Gentleman, start your boners. If you are a metal fan with a little bit of nerd in you, you’ll probably pitch a pants tent for Fates Warning’s underground fave, Awaken The Guardian. Though many have tried, few metal bands (in my opinion) have been able to conjure such an overpowering atmosphere of fantasy quite like Fates Warning did with this 1986 LP. From the cover art, to the lyrics, to the somewhat foggy production, Awaken The Guardian is a long, strange trip to the mysterious nether regions of metaldom.
Progressive metal. That’s the term now used for an album such as this. Indeed, to enjoy the album, the listener must progress a little bit with each listen, slowly building an understanding and appreciation for the music. Training the ears and unraveling the layers… until the brain can, as they say, get it. Wait, I sound like an asshole. After all, its only rock n’ roll, or in this case heavy metal, right? Isn’t heavy metal about rocking out and torching your ear drums and wrecking your neck? Yeah, most of the time. 99% of the time even. But here’s something just a bit different, something not as immediate.
When I first listened to Awaken The Guardian I did not like it. It was my first Fates Warning album. The thing that turned me off the most was the odd vocal style of John Arch. It just seemed like too much to digest; the way he fills up all the available space with his kind of meandering, stream of consciousness, verbal diarrhea. Arch floats atop the music, never really touching down to earth where the more obvious melodies should live. The second thing that seemed to make the music a bit discombobulated for me was the drumming of Steve Zimmerman. His playing never settles into a toe-tapping, steady groove. This, I think, kept my mind from getting a firm grasp on the music… at least upon the first few listens. Of course, there are also the tempo changes and meter changes to deal with. (One will find the actual guitar parts themselves are not all that complex.) Though I did not initially like Awaken The Guardian, I was intrigued enough to keep trying. Time would pass, I would listen to the album here and there, and then shelve it for a while. Repeating this process over the course of years lead me to really appreciate and enjoy this album immensely. It was quite a time investment, but well worth it in the long run, as Awaken The Guardian is truly a unique, and at times, remarkable heavy metal album. As Arch’s melodies started to make more sense to me, I started to wonder if this guy was in fact a genius. Were his hyper-geeky fantasy lyrics the words of an honest-to-goodness mystical wizard, or were they the ramblings of some high-horse riding, wannabe scholar with a dictionary and a Dungeons And Dragons game book? Or… were they just nonsense from the scrambled mind of a guy that was perpetually as high as a f*cking kite? Maybe a little bit of all three? But even as I inhaled the vapors of his chemical haze I couldn’t help but be lifted by some of the soaring melodies Arch conjured. In particular, the chorus to Guardian may just be the greatest thing I have ever heard in song. Seriously. This song is an absolute gem! Probably in my all-time top ten. Own this album for Guardian alone! The acoustic intro gives way to a plodding verse that closes with the chill-inducing line; “it was all a dream… an endless dream… ah hah…” as the tempo ascends leading to an emotional chorus that just blows the doors off the place. I never understood the song’s lyrics until I read an interview with John Arch (here’s the link) where he explained that the song pays tribute to challenged (disabled) people young and old who will never know what it is like to walk, see, or hear. Given the context, the song takes on a very special meaning, and it only enhances the impact of Guardian for me.
Another exceptional track is the album’s epic closing number, Exodus. Again, an exquisite chorus highlights this eight and a half-minute masterpiece. Repeated listens are beneficial and certainly recommended, as the song seems to grow better with time.
Awaken The Guardian is an awesome monument of eighties-era heavy metal. It is not perfect, and in my mind not yet something I would consider an A+. (Give me a few years, I may change my mind.) However, on account of its sheer depth and ability to open the doors to the imagination, I consider Awaken The Guardian to be an essential piece in any serious heavy metal record collection.
Patience is rewarded my friends. My score: A