The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was in full swing in the early 80s. Thanks to bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (amongst others), heavy metal was taking hold, becoming a pretty big deal, and many bands were following in the footsteps of those greats.
One of those bands was Fates Warning, from Connecticut. Their first album, Night on Brocken dropped in 1984, with a distinct sense of Iron Maiden worship.
However, a closer listen revealed some tendencies to more progressive music. Shades of bands such as Rush were creeping into the NWOBHM sound that Fates was building their sound on. Enter their second album in 1985, The Spectre Within, and I don’t think it would be unfair to say that progressive metal was born.
Taking the metal sound of Night on Brocken and adding different time signatures, allowing the music to really be more dynamic and variable, and in retrospect, ground was being broken. Fates Warning is anchored by the guitar playing of Jim Matheos, and on The Spectre Within we see him upping his game considerably. Songs like “Orphan Gypsy” still are built on that fast, metal riffing. But it is also willing to slow things down, add some variation with the choruses. “Pirates of the Underground” is one of my favorites. Starting with a rapid gallop, it slows things down when the first verse hits, only to end by speeding up again, with one of my favorite endings in metal.
And that is a theme really seen on The Spectre Within. Few, if any, of the songs are predictable, or go where you initially expect. Yet what also makes this album so strong is how none of these transitions feel abrupt or out of place. There is a definite flow to the album, despite the changing time signatures and tempos throughout.
Songs like “The Apparition” are legitimate prog masterpieces. Final track, “Epitaph” is 12 minutes of excellence that really shows where the band would go on subsequent tracks like “Exodus” and “The Ivory Gate of Dreams”.
It is impossible to talk about the first three Fates Warning albums without spending some time on the vocals of John Arch.
Let me start by saying that, it took me a bit to really get into his voice. Given that Ray Alder was my introduction to Fates Warning, John Arch was something completely different. I’ve read that Tony Iommi said that Ozzy sang with the melody, but Dio sang across the melody. That is a good way to describe John Arch as well. His vocal melodies are some of the most interesting in metal. He has a high tenor, and isn’t afraid to use it. But what I love the most is just how dynamic his vocal lines are. This man can sing, and amazingly still can today. Because his vocal melodies are much more unique and dynamic than usual for this type of music, it takes a bit for them to click. But once they do, I’ll fight anyone who has bad things to say about John Arch. It’s that simple.
The Spectre Within is an essential album, as it really is the birth of prog metal. It holds up excellently today and is a dynamic, vibrant musical expression of a band that continues to shape progressive music to this day.