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Fates Warning

Live in Athens DVD

Review by Josh Turner

Over time, Fates Warning has experienced a few changes at its core. The astronomical John Arch was their original singer. He went off into the sunset after recording "Awaken the Guardian." He returned to the scene 17 years later. Rather than coming back to the band, he mounted a grandiose steed and rode into the studio for his very own solo effort called "A Twist of Fate." While he was on his sabbatical, Fates Warning continued to operate; still, there was a gaping hole left to fill. This empty abyss was plugged up by the audacious Ray Alder who in turn gave the band the volume and depth it needed. Joey Vera also transfuses new blood into the circulatory system and boldly sticks the epidermis with a sharp and pointy bass. Jim Matheos needs no replacement, reincarnation, or reanimation. He graciously remains at the heart of this band with a live and kickin' guitar. To compensate for disparity caused by studio overdubs, Frank Aresti helps to heal the audio displacement by supplying a second supplementary guitar.

This concert interests me greatly, not so much for the Fates Warning material or even the primary cast for that matter, but for whom they decided to bring along on tour. They needed a drummer and a keyboardist for each of their shows. When I read whom they chose to use, I almost got sticker shock. It turns out some of my favorite musicians were thrown into the package. While it's a weird coming together of talents, drummer Nick D' Virgilio (Spock's Beard) and keyboardist Kevin Moore (ex-Dream Theater, OSI, Chroma Key) are incorporated into the line-up. Additionally, drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) enters into the equation briefly and plays on two of the songs in the "extras" section.

The drums are easy to describe, because they're just for lack of a better word, excellent. It's amazing to see Nick behind the set, looking as if he was long-term member. He was brought in simply for the tour, yet on stage, he appears to be one of the principal investors, contributing to the commerce as an equal partner. Coming in as a very close second, Matheos' guitars too sound great. I frequently recall the acute and prickly kinds of passages one would find him playing on OSI's debut album.

It's interesting to see Nick play this heavier style of progressive music, because his main band is more pop-oriented. Maybe this is an indication of the direction he's taking Spock's Beard. Whatever the case, he slides like a well-oiled toboggan. This slick guy shifts to the abrupt beat of a bobsled. You never know what to expect from this drummer. Sometimes you find him in a chilled out state, others times you find him dealing in a heavy-duty grade. In this situation, we get the second scenario. Not sure what it means, but he wears a vintage t-shirt with the words Chronic across it. I guess that's the mood he brought to the occasion.

What's cool about this DVD is that it contains an entire concert plus some additional amenities. They start the concert with the quintessential "One". After an odd groaning effect plays overhead for several cycles, the band swarms the stage. They connect quickly with this combustible element dispensed from the Disconnected album. They quickly pour on the gasoline and douse themselves in this song. Like a flame that has worked its way down the wick, just like that, they explode. Necks snap and eyes widen as they have your full attention from this sudden flare-up. Afterwards, they take it back a slender step with "a pleasant shade of grey part iii" from the album by the same name and "Life in Still Water" from Parallels.

Then it gets busier as they score with "Simple Human" and "Heal Me." These both come from their newest release, FWX. They keep the momentum flowing with "Pieces of Me," which is another worthy selection and it convulses in a congruent manner. As compatible as the parts might be, this cut comes four years earlier, which again deliberates on Disconnected. The hip and pleasing vibe in these songs can probably be attributed to the generous benefactor they've found in Nick. They hit the trifecta, making this one of my favorite series in the concert. They continue to gamble and then press their luck. They lay down a matching pair with "Face the Fear" off of Inside Out and go back to a passage from an old epic entitled "Quietus." The latter comes from "The Ivory Gates of Dreams", which is the conclusive ending to their No Exit album. This is actually the oldest song they play during the course of the concert, but it's as effervescent as the rest. Going for broke, they surrender another winning choice entitled "Another Perfect Day," which again pays its respects to FWX. This song by itself may very well be the highlight of the concert, but so much more remains.

To follow, a trio of guitars begins "Pleasant Shade of Grey Part ix." When they are trading guitar licks, they are as elegant as California Guitar Trio. Joey pontificates like Flea of Chili Pepper's and pounds like Les Claypool from Primus. This rendition is much livelier than the studio version and alone, this too is worth the price of the ticket.

Returning to Parallels, we get two more cuts from its consortium. "The Eleventh Hour" and "Point of View" are bet before they register the final numbers. Even the last pieces have some prized moments. To put it simply, Matheos' guitars are immense in "Monument" and the last song, "Still Remains" is pervasively perky, sounding very much like The Police's "Message in a Bottle". It features unique sound effects, time signatures, and riffs. These two songs come from Inside Out and Disconnected respectively and with this, it's apparent they are comprehensive in their coverage. This is them at their technical best. It seems these are played as their last hand. With deuces wild, they have huge winnings in the wrap-up, leaving with extremely stuffed pockets. Nevertheless, the audience urges them back to the table in a game of double or nothing with one final wager.

