Somehow I got through my teenage prog metal phase without hearing Fates Warning, despite their output of progressive metal starting before I was born, so I decided to give Theories of Flight, their 2016 release, a listen. Theories is their twelfth studio album and approximately represents the band’s lineup since 2007. The eight tracks cover over 52 minutes of classic-sounding American prog rock. Ray Adler’s vocals soar over the complicated rhythm figures, the distorted background guitars revel in palm-muted accents, breakdowns and bridges are full of shifting tempos and double-bass drum fills. The end result is a kind of symphony – something very carefully crafted and not released until the band was 100% satisfied with their performance. Theories comes off as highly controlled, even restricted, but within these self-imposed boundaries Fates Warning makes its own kind of complex fun.
This isn’t speed metal, and though there are some fast riffs and fast solos, the tempos are generally moderate. The energy of these songs is consequently a bit restrained, matching the contemplative lyrics. Most of the songs on Theories of Flight are between four and six minutes long with fairly traditional structures, though both “The Light and Shade of Things” and “The Ghosts of Home” are multi-movement opuses over ten minutes long dealing with the physical and psychological isolation resulting from the end of relationships. Something tells me I’d have really enjoyed this as a teen, though the lower energy level of these songs has me less rapt than I might have been 15 years ago. That said, there isn’t a bad song on this album, and I’d call Theories a success. Each song sets its parameters and then fills out within its limits in an obviously intentional way. So even when the metrical shifts aren’t really justified except as a musical exercise, they still work in the context of the track and album, because that’s what this album is about: exploring what you can do within limits established either by you or by an external force.
There are a few genuinely catchy melodies on this album. “Seven Stars” is an obvious anthem and album highlight, settling right into a perfect headbanging tempo and rhythm and letting Adler show off his wailing vocals. The song isn’t really about anything except trying to move on from a vague sense of loss, but it also doesn’t really need to be about anything more. It has a catchy riff, an addicting rhythm, a somber moment during the breakdown, a sustained and legato guitar solo, and enough chorus repeats to allow fans to chant along. The aforementioned “The Light and Shade of Things” spends a few minutes building a ponderous and lightly-cymballed opening before exploding in tight, sandy distortion while the chorused lyrics punch through the syncopated drums and guitars. The third movement is clearly in the vein of Led Zeppelin’s clean tone rhythm figures, and the song finally settles back into the heavy headbanging of the second movement before coming to a reflective close.
After having heard the album a few times over a few days, I ended up quite liking it. Theories of Flight is among the albums I’d give someone who wants to learn what progressive metal is about, along with Rush’s 2112 and something by Dream Theater.