Fates Warning – The Spectre Within
The Spectre Within
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t really care for what is normally considered “progressive metal” in this day and age. To me, it’s bands trying to force odd time signatures, random bits of technical flashiness, and it usually just doesn’t click with me (so says the girl who can listen to Dream Theater’s Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence three times in a row in one sitting). However, back in 1985, Fates Warning would do to metal what Rush did to rock in the mid-70s: marry the status quo of (at the time) metal with a heavy dose of prog. And, much like with Rush, after giving The Spectre Within a spin, you would be left thinking, “Did I just listen to a prog album?” The Spectre Within manages to be prog without actually being prog. The overt time signature changes are seamlessly embedded within amazing headbang-worthy riffs. The musicianship is tight and technical without coming off as “technical” (there’s a serious drum clinic going on from Steve Zimmerman). It’s not until you actually listen to the album that you realize how much prog there actually is, and that’s what makes this album so great. Imagine Rush from Signals through Hold Your Fire had they listened to Iron Maiden religiously instead of The Police (instead of poppy/proggy rock, think soaring, galloping, and epic proggy metal, and vocalist John Arch is the metal Geddy Lee).
The Spectre Within as an album builds and builds from the more straightforward opening tracks, getting more intense with each track, until the epic release of “Epitaph.” Guitarists Jim Matheos and Victor Arduini let rip with Iron Maiden-meets-dressage riffs; they sure as hell gallop, but with razor-sharp precision and making serpentine twists in the riffs that will make your head spin. There are guitar harmonies all over the place that would make Steve Harris proud.
“Traveler In Time”, “Orphan Gypsy”, and “Without A Trace” open the album as your typical early/mid 80s American power metal riffing, with the major defining point being John Arch’s high-flying vocal acrobatics. As stand-alone songs, they’re a solid slab of metal, but they’re best used as a prelude to what’s in store: the riff monster “Pirates Of The Underground,” where the true genius of The Spectre Within starts to take flight.
There’s a definite Dio-era Black Sabbath feel here (“Heaven And Hell” in particular), with a nice chunky and brooding verse riff that explodes into a full-on metal assaut. The riff going into the final verse section is killer, as is the solo…and that riff on the fadeout? That needs to get made into its own song, or at least be a midsection solo-wankery riff somewhere!
“The Apparition” is quite possibly the best track here (which is saying a lot). It has the quality buildup of a 12 minute epic, but flies by like a 4 minute power metal track. The bridge is flat-out spine-tingling with Matheos’s riffing and Arch wailing like a banshee, and another lethally melodic guitar solo. “Kyrie Eleison” is the token speed metal number (there’s got to be a law on the books somewhere about every metal album requiring a speed metal track), but still with that prog twist that you’ll never notice until it’s too late…you just rocked out to a prog song! Impossible!
The closer, “Epitaph,” is a 3-part epic. It’s the musical chimera of Ronnie James Dio’s epics with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, equal parts “Sign Of The Southern Cross,” “Heaven And Hell,” and “Stargazer.” It’s clear Jim Matheos did his heavy metal homework here, as he builds riffs from the obvious Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath influences. Yet, with all of his influences on his sleeve, it still sounds fresh and original. It’s every riff from Mob Rules and Piece Of Mind, yet it becomes its own animal completely.
The Spectre Within is one of those albums that is just so mind-blowing and original that it almost defies classification. It sits alongside Iron Maiden’s majestic masterpiece Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son in the throne room of the most elite early power metal albums and (in my opinion) is in the pantheon of albums that anyone with any interest in progressive music or power metal should absolutely have. This is essential listening, folks. This is what prog should be. Music that becomes art, beautiful lyrical imagery (even if I have no freakin’ clue what John Arch is singing about), and each song has an aura that will draw you in to experience the story within.
Kylie’s rating: 5 out of 5