Often cited as the true God Fathers of Progressive Metal, Fates Warning has produced ten genre-defining albums in a career spanning across three decades.
A festival appearance in Amsterdam was to be the only Western European date in support of their acclaimed new album 'FW-X'.
Founding member Jim Matheos granted just two press interviews during the whistle-stop visit. Andy Read grabbed one of the spots for DPRP and found the guitarist uncertain as to whether the band has a future.
ANDY: Fates Warning has been steadily releasing records across three decades now. The original five-piece line-up arrived on the scene in 1984 with the metallic ‘Night On Brocken’ - a release that left many critics dubbing them as a mere Iron Maiden clone. Little did they know!
A year later, ‘The Spectre Within’ showed the first progressive elements – a journey completed with the more atmospheric ‘Awaken the Guardian’ in 1986. However, it wasn’t really until the late 80s, with new vocalist Ray Alder, that the band really hit the big time with the chart and MTV-video spawning albums ‘Perfect Symetry’ and ‘Parallels’.
I won’t try to hide it. Fates Warning stand as one of my all-time favourite bands. The mixture of a tremendously emotive yet powerful singer in Ray Alder, the jazzy-style drumming of Mark Zonder and the sometimes-heavy, sometimes-acoustic guitar of Jim Matheos, has resulted in a band with a sound and style very much of its own. When you add sublime melodies, neck-breaking riffs and the ever-thoughtful personal lyrics of Matheos, you end up with an outfit that never makes a dull album.
Their latest and tenth album, ‘FW-X’ is one of their best ever. It’s absolutely packed with quality. There are songs like the misleadingly-titled ‘Another Perfect Day’ that show off the band’s more delicate approach; songs like ‘Simple Human’ that are far more direct and absolute monsters like ‘Heal Me’ that merge both elements with jaw-dropping effects.
It had been almost five years since their previous album and it’s fair to say that the band has not been keeping the highest of profiles. Having only ever played one gig in the UK (in support of Dream Theater) and with European dates a rare occurrence, I’d pretty much given up on ever having the chance to see them play live.
Then out of the blue in the New Year came an e-mail from a friend in Holland announcing that Fates Warning were to headline the Headway Festival in early April. It would be their only Western European date in support of the new album.
Interviews are almost as hard to come by – with the main song-writer Jim Matheos even refusing to do any press for their best known album, 1997’s ‘A Pleasant Shade of Grey’. While in Holland, a tight schedule meant he would be doing just two face-to-face interviews - for just 15 minutes each!
A very helpful crew at the festival and a few emails to the band’s Stetson-attired manager and that’s why I was one of only two writers to join the curly-haired guitarist in an airy café below the festival venue for a quick-fire chat on all things Fates Warning.
As suburban Amsterdam passed their Sunday lunchtimes on the sunny pavements outside, I started by asking how the earlier mini-tour in Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece had gone down. Was it good to be back on stage?
JIM: ‘It went really well,’ replied Matheos. ‘At one of the Greek shows we took a crew and filmed it for a possible future DVD release. The set included a mixture of our favourite songs and a fair few from the new album. It was very refreshing to hear people actually shouting out song titles from the new disk for us to play. It usually takes a few tours for new songs to sink in – but these seem to have been taken on by fans straightaway.’
I recall seeing some bootleg footage included in the band’s previous live DVD from a gig in Greece. The whole place was quite literally packed to the rafters.
‘Yes, when we saw that footage we thought why the heck didn’t we film the live show over there - it would have been amazing. So that’s why we went out of our way to did it there this time around and the crowd is really amazing again - the whole place sang along to every word.’
However Matheos is rather vague when asked when the footage will be released.
‘When we get back we’ll have a look at it properly and see how it has come out. I can't say for certain what we will do with it yet - we’ll have to see.’
The Eastern European gigs were the band’s first since the departure of Mark Zonder. For the recent dates Nick d’Virgilio of Spock's Beard was behind the kit. For this one-off show, it is none other than Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy.
‘No there will be no replacement we not considering having another person in the band,’ was the direct response when I ask about a longer-term replacement.
I wonder how much time they’d had to get their latest drummer up to speed?
‘Well we’ve had just one day’s rehearsal before coming out here,’ Matheos admits with a small grin. ‘We’re going to go back to the hotel after this to run through a few things before tonight’s show. But it’s been great and it’s really fun to have different people being involved and hanging around.’
The involvement with Portnoy follows last year’s mouth-watering tour package that saw Fates joined by both Dream Theater and Queensryche for a jaunt around the States. I sense that the increased profile and exposure to new fans has given the band a fresh impetus for their new album.
‘It was something we’d been talking about with Mike for sometime and it was just a matter of fitting our schedules together. We get on with both bands really well and it was a great experience.’
The band’s current live set again features nothing from the band’s first three albums, those with original vocalist John Arch. I inquire whether that is just a continuation of Matheos’ admission that he is ‘embarrassed’ by those records.
