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Have you ever looked back at the time when you were a kid and your imagination had no limits? Me neither…but if I would, Awaken the Guardian would probably be playing in the background. This album would mark the end of the John Arch-era and to me it’s Fates Warning‘s best effort in a sense that I wouldn’t change one minor thing about it if I could.
Awaken the Guardian picks up where The Spectre Within left off – however, the nods to Maiden that were present on its predecessor have vanished at this point, meaning anyone looking for another “Without a Trace” will have to look elsewhere. Instead seven compositions (I’m not including the interlude of course) are built of riffs that you could occasionally link to other bands, yet none of these could be mistaken for the results of any other bands. From the balladic, yet weighty “Guardian” to the poetic “Exodus” – Awaken the Guardian is an authentic piece of work that’s full of magic, mystery and splendor.
It’s debatable when progressive metal started and although I’ve heard people claim Awaken the Guardian is a progressive metal effort, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about putting the album in that category. Sure, most songs appear loose and float around, more so than structured in a predictable manner, yet Awaken the Guardian is still a USPM album at its core. While plenty of compositions are arguably just as catchy as those of The Spectre Within, I wouldn’t call Awaken the Guardian a hook-y record, either. Instead, it almost operates like a thrash metal record would do, meaning it’s cramped with busy riffs while the vocals wail beneath, above and around them – yet the guitars and vocals never interrupt each other’s brilliance. John Arch sounds more one dimensional here than he did on The Spectre Within, avoiding any attempt at obvious lower notes and instead nasally retains in the higher register of his voice – as if I’m listening to a mysterious creature who shares his tales about Salem witches, giants and dragons.
But it’s not without danger. USPM bands were no stranger to heaviness, but Fates Warning quite possibly surpasses every other band in this regard. At this point in their career Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti were serious riff machines – taking inspiration from Black Sabbath and Mercyful Fate while mixing that with a good dose of speed/thrash you can bet that these compositions become pretty damn heavy. Once “The Sorcerers” kicks into high gear after a spellbinding acoustic intro, it’s clear that Awaken the Guardian isn’t made for wimps; the colossal riffs gallop onward with malice and right away you’ve stumbled on what might as well be the band’s heaviest album opener of all time. The chorus has some real magic to it and who could forget that heavy-as-hell breakdown after the three minute mark? Marvelous stuff, seriously. “Valley of the Dolls” is one of the last few tracks to resemble some of the speedy riffs of The Spectre Within, yet this is an even more complex offering than anything the band had demonstrated before. John Arch rapidly wails over these speedy, yet crushing rollercoaster riffs as if there’s no end to this blistering madness; resulting into yet another heavy offering. By the time you get to “Guardian”, one gets the chance to absorb Awaken the Guardian a bit better, since it’s a ballad and unsurprisingly the most accessible number on the album (in an ideal world this would result into a Fates Warning hit, but alas that was not to be). From the superb shredded introduction that would unlock your sixth sense right away to its hook-y chorus, it’s a great song and a nice break between the busier, riff-cramped material.
I used to consider side B to be the weaker spot of Awaken the Guardian but over time I’ve fortunately changed my mind for the best. Both “Prelude to Ruin” and “Giant’s Lore” are devoid of any choruses, but compensate with otherwise brilliant verses. The former sees John Arch telling yet another fantasy tale while the dark, low-end riffing recalling “The Apparition” – yet the track has even more twists and turns. “Giant’s Lore” subtly moves onward with no captivating riffs in sight at first, but halfway through it becomes yet another tour-de-force of insane guitar trickery and authentic textures; there’s no way you’d mistake this track for the creation of any other band. “Exodus” finishes off the album with a serious bang and while it’s somewhat comparable to “Fata Morgana” in terms of heaviness and memorability, it’s yet another brand new creation Fates Warning had masterfully crafted. Its chorus feels too prominent to ignore, Matheos and Aresti fire riffs halfway through as if their lives depend on it and Arch steals the spotlights once more with his self-harmonizing sense of brilliance.
Awaken the Guardian isn’t made for those who look for a simple metal fix through instant memorable riffs and happy sing-along-y vocal lines but instead for who have the patience and discipline to appreciate something far more complex. It’s certainly one of the albums that really deserves to be called a grower. Once you get used to it, very few albums will sound better.
Release date: November 10th, 1986
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