Progressive metal pioneers Fates Warning started enriching my record collection around the time their previous album, Darkness in a Different Light (2013), came out. After I’d become better acquainted with the rest of their discography, I came to the conclusion that it was a very solid comeback after a 9-year recording hiatus, but not all of the songs were exactly stellar, and it felt like the band was still clearing the cobwebs in preparation for something even greater. This brings us to the present, where the release of the 12th FW record, Theories of Flight, is upon us.
One of the first things that pops out while listening to the album for the first time is how many hooks there are. Some of the tunes are the catchiest the band has written since Inside Out (1994), but there’s enough complexity and layers in the music to give it balance and depth. This recipe is so successful that you find yourself listening to the album over and over again, almost to the point of addiction. The whole record feels like a synthesis of the best parts of every Ray Alder-era release without feeling like a retread.
The opener, “From the Rooftops,” is quite representative of the album’s sound and a good way to kick things off, but also my least favorite track. It’s a slightly surprising choice for the first single, given that there are even stronger and more accessible songs. “Seven Stars” is the spiritual successor of “Point of View,” as it creates a slightly similar vibe and is just as anthem-like, albeit slower. “SOS” is a melodically strong yet slightly mysterious piece with a powerful mantra (“sink or swim”) by Ray Alder in the middle. This song just screams to be played live!
Fans of Fates Warning’s introspective side will probably find the album’s 10-minute centerpiece “The Light and Shade of Things” most enjoyable, while the intensity of “White Flag” and “Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen” should please those looking for heaviness. “White Flag” is hands down the best song on the album for me, including a great lyrical message of persistence (“No surrender, don’t give up / Never carry that white flag”) and impressive guest solos by long-time on/off member Frank Aresti and current touring guitarist Michael Abdow. Another highlight is the epic “The Ghosts of Home,” which deals with guitarist/songwriter Jim Matheos’ childhood experiences of having to move constantly. The music accompanies the topic brilliantly, beginning atypically in a major key before getting faster and heavier, but also including a beautifully wistful slower section. The title-track is an instrumental with spoken word samples that recalls “Disconnected Part 2,” though it is less ambient-tinged and ends the album quite abruptly.
The musicianship on the album is first-class as always: bassist Joey Vera and drummer Bobby Jarzombek are a monstrous rhythm section, and Jim Matheos weaves fascinating riffs that come to the foreground when you’re listening on your headphones and can clearly make out what the guitars are doing in each channel. The real MVP here, however, is Ray Alder: the man has lost some of his upper range over the years, but he’s learned to make the most out of what he still has left. I’ve always preferred his more mature voice on the later albums to his youthful wailing, and on Theories of Flight he’s outdone himself once more. Alder’s passionate and powerful singing is the cherry on the top of an already delicious cake.
Theories of Flight is an excellent album-of-the-year candidate that has everything a Fates Warning fan could ask for. It’s undoubtedly one of the milestones of the band’s long career and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Parallels (1991), A Pleasant Shade of Gray(1997), and Disconnected (2000).
Rating: 10/10, 5 stars