Fates Warning’s last album, 2013’s Darkness in a Different Light, was a swift kick in the ass even longtime fans didn’t see coming. The band had, after all, spent some fifteen years incorporating ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore’s penchant for moody ambiance, drummer Mark Zonder’s fondness for electronic drums, bandleader Jim Matheos’ disdain for flashy guitar stunts, and singer Ray Alder’s exploration of the baritone range into their unmistakable brand of progressive heavy metal. The shift from the classic progmetal sound of 1991’s Parallels into territory that had more in common with Portishead than Pyramaze certainly left some fans alienated, but those that dared to listen rather than just hear were treated to the most rewarding and adventurous music that could possibly be called metal. I defy any thoughtful listener to listen to “A Pleasant Shade of Grey,” “Still Remains,” or “Wish” without being moved. If you can, you’re probably not really human.
Suddenly – or rather, at some point during a nine-year dearth of releases – Mark Zonder and Moore were out, replaced respectively by virtuoso skin-basher and proud San Antonian Bobby Jarzombek (Halford, Iced Earth, Sebastian Bach) and by no one at all. Darkness also saw the return of guitar guru Frank Aresti, who’d been performing with Fates again since about 2005. And Darkness fucking slammed.
If Darkness in a Different Light marked a return to crushing, no-bullshit heavy metal, Theories of Flight follows in its predecessor’s footsteps while embracing the dreamy soundscapes of Pleasant Shade and Disconnected while still harkening back to the raw aggression of No Exit. Case in point is opening track “From the Rooftops,” which opens with a mellow moodiness that we’ve come to expect from these kings of melancholic technicality. Alder’s voice is fine form, warm and robust, with his testosterone levels reaching the red zone when the song goes all fucking heavy on us. Alder pulls a fast one on us, though, after that mid-tempo midsection that recalls the ass-end of “Acquiescence” – he unexpectedly hits what might be his highest note in over twenty years with the line “there’s nothing that time can’t end.” And he fucking kills it – it neither flits nor flutters, but soars, carried by the power of that ever-strengthening baritone. I daresay he outdoes his performance on Redemption’s The Art of Loss earlier this year; Matheos and Redemption leader Nick van Dyk may very well be competing to see who gets the best performance out of Ray, and that’s a possibility I welcome.
The stupefyingly infectious “Seven Stars” and “SOS” are followed by the indisputable centerpiece of the album, “The Light and Shade of Things.” This number deserves special mention for demonstrating that songs akin to the aforementioned “Still Remains” needn’t carry a shit-ton of synths and samples to be every bit as moving, and it further proves that balls-out metal can indeed be an emotional catharsis; Ray reaching even higher than he does on “Rooftops” during the song’s many climaxes only sweetens the sorrowful sounds. The listener that does not realize upon first spin that this is a new Fates classic is a listener that’s not listening at all.
The absolutely crushing “White Flag” (where absentee guitarist Aresti and his road-replacement Mike Abdow dutifully shred in Matheos’ capable stead) and mosh-worthy “Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen” again give way to another lengthy epic, “The Ghosts of Home,” which plays like the structural and spiritual sequel to “And Yet It Moves.” The album satisfyingly and abruptly ends with the sample-strewn title track, as if eulogizing the Disconnected sound from which Fates Warning has very clearly moved. A limited edition bonus disc features unplugged takes on such favorites as “Firefly” and “Another Perfect Day,” as well as an unexpected Toad the Wet Sprocket cover and an interesting take on the Joaquin Rodrigo piece “Adela,” where Ray sings in Spanish as if announcing his arrival to one of his ancestral homelands (he recently moved from El Lay to Madrid).
While it’s often said that you can’t be all things to all people, Theories of Flight irrefutably demonstrates how we are never simply who we now, but an amalgamation of everyone we’ve been up to this point. How rewarding it is to be a long-term fan of a band as unique and moving as this one.