‘Yes, I get a lot of fans who are angry that I said that and I don’t want to offend people who like those records in anyway. I can certainly understand that if those were the first Fates Warning records that someone heard. If it brings back particular memories, then they are special records for those people. But looking back from where I am now, there are so many things on those records that I would like to have done differently. We weren’t really being who we wanted to be as band - it was rather forced. Everybody changes through life and I’m sure many people will look back to what they were doing 20 years ago and say: ‘What the heck was I up to? Therefore I’m not going to go through the motions and just play those songs in order to do stiff from that period. It wouldn’t be good to do things that we don’t really believe in anymore.’
One thing that has certainly altered over the years is Matheos’ use of the guitar. In contrast to the earlier records, I suggest his playing of today subscribes to the ‘less is more’ school of thought.
‘I think that’s a fair thing to say. I’ve developed a much heavier use of the acoustic guitar - in part because when I’m around the house it’s much easy for me to just pick one up and have a go. I’ve always been a fan of acoustic music and it’s a big part of my playing today and I think brings a better balance to what we do.’
One of the things that seem to either fascinate or frustrate fans about the band, is Matheos' unwillingness to put explanations behind his lyrics. Personally, I think it’s very much a strength of the band. Many of his lyrics are looking at personal experiences and are written from a very personal point of view. We chat about a couple of songs that I remember having a certain meaning at certain points in my life and the guitarist agrees when I suggest that it’s then good not to have the writer come along and say: ‘We’ll that’s not what I mean at all.’
'I think it is important for people to put their own meanings and interpretations to the lyrics,’ he offers. ‘They mean a particular something to me yet they may mean something totally different to someone else. Why should the listener's interpretation be wrong or invalid? If someone takes great comfort or influence from the way they interpret a lyric, and then I come along and say well actually it doesn't mean anything like that, then that destroys the whole beauty of lyrics and how different people interpret them.'
The band's most celebrated album remains the one-track concept album ‘A Pleasant Shade of Grey’. Famously Matheos has always refused to speak about what the story is about. His only clue has been 'it's about someone laying in bed through the early hours of the morning and drifting in and out of sleep dealing with different parts of their life'.
He accepts that many people have come to close to what it is about but insists the true meaning is something that he will take to his grave. However, with endless speculation and theories especially among fans on the web, I wonder if Matheos has ever been tempted to just jump in and put the record.
'No it doesn't bother me at all. I do look on the forums from time to time and find it rather interesting but I've seen so much of it that it doesn't bother me. I know people from other bands who have jumped in to put the record straight on certain things and it often just gets out of hand.'
It seems the guitarist prefers to simply move on with the rest of his life. As for the future, Matheos' immediate priority is the writing of the second OSI (Office of Strategic Influence) album with Chroma Key and ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore.
"When I get back that will be my main focus,’ he explained. ‘We've already started to exchange ideas but it's too early to say where it's all going. We write in a similar way to Fates Warning has done, since I guess with ‘The Perfect Symmetry’ album. I put some ideas down on tape and send them to Kevin, he adds or subtracts and sends them back and so on. It’s great, because we never know what is going to happen next.’
The first album from the OSI collaboration also featured drummer Mike Portnoy, and Gordian Knot bassist Sean Malone. However Matheos is vague when asked if it will be the same foursome this time around, simply stating:
'I don't know who else will be involved in the project - we haven't even talked about that yet.'
The new OSI album is likely to be followed by a Fates Warning headline tour across the States later in the year. But past that, the guitarist is surprisingly non-committal about the future - going so far as to say that the band may not record another album.
'At this stage I really do not know if there will be another Fates Warning album,' he said. 'I'm not saying there won't be and I'm not saying there will be - I really don't know how things will go. It maybe that we've done what we want and the time has come to move on or I may feel that there is more that we can do. We'll just see what happens in time.'
The rumours that the band may just quietly disappear into the annals of rock history, is supported by comments from singer Ray Alder during the previous dates in Greece.
In answer to a question about how long the band is going to be around, he said:
‘We'll just promote this record and see what happens afterwards, there's no plans. Everybody's asking us, cause there's a rumor about us breaking up, this is gonna end. We don't know what we're doing, we never said we were gonna quit, we never said we were gonna keep going. We'll see.’
Matheos is absolutely certain that his future lies with being a musician, however his tone of voice and body language, suggest someone who is maybe looking for a fresh challenge - maybe a little jaded with the constant circus of writing, recording, interviews and tours.
Anyway, as you’ll read elsewhere on this site, ten hours after we shook hands and said goodbye, the band put on a stunning, song-packed show before a packed hall of fans who had literally come from all over the world to see them play.
If nothing else, it proved that although Fates Warning have been around for more than two decades, this is a band towards the peak of its craft - and with plenty of miles left to run before its even remotely ready for the scrapyard.
INTERVIEW FOR DPRP BY ANDY READ
Fates Warning Official Website
Fates Warning - Island of Dreams - Fansite
Headway Festival Website
Headway 2005 Festival - DPRP Concert Review
Simple Human - Video
FWX - DPRP review
The View From Here DVD - DPRP Review
Nick D'Vigilio Official Website
OSI Official Website