After a string of albums that established their legacy as one of the titans of progressive metal, Fates Warning found themselves at a crossroads. They had established a sound that was entirely their own, one that blended challenging music with accessibility, delicately making intelligent music that could still cater to fans who preferred not to delve into the intricacies of the compositions. It would have been easy to continue down this path, turning out albums that satisfied their fans and maintained their standing as a leader of the progressive scene. But Fates Warning took a different turn, having taken that sound as far as it could go, using their album as the jumping off point for another reinvention of their sound. The spirit of progressiveness compelled them to explore new territory.
The result was "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray", Fates Warning's first concept album, an hour-long composition traversing new textural and emotional levels. The unnamed segments serve as movements, directing the larger piece as it shifts and swings around the narrative being woven. Nothing on the album approached the commercial appeal of their previous works, a deliberate step utilized to ensure the album would work as a single entity. Now, a generation removed, Metal Blade is reissuing the album as a three disc experience.
"A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" begins in the darkness, immediately a different beast than anything Fates Warning had done before. As the opening sounds give way to the metal gambit that is "Part II", the shift is readily apparent. A mix of industrial percussion sounds and striking keyboard, the movement is a reconfigured, uglier take on the traditional Fates Warning sound, sounding like the band in a nightmare. Likewise, the copious harmonics scattered throughout "Part III" are disconcerting, keeping the sound alien enough to be at arm's reach.
"Part IV" is a brooding movement, a slow burn with no desire for instant gratification. Ray Alder croons his way through the song, with gorgeous harmonies layered atop his voice, before Jim Matheos finally relents and introduces the first standard prog metal riff. The sensation is jarring, having been held-off for so long. The sensation continues through "Part V", whose chorus shifts time just enough to be unsettling, sounding misplaces although still befitting the song. "Part VI" may be the most satisfying, an extended movement that builds from a lone bass-line to a sweeping sense of grandeur with Alder's most impassioned delivery. As throughout the album, former Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore is integral to establishing the cold sound of the album, taking the music to places guitars cannot travel.
The emotional centerpiece sits in "Part IX", the most accessible movement of the piece. Layered with acoustic guitars, it is a tender ballad that allows Alder's vocal to carry the weight, coupled with a melody that allows him to stretch his voice for effect, not to rise above the clamor of the band.
Not every aspect works as well. "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" is a single piece of music, but aside from a reprise of the chorus from "Part V" in "Part VII", little ties the movements together as a whole. The album could just as easily be considered twelve separate parts with little of the impact being lost. It makes no impact on the music, but makes the experience slightly hollow, as though the result of false advertising.
Above all else, "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" is a masterclass in establishing a mood. Rarely does a metal album sound as utterly detached from the world without also distancing itself from the melody that makes it music instead of noise. It is not an easy piece to listen to, nor is it always enjoyable, but it is rewarding. Matheos shows a deft songwriting touch, showing a commitment to minimalism that few progressive metal bands could approach. The music is not always complicated, but it carries with it depth that more notes would not be able to convey. "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" may not be Fates Warning's most loved album, but it is their most accomplished.
And now we can all relive the experience again.