to knock you out, more about weaving a web of tales?

Hands of Time could almost be Ozzy at times!….but in a slightly honeyed way. The guitar work/arrangements are impressive and a crazy thought hits me – check out my recent (March 21 2023) review of the Italian band Walk in Darkness: If you replace the amazing Nicoletta Rosellini on vocals by the equally and efffortlessly-on-top-of-his-game Mr Alder, there’s lots of similarities in a Very Good way! – mix introspection with an Italian taste for Opera and there you have it! Hands of Time is Heavy – but in a sumptuous, all-enveloping way…

Waiting For Some Sun continues this sense of rich, riff-driven poignancy, a melancholic melody – this track could be late-period HIM? That in itself might be a divisive statement but suffice to say I enjoyed their sense of drama! Silence The Enemy is another quite captivating blend of almost gothic arrangements that are somehow also subdued. I have to say I am enjoying the overall production here!

Keep Wandering is altogether different, a gently laid-back ballad, dare I say an almost “lounge lizard” arrangement! It’s super-smooth, a hint of the Red Hot Chilli’s? You get the idea, a duette of gorgeous vocals and masterful guitar work. By contrast, Those Words I Bled is perhaps the heaviest track on the album – a nicely hollow “boingy” vibe with the guitars, a cracker of a riff, soaring vocals, superb percussion, a tautly loping bassline and a blistering solo towards the end. Wonderful stuff!

Passengers weaves and whirls, another high quality track but pales beside the album-closer Changes – an epic of nigh on eight minutes of impassioned singing, this builds and builds quite majestically – it sounds quite a personally cathartic track for Ray (not quite the same as the Sabbath song of the same title!); and the guitar work from both is simply mesmerising in the way it yo-yos from quieter passages to massive choruses.

All in all, this is a very accomplished slice of hugely melodic prog-metal that features tremendous compositions, a wonderful range of dynamics and vibe, top-notch guitar playing and indeed all the instrumentation is perfectly pitched and performed. And then there’s this amazing set of vocal chords still sounding sooo strong and “honeyed” – yes, that’s the word! As a band these guys give an effortless masterclass in modern melodic progressive rock – well worth a listen, Mr Alder is in fine form. My only very minor whinge – as with so many prog-metal albums – is a slight lack of variety? No matter how great the quality, my attention begins to wander…until that epic last track!

Fans of so many bands will love this, perhaps especially followers of Empyre – it’s that big-sound anthemic big band thing. And as I said earlier, if you like this, try stepping out with Walk in Darkness – you’ll love it!