Throughout the duration of the concert, they hover mostly in the second half of their career, with no songs off "Night on Brocken," "The Spectre Within," or "Awaken the Guardian." Yet, before concluding this carefree concert, they breach the eighties one more time with "Nothing Left to Say" from Perfect Symmetry. This song is bequeathed to begging fans as the sole entry into their encore offerings and it's enough to satisfy the greediest groupie. With the lights bright, this one burns out from a flame that's white-hot. Due to the variety of this piece, it makes for an ideal closer and makes you yearn for another concert on another day. As usual, Nick tops the big tent with a solid drum finish and with that, they're thoroughly spent.

In addition to the concert, the casino host offers a few more frills for your patronage. There is extensive "Behind the Scenes" material. What's strange is that a lot of narration is spoken in Bulgarian. Considering this footage was lifted from Bulgarian TV, I guess this makes sense. The footage has a raw feel to it, but it's well-cut and compelling. The band does a lot of talking as we go behind the curtains. We get to be a fly on the wall during their practice sessions. There are rehearsals and spontaneous moments, which provide a unique perspective on the band. You get to see how the material goes from unprepared studio jams to sound checks to practiced presentations. It's something else to see Nick and Kevin catch on to someone else's tunes. As for Mike, he lists them as a musical influence. It's easy to think he's mulled over their songs throughout the years. It's no wonder why they regularly tour with him (In addition to being their drummer, Dream Theater has toured with them as well) and why Matheos has even collaborated with him on a side project (that would be OSI). They work hard in each other's company when it comes time to play.

We also get rehearsals from Athens. Nick and Ray really seem to be "on" in one particular rehearsal. During the song, which happens to be "Life in Still Water," you get many close-ups of Joey's passionate singing along with plenty of Nick's handiwork. What's ironic is that Nick has trouble gauging a certain fill earlier on in the song, but eventually he gets it right. We spend a lot of time watching them work the kinks out. When it's finally ready, they let the whole song play through and it's this that ends the "Behind the Scenes" sequence.

This add-on is more than a bonus as it wraps in informal interviews, a lot of live footage, and gives us a backstage presence. It was also much longer than I anticipated, almost playing like a full-blown documentary or at the very least a mini-movie.

That would be enough, but the disc is brimming with even more material. As another esteemed extra, two selections are lifted from Holland Headway Festival 2005 and included for your viewing pleasure. This is the part that features Mike Portnoy. In this section, they play "Another Perfect Day" and "The Eleventh Hour." It's great seeing these alternate versions as Mike and Nick are relatively different drummers. Mike is heavy-handed and hard as nails while Nick has the goods when it comes to finding the groove. Ironically, while the picture quality here was nowhere near as good as the concert, it seemed as if the sound quality was slightly better.

As long as we're on the topic, this brings me to the one glaring glitch. On the down low, the music during the concert was rather muted. While Ray seemed to be hitting all the right notes as one would expect, it was really hard to hear his voice. The performance was fine and everything was executed all right, but the production was lackluster and insipid. It didn't quite come off the soundboard exactly as one would have hoped. Aside from sounding flat and tinny, there is not much else I can say about the sound quality. This, in my opinion, is the most significant problem with this product. If you can deal with it or your system can properly clean up the signal, it might be possible to overcome this obstacle. To make myself clear and to stress the point, this is more of an issue with the sound engineering and production than with how Ray sang or how the rest of them implemented their instruments. Also, this is a bigger problem at the beginning, especially in the first song, "One." The glitch seemed to be tweaked ever-so-slightly as the event went on. While it does become less and less of an issue, it's never quite calibrated correctly before it is done. With all the unnecessary resistance weighing down the wheels, the miles per gallon are greatly affected. RPWL, Saga, and The Flower Kings have released crystal-clear productions of their concerts in recent years, so I'm not sure the live tag can be legitimately used as an excuse from the engineering department. All in all, the drawbacks are purely production-related. The performance itself actually exceeded my expectations.

The menus system is always something of interest to me. It may factor in whether or not I return to a DVD. It's useful having it broken down into chapters in case you want to replay certain parts. It's also important that the navigation be simple and user-friendly. On a positive note, they meet my basic requirements. To be honest, this is the easiest I've ever seen. There are two options: Concert or Extras. That's it! Everything is two clicks away and if you don't touch anything, it automatically starts playing. To get ready, set, and go, it's already parked and waiting. All you have to do is slide the disc in or just hit "enter." Nothing more is needed to jump right into the engagement. They have memorable riffs playing on each of the menus. It will deter you from going further, but once inside, you'll find more entertainment and uncanny candor. What's odd is the Headway Festival is a dead end without a back option. Once you've gone down this corridor, you need to start all over again. Considering there are a total of six options (not counting all the individual songs), it's not a big deal to work your way back through this simple and idiot-proof maze. If time is money, we're only talking about a fraction of a penny and with all you get from the experience, you can cash out happy.

While Fates Warning plays selections from A Shade of Gray and a half dozen other albums, they deliver much more than gray matter. The production is a little muddled, but overall, the rewards are worth the sacrifice. If you're a fan of Fates Warning or Progressive Metal for that matter, be sure you check out this concert. Not only does it feature an important band to the genre, it also brings along several major players.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

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