By Patrick Prince
In 1984, Connecticut-based Fates Warning was officially introduced to the music world with “Night on Bröcken.” The debut album on Metal Blade Records included a classy brand of traditional heavy metal with the gifted vocalist John Arch leading the charge. A few years later, an equally talented vocalist, Ray Alder, replaced Arch and the band released the “No Exit” album (1988). It was by this point that the band solidly embraced a more prog-rock style.
Now, decades later, with the release of the latest album “Theories of Flight” (Inside Out Music), Fates Warning’s quality of music is just as good, if not better, and Alder’s voice sounds as strong as ever.
As the band prepares to support the latest album with the ProgPower festival in Atlanta on Friday, September 9, founder/guitarist Jim Matheos spoke to Goldmine about all things Fates Warning.
GOLDMINE: Before even listening to the new album, I had a good first impression by the cover art (at left). It’s a classy piece of art. Who is the artist?
JIM MATHEOS: Her name is Graceann Warn. We didn’t want to do the usual ‘find a designer and give them the title and lyrics and have them come up with something clever and punny.’ Seems like a lot of people are doing that. So my idea was to look for an artist who had some cool artwork that I liked … just visually. It had nothing to do with the cover or the title or the lyrics or anything. I did a lot of research and viewing stuff online and came across her art — a bunch of stuff I liked — and I found the one that really jumped out at me. It’s interesting and pleasing to the eye regardless of anything to do with the band or the music.
GM: Your album covers have touched on dark topics, but it’s refreshing when you see a heavy band not having to resort to some sort of scene from a horror movie.
JM: Yeah, and like I said we didn’t want anything too obvious. Nothing punny, you know what I mean. Back in the day those were cool, like “Moving PIctures,” that’s a great title, great cover, but I think it’s just been done to death now. I just wanted to do something that stands on its own as a piece of art, actually.
GM: During the early metal years you were never afraid to admit you were influenced by other types of music. Well, you know how noninclusive it was back then.
JM: Yeah, and I think it still is to a certain extent, too, unfortunately. Especially with this whole prog metal thing. I talk about it a lot in interviews. It’s rather a narrow box nowadays which is exactly what it’s not supposed to be.
GM: Right, that’s the meaning of the word ‘progressive.’ How do you feel being attached to that tag?
JM: I understand the need for labels. We all use labels. I use them if I have to describe something I’m listening to … I’ll use whatever label comes to mind. That’s the one that fits in general. It doesn’t bother me. I just think that whole term doesn’t mean that much anymore. The stuff that people give to me to listen to all the time — “Oh, this is great prog stuff, you’re gonna love it.” But, to me, if I even bother to listen to it, it sounds like something I’ve heard a hundred times before.
GM: The word ‘prog’ first brings to mind bands like early Genesis …
JM: Sure, the original prog was. Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes .. and then prog metal crossed over into mixing the two together. A bit more adventurous but now I think — at least a lot of the stuff I hear — is not very adventurous.
GM: The first time the band was classified as prog was probably the second or third album, perhaps?
JM: Yeah, I guess it started crossing over then. It’s kind of hard to pin down when it actually started coming about. To me, one of the first bands would have been Mercyful Fate.
GM: Mercyful Fate … yeah, they had a lot of time changes …
JM: Yeah, odd time and they had elements of prog in there. They were part of the genesis of the sound in those early days, too.
GM: And then Dream Theater came in.
JM: Well, yeah, they just broke it all open. I mean, everything comes back to them nowadays. Like I said that whole thing about not hearing that much original stuff out there, everybody just sounds like a Dream Theater clone.
GM: Who can even say what metal is anymore. We’re talking about prog but the metal I used to listen to — Judas Priest, Iron Maiden — to me it’s just rock compared to some of the stuff out there now, the extreme stuff.
JM: And I mean there are so many categories now, too, which maybe is a good thing. But there are so many different categories now.
GM: If you had to go back in a time machine to “Night On Brocken” (first studio album), did you ever picture where you’d be at 30-plus years down the road?
