Fates Warning - "Awaken the Guardian"

dB HoF No. 134

Label: Metal Blade Records/Enigma
Release date: November 10, 1986

Fates Warning leader, guitarist and chief songwriter Jim Matheos will be living parallel lives in 2016. He’s helming the writing and recording of the band’s 12th album with the current lineup, and will concurrently assemble a lineup from the band’s distant past, including guitarist Frank “X” Aresti plus co-founders John Arch (vocals), Joe DiBiase (bass) and Steve Zimmerman (drums). This formation, Fates Warning Mark II, will be put into action for two performances—one in Germany in April, at the Keep It True Festival, the second in Atlanta, GA, at ProgPower USA. The occasion: the first and last live airings of the Awaken the Guardian album in its entirety. For thousands of Awaken devotees, that’s an event of enormous magnitude. We shouldn’t throw this word around lightly, but it is what it is: Awaken the Guardian is cult.

To understand the album is to know its predecessor, 1985’s The Spectre Within. The band’s second album, Spectre was forged in fires of phantasmagorical fantasy, like a fusion of Iron Maiden, Rush and Mercyful Fate with a wholly original muse at its core. The Connecticut band was merely three years young at the time, but their second album was a remarkably mature, sublime seven-song foray into brooding mystic heavy metal that had no equal—until they followed one year later with Awaken the Guardian.

Awaken built on Spectre by adding deeper deposits of detail and drama. Arch’s spectral voice returned with a new level of sensitivity. Guitar riffs were bewitching knots of magic code. DiBiase’s bass lines burbled ominously, and the drums tied the dark mass together with heavy-handed dexterity. These are the pieces that, when assembled, presented a cipher of arcane, literate, doom-laden metal. Thirty years hence, Awaken the Guardian is one of the celebrated masterworks of the genre.

By the time of Awaken’s appearance in November 1986, Iron Maiden had primed the masses for metal both ferocious and thoughtful, and pioneers such as Mercyful Fate and Watchtower had expanded the genre’s language. That very autumn, Seattle’s Queensrÿche were crafting their own sublime masterpiece—the elaborate Rage for Order was released one month after Awaken. Fates Warning’s third was sure to find a receptive audience. However, despite winning loads of praise upon release, a rift in the ranks spelled the end of an era. Arch exited in 1987 and young Texan Ray Alder became the band’s frontman. Fates Warning would still be great with Alder, but they would never, ever be the same.

Arch’s incredible voice was dormant for years after Awaken’s release. With the reams of allegorical lyrics and twisting melodic complications that were his calling cards, one could almost assume that the singer was mentally and physically exhausted. It was only in 2003 that Matheos pried Arch out of retirement. They made an EP together and recorded 2011’s Sympathetic Resonance as Arch/Matheos (a Fates Warning album in all but name, considering the other players are Fates alumni). Arch/Matheos played several shows and dusted off some early Fates material, priming themselves and numerous fans of the Arch cult for the next vital step. Do not doubt it: when the rapture of Awaken the Guardian’s 30th anniversary live airing happens in Germany and Atlanta, the roars of fanatics belting out every single line will be met with a few tears of joy and disbelief.

The telling of Awaken the Guardian’s making is comparatively mundane. By the time they entered the SoCal studios where it was recorded, the intensely focused band was well-prepared. Each member still talks with great pride of its creation, each blown away by the feedback it has received since its release 30 years ago, each amazed at the powerful and positive impact it has had on so many lives.

- Jeff Wagner

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