It's been a strange game, that of A Pleasant Shade of Grey and myself. Sometimes, you need to look outside an album to understand it. In this case, I never really cared for A Pleasant Shade of Grey and yet, there are songs I've enjoyed on the album like Part VI and Part III but often times I've felt as if I've been standing in front of a procession of locked doors. I've opened them all except the first door - the most important one. The door which allows me to pass from being on the outside of the album to the inside of the album. In reality, I think I've always felt the album to be a bit ball-less... It's a smooth, inoffensive and bland release in many ways. In hindsight, for me, I don't think I got into the release because I couldn't find anything to hold onto. I needed a handhold or foothold to begin the climb and there were none. It was a polished wall where the imperfections were glossed over in a sort of hard, crystalline shell and I just couldn't grasp at them.
Several weeks ago I ran into a handful of albums in the local FYE used bin. A copy of No Exit was a nice find along with a copy of Awaken The Guardian. Also in the bin was the oft forgotten and, outside of internet forum footnotes, never mentioned Still Life - Fates Warning's 1998 live accompaniment to the proggy 1997 Shades. The two disc live release has some excellent material on it including some rare live tracks on disc two such as Prelude to Ruin, all of Ivory Gate of Dreams and a handful of material spanning Parallels, Inside Out and Perfect Symmetry. Once again, albums forgotten to all except those weaving revisionist Heavy Metal Mythology. While hearing Daylight Dreamers, Acquiescence and Ivory Tower paired with Alder's rendition of Prelude To Ruin are obviously awesome, surprisingly enough it's the live performance of A Pleasant Shade of Gray that somehow looms above, at times treating tracks like "The Eleventh Hour" and especially "Monument" and "At Fates Hands" like little children, picking them up by the pits and staring quizzically into their confused eyes as their feet dangle in the air. "What are you? When will you grow up?" I could imagine it thinking. It's almost as if the band recognized the inherent flaw previously mentioned in the first paragraph and responded in kind by releasing Still Life. It's a genius response.
The live performance is a gritty and, somehow, aggressive interpretation of what appeared so docile on the studio album. It shows in the video release of the album as well. What the live performances offer that the studio version does not portray well is audible and visible emotion. For an album that circumnavigates the totally human feelings of regret, longing, loneliness and self-reflection, there are very few moments on the 1997 full length which portray this. The helpings on the live version are quite generous. It's the more audible guitar, the slight nuances in performance, the distance of the instrumentation on the Live release which make each instrument seem alone... I've listened to the full length at least forty times over the span of my life. I've never wanted to go back and listen to a track multiple times. "Still Life" made me want to listen to every song multiple times. I think the only song which sounds better on the full length compared to the live album is Part IX, which sounds fuller and more up-front. Joey Vera's bass playing on both releases is incredible - as it is across the entire release - but the rumbling smoothness of his fretless bass is unbeatable on "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray."
So where do we begin with the full length, considering everything in hindsight? As a complete unit, a total package, A Pleasant Shade Of Gray, now for me, is spectacular. You can get lost in the minutia of details perfectly mixed here. The base of the album resides with Joey Vera's bass playing and Kevin Moore's keyboards. Most of the tracks rely heavily on the atmosphere provided by the keys and piano and are indebted to the bass playing for the rhythmic elements on the album, as Mark Zonder is used at times in the same manner as a percussionist in a classical composition. Of course, on tracks like Part II, which ended up being a single - understandable considering it's straightforwardness compared to... well... everything else - and Part III he does manage more standard percussion duties. The album starts off, as implied, more traditionally though as we get into the belly of the album, Parts IV - X, we see far greater progressive elements, experimentation and breadth.
It is in this expanse of the release that Shades shines. Pt. IV is a subdued and ominous maneuver in melody. Though spritzed with chimes lightly and subtlety, we return to a less hopeful tone. This dichotomous interplay is carried into Part V which, structurally, is one of the more simple tracks but regardless sounds complex. A lot of the material on the album has this split personality style, playing off the themes of the album lyrically. Any other band I would probably argue that this was not consciously done but Fates Warning, I know, planned every single note and ridiculed every single rhythm. It in essence makes it easier to critique, being that nothing was accidental, and everything was on purpose. That also makes it harder to get into. There is less spontaneity and energy and youthfulness in it's composition.
Part VI is the highlight of the album and, I would include in a list of my favorite Fates Warning tracks next to Epitaph, Fata Morgana, Guardian, The Apparition, Point Of View and Traveler In Time (amongst others) any day of the week. Ray Alder's voice is impregnable to criticism and his performance on this song is breathtaking. Originally, this is a song which I enjoyed on the album. But after watching the Live Performance from Still Life and listening to Still Life, Ray Alder singing this song is forever imprinted into my memory... It's a song I can listen to multiple times over and over and be content. Lyrically, this is music. You can look deep and find meaning positive or negative. Cup half empty people will wallow in self-depreciation and glass-half full people will re-examine what could have been in their lives and seek it out; lost dreams are lost only when we dismiss them to the far corners of our mind, to decay indefinitely.
Jim Matheos should have highways in Connecticut named after him and airports dedicated to him. When you consider the impact Fates Warning has had on Heavy Metal, it's unbelievable that there has been so little recognition for the band.