JM: No. No idea. At that time we were just excited to get a record out, hopefully go on tour and if we were really lucky, go to Europe and do some touring. And, you know, when you’re that young most people don’t have long-term goals. I couldn’t even dream of myself being this old and what it would be like. So, no.
GM: And there have been lineup changes but the longevity of the band has been remarkable — compared to many bands in general, not just metal.
JM: Yeah. I mean, it amazes me. It’s gone by quick and I guess I put it down to the fact that I really don’t know how to do anything else. I’m kind of stuck doing this. It’s good for me because I have to do it because I enjoy doing it, but maybe if something else came… I don’t know, if something came along the way where I could have veered off into another occupation…
GM: Maybe you can get more involved with producing?
JM: Nah, I’m not interested in that. If it’s music then I’ll be doing writing — that’s the most important thing for me. If not, maybe something else. A lumberjack or something. (laughs)
GM: You do a good job on production. Don’t you feel comfortable doing that?
JM: I do with my own (work). I wouldn’t want to step outside and do somebody else’s because it’s got to be something I really feel passionate about, and I think a lot of producers probably just do it for the bucks and they get good sounds but for me I got to be really into the music. If it’s someone I really like I can see doing it but… For my own stuff it just comes natural. It’s part of the while process of writing and putting the records out. It’s not like it’s an extra job for me. It’s part of the creative process, it really is. And there’s also the whole business side that comes into production, too, in just organizing four or five different guys in different states or even in different countries now, and trying to get it all together. That’s a big part of it, too, and that’s the part that comes with production.
GM: And Ray (Alder) sounds as strong and melodic as he did on “No Exit.”
JM: Yeah, I think he did a great job on this. For some reason he’s been hitting the real sweet spots. He always sounds good — he had a rough patch in maybe the early 2000s — but I know him really well and he’s not doing anything different. He hasn’t like started taking care of himself. Ray is Ray. He hasn’t changed in a long time. He’s just hit a sweet spot. These songs really resonated with him and to me this is one of his best performances ever. He sounds great on this record.
GM: It’s his energy, too. It’s not just hitting the high notes.
JM: I agree with that. Performance, and I think a lot of that has to do with him writing a lot more of the lyrics, writing more melody lines, so he has that conviction behind it as well. It’s always hard for a singer. I think he does really good job but I think it’s hard for a singer to sing other people’s lyrics and melody lines. A lot of times that conviction does’t come across. Him doing it this time, most of the stuff was his. That comes across a little more.
GM: Did you and him sit down together and write for this album?
JM: We do a lot of back and forth. We never — almost never — sit together in the same room and write. He’ll send me his ideas and I’ll talk to him and give him some feedback. There’s a lot of back and forth. We can do the same thing by email and phone as we could in-person. Probably even better because I like to sit with things for awhile.
GM: On a song like “The Light and Shade of Things” there’s this strong partnership. You have this David Gilmour-type guitar work and everything just matched well, so I just pictured both of you in the same room writing this.
JM: No. But I’m glad it comes across like that. It’s really an intense process of back and forth. Like that song would take us months to put together back and forth. It’s not something we just lay down in just a couple days. But yeah, we work real close together, probably every day we talk and bounce (around) ideas.
And “Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen” — you seem to click as if you did it in one take.
JM: That’s good. I’m glad to hear that because we try to keep as much energy and make it sound as natural and energetic as possible. But it’s far from it. When you work on these songs for a year and so many versions of them — there’s literally hundreds of versions of them, and it takes awhile.
GM: Do you throw all of those versions out or are you going to become like Jimmy Page and in 20 years come out with more extended releases?
JM: (laughs) I have everything. I have boxes of cassette tapes and nowadays, obviously, it’s files on hard drives … I keep everything.
GM: So we’re going to see “Theories of Flight” 30th Anniversary Edition with bonus tracks?
JM: You may well, you know. We’ve done everything up until… we’re probably going to do “Disconnected” (2000) maybe some time next year. Every time we do it I have to break out the box, get the cassette tapes and oil up the cassette players and see what’s on there. And I love that stuff. I love to hear that stuff, too. Especially with me being a writer and musician. I like to hear the demos and see how stuff progressed. It’s always interesting.
