Review Summary: An underrated album from one of the most underrated prog metal bands. This is one of the jewels of the prog metal scene.
“A Pleasant Shade Of Gray” is the eighth studio album of Fates Warning and was released in 1997. The line up on the album is Ray Alder, Jim Matheos, Joey Vera and Mark Zonder. The album had also the participation of Kevin Moore, Bill Metoyer, Lydia Montagnese, Lindsay Matheos and Terry Brown.
Fates Warning is perhaps the only progressive metal act that helped develop this genre from the 80’s to this time, but they have always been overshadowed by their contemporaries. In the 80’s everyone had their attention focused on Queensryche and Crimson Glory, and the 90’s saw Dream Theater and Symphony X dominating everything in that area. While very few bands have managed to maintain their consistency, always putting out quality material, carving their own little niche in the ever-growing genre and many of them went for the easy way out after scoring one or two major albums, Fates Warning, on the other hand, it was a slower, but perhaps safer, process of growing and establishing themselves as one of the greatest progressive metal bands of all times. Unfortunately, this is an underrated band.
Matheos is also an underrated musician. His genius is always passed up for some reason. He wrote all the lyrics and composed this entire album on his own. What’s more is that he hasn’t taken the easy way out laying down some meaningless riffs and solos throughout this album. On the contrary he only plays few solos on the entire album. These solos are slow and minimal but emotionally charged at the highest level possible. Alder does his best vocal performance ever here. He stays comfortably in his own range and delivers the tunes with passion, emotion and conviction. Vera had just joined the band and this was his first stint with the band but he fits in perfectly in Matheos’ song craft. Zonder is best known for restraining himself when necessary and always giving the song what it needs.
Finally, we have Moore. His presence on the album makes all the difference. Fates Warning had never used keyboards and piano this effectively before, but for an album like this, no one would have been a better choice. Moore’s minimalist playing and the heavy atmosphere that covers the tunes delicately complement the songs very well. He particularly shines on this album. I really think this is the best album with Moore, as a guest, in his post “Awake” musical career.
About “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray”, Matheos said that the genesis of the album was a departure from their previous two albums. For him, apart from “Parallels” and “Inside Out”, all their albums have sounded different. “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray” is really very different from most progressive metal albums of the 90’s. There is little to no effort made to make the listener’s head spin with unnecessary technical prowess. You don’t get dizzy listening to it trying to keep up with various poly-rhythms, countless notes squeezed into a scale played mindlessly fast on the guitar or a singer constantly exerting himself just to remain in his highest range possible. These are aspects with no purpose on this album.
“A Pleasant Shade Of Gray” is presented as a whole, parted in 12 songs. Or, if you want, you can call it a conceptual album. Fates Warning explores a darker side of the progressive rock music. The lyrics are great and the tone of the music fits the concept perfectly. Each part flows into others quite well. The pace of the album is slow and the entire album is very moody due to its extreme progressive nature. The main feeling all over this album is the “gray-ness”. Reading the lyrics, you could be intrigued by the statement of what really is the concept of “pleasant”. And what is this about this “shade of gray”" I really think that the “opposition of the contraries, gray and pleasant” is solved, in the end of the album. Emptiness, confusion and desolation, are things which lead us to a sort of desperation. But, finally, “face to face we’ll awake/ to see another day” is a kind of thing that gives us a new hope. It’s like a nightmare, which finally ends. Moreover, this sensation is clarified by the clock ring in the end of the album. It’s like in the beginning of the album of Dream Theater, “Awake”. The final result is that the mood these guys managed to create is really wonderful.
Conclusion: If “Inside Out” was a kind of continuation of “Parallels”, in music style, “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray” is something new compared to its predecessors. No, not fundamentally new, but still the changes are substantial, in my humble opinion. This album is a must listen for any truly fan of progressive metal, or simply any music fan who enjoys contemplating the music. “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray” is a unique album by a unique band. The listener must simply keep in mind that it’s not meant as a catchy sing along or as background music. Sometimes I wonder why this band is so underrated. It’s really a shame. Everybody who likes this genre should check this band out. This album could be a very good introduction to this great band. For me, this is one of the jewels of the progressive metal discography. I even dare to say that this album is a classic in the progressive metal field. I know this isn’t consensual, but it’s what I think.
Music was my first love.
John Miles (Rebel)