A Pleasant Shade Of Gray
Metal Blade, 1997
REVIEW BY: Matthew Turk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/04/2003
This band has a lot of cojones. Progressive metal pioneers Fates Warning don't create a concept album; A Pleasant Shade of Gray isn't even a loose concept album. To be either of those things, it would have to be made of many different songs, strung together on a common thread. And what we have here, friends, is a single song extended to almost an hour, divided into twelve parts. How does one even approach an album like this? Yes, the twelve parts are different, but they are tied together musically and lyrically, so much so that calling them a single song is not only justified, but natural.
The opening track is just an introduction to the concept: "so where do we begin / and what else can we say? / when the lines are all drawn / what should we do today?" This isn't a story of happiness, or sadness, but of listlessness, despair, emptiness -- it could even be called a depiction of clinical depression. Don't buy this album expecting grooves or metal solos, as those are both few and far between.
The music is a reflection, in many ways, of the concept of the album -- intentionally so. The third part of the song features spectacular vocal delivery over top of very distinct and deliberate guitar riffing, but it's a long way from the metal edges of Parallels.The first hint of a "driving tune" is with part four, and even that takes a while to get going -- past the exquisite "oohs" in the middle, we get to hear a slick guitar line, accompanied perfectly by drums. Part five gives us our first taste of the true chorus: "let nothing bleed into nothing / and did nothing at all." This accusatory phrase shows up throughout the rest of the album; truly, the musical continuity is admirable.
The album begins to cool off after reaching a fevered pitch at the end of part five; we are treated to wistful, mournful guitar. From nowhere, a driving bass line draws us further and further. It is with this track that most of the musical risks are taken -- spacious landscapes are drawn in pencil and daubed with ink, until vocals come in and bring a sensation of fading and hopelessness.
Beginning with part seven, Fates Warning turns the crank from "interesting" to "compelling," with tightly coordinated guitar, drums and keyboard, expressing the musical themes that had been alluded to earlier. This track is clearly the standout, the one that could have succeeded as a single where the rest would fail.
Part eight is a delicately strung-together instrumental, with moments of both sheer beauty and mind-numbing repetitiveness. However, it's also the most disappointing track artistically, because it fails to strike a balance between thematic elements and recapitulation of those elements. After this song we can take our first breath, as the album stops for an instant -- not quite a period in the song, but definitely a comma or semicolon.
Part ten begins the ending of the song; we feel the impending pressure, building to a climax, which regrettably doesn't completely succeed. The jarring transition to part eleven's standard prog-metal guitar line is unpleasant and feels like a letdown after the extended buildup. However, the soaring, biting vocals salvage the feeling of the opening, bringing back a touch of malice and disgust to the storyline.
Part twelve, the capstone of the album, is extraordinary. The feeling, the emotions, the pictures painted are all sharp and crisp. The regret, the longing described lyrically and musically are heart-wrenching. This piece of music is a fitting end to the album.
I can't recommend this album to everyone; I found it difficult to listen to at first, because I wasn't listening for the right things. It's not a collection of short stories -- it's a novel that requires dedication and perseverance to appreciate. It's not a happy subject, and in fact could be considered far more upsetting than even explicitly sad albums -- it's a tale of despair and listlessness, of the human equivalent of the color gray. It's not without its flaws, but it certainly is a masterpiece.