GM: You are releasing a vinyl edition of “Theories of Flight” in Europe with six bonus tracks, and one of those bonus tracks is a cover of a Toad The Wet Sprocket song (“Pray Your Gods”).
JM: Yes. They’re great. That’s a great band. You gotta do the bonus disc these days to entice people to buy the record and I understand all that. Im not a big fan of doing it but when we do it we want to be able to offer people something that’s interesting, not just a live version of a song. So we had this idea of doing some acoustic tracks — a couple of Fates tunes and arrange them with acoustic. We have three of those on there and then we wanted to dig deep, find some cover tunes. And we wanted to stay away from the obvious choices. You know, we didn’t want to do a Rush song or a Sabbath song or a Judas Priest song or something like that.
GM: Which you have already done for tribute albums.
JM: Yeah and there are so many things that we are interested in besides this genre.
GM: Well, that’s usually the best way to do a cover, take a song from outside your own genre. Like Judas Priest doing a Joan Baez song (“Diamonds And Rust”).
JM: Exactly, and that was amazing but this is more true to the original version. (Judas Priest) did it totally different and they did a great job on that. But these are different enough for us where we are doing an arrangement kind of like the original — that is good for us, and Toad is one of those bands in the early ’90s that were a huge influence. One of those things where we were on tour and that album was in the CD player all the time.
GM: Will there be a tour to support the new album?
JM: We’re discussing some options right now, to really go out and support this record. We should have had something booked six months ago but we didn’t because we weren’t sure what was happening with the release (date) so … By the looks of it, if anything, it will probably be late this year, or more likely, early next year.
GM: Joey Vera (bassist) — I think he has had more time in Fates Warning than (his original band) Armored Saint by now. He’s been in the band since the ’90s, right? How long has it been?
JM: Yeah, I find it hard to pinpoint when someone has become a “member.” Because people nowadays ask me: “Is Frank Aresti (guitarist) still a member?” Or “Is Mike Abdow (guitarist) a member of the band?” For me, we’re not the kind of band like Aerosmith where we have shares of the company and you’re a member. For me it’s all one big happy family and people come and go and when they’re available they do things and when they’re not they don’t. It’s kind of like that. But Joey, he started playing with us as a fill-in for Joe (DiBiase, bass), probably like in ’89. He did a few fill-ins then because Joe had some family medical emergencies. So he filled in and probably came in full-time with “A Pleasant Shade Of Gray,” which is ’97.
GM: Will Frank Aresti (Fates Warning’s other long-standing guitarist) be going on tour with you guys?
JM: Frank will not be on tour with us. He has a regular day job now. He kind of comes and goes. He helped out on this record by doing a couple solos but for him to commit any major amount of time to go on the road just isn’t feasible for him.
GM: Did you ever think back, growing up in Connecticut, that it limited you, or did you ever feel isolated? Talking to other Connecticut bands, many felt “if only we grew up in New York City.”
JM: (laughs) Well, I don’t know, that’s kind of a double-edged sword. If you’re in New York then you’re gonna be one of how many and you’re gonna get swallowed up. If you’re in Connecticut you’re one of five or 10 but not getting the attention because you’re in Connecticut. I don’t know which is worse or which is better.
GM: You think some fans have finally let go of the “John Arch coming back” thing?
JM: Well, there’s still that element. I always found it odd. People are so divided. Either you’re a John Arch fan and you can’t like Ray or vice versa. I just don’t get that mentality. There are so many bands that I hold dear that have those kind of changes. One that really rings true is Marillion. Two distinct periods. Two very different singers. And I love both of them. I would never dream about mouthing off about one era or another to anybody. It is what it is. If you don’t like it, move on and listen to something else.
GM: I think what appeased many is you getting back together with John for the Arch/Matheos project (2011).
JM: John’s thing is he’s really into writing and singing in the studio but it’s tough to get him out on the road for any long period of time. So let’s take it when we get it.