I love so much of Ray Alder‘s work that I sometimes doubt I’m qualified to critique it. But a quick listen of damn near anything he’s done reminds me that I only love his work because it’s consistently excellent. Ray‘s solo debut, “What the Water Wants,” felt like a matured take on his old band Engine, and its followup does a damn great job at refining an already moody sound.
As sorely as I will always miss Fates Warning, I cannot help but think that having his name unshackled from theirs has given Ray the freedom to create music that moves its audience without making it a challenge for them. Though many of the songs on “II” squeeze in a bit of progressive flair, the album remains a collection of fairly accessible tunes that are more preoccupied with effectively conveying ideas and sentiments than they are with painting entire worlds with words and sound. If the idea was to create radio rock that doesn’t suck, we can consider that mission accomplished. Be forewarned: “II” is not a terribly groundbreaking record. And you know what? It doesn’t need to be. The songs stand strongly enough on their own.
“This Hollow Shell” establishes the mindset that permeates “II,” and fellow fans of the late Mark Zonder era of Fates Warning will rejoice in the dejection and desolation we revisit here. Without plagiarizing his own work, Ray recreates the morose and melancholic moods of “A Pleasant Shade of Grey,” “Disconnected,” and “X,” and while it certainly does not live in the same world as these landmark records, “II” lodges itself on a neighboring planet, sustaining itself on djent and other more modern metal elements rather than the prog giants and headbanging grandaddies of yore. The bottom end is strong in this one.
Almost as impressive is Ray‘s ability to create songs that are cerebral enough to please the prog nerds, yet engaging and relatable enough to appeal to people who just like meaningful songs. “Keep Wandering” deserves special mention for bleeding jazz into metal in a way that bears no similarity to Cynic, Candiria, or other heavier jazz-metal groups. Instead, returning collaborators Mike Abdow and Tony Hernando show off their pretzel fingers with some unfathomable chord voicings that I’m willing to bet look like broken telegram transmissions when charted out, while Ray draws on his decades of creating perfectly hummable melodies over formless, amorphous meters to sing over these bizarre progressions as only a singer of his stature can: with ease, grace, and somehow with enough tunefulness for an 80s chewing gum jingle.
The delightfully direct drive of “Silence the Enemy” recalls Fates’ almost grungy “Begin Again” in that it is completely devoid of trickery and excess, and relies entirely on catchy riffs, infectious hooks, and expert songwriting. Even the lead breaks ooze expertise without them feeling like a chore. Meanwhile, cuts like “Waiting for Some Sun” sound and feel as dejected as Ray‘s lyrics indicate: the rain from which the storyteller hides manifests musically and sonically as the tension intensifies in tandem with the text. This song chills its listeners not by assaulting their senses, but by gently manipulating them to feel the weight of its words. This is the “don’t tell me how you feel – make me feel it myself” ethos embodied, and it comes so naturally to Ray and from his performance that we focus more on the story told rather than the storytelling. If that doesn’t indicate a fuckton of emotional intelligence and dedication to craft, I don’t know what does.
And there’s more where that came from. “II” concludes with a pair of tracks that are among the finest in Ray’s distinguished discography. Even with that subtle nod to his old friends in Dream Theater on “Passengers,” and the nearly eight-minute closer “Changes,” Ray honors the prog-metal tradition without retreading any footsteps he made while helping perfect the genre in the late 1980s. We are entranced not by prowess, but by substance.
Despite his moves to California and Spain, Ray‘s music retains the distinct character of a music-making soul forged in San Antonio’s South Side: loving but bleak, hopeful but grounded, elegant but earthbound. I feel extra jolts of joy and and gratitude that even decades after skipping town, Ray‘s music continues to spread that intangible wisp to unsuspecting ears the world over. That he’s doing it with such damn fine music in his fifth decade as a recording musician makes the distinction that much sweeter.
Released By: Inside Out Music
Released On: June 9th, 2023
Genre: Progressive Metal
- Ray Alder / Vocals
Mike Abdow / Guitar and bass
Tony Hernando / Guitar and bass
Craig Anderson / Drums
- This Hollow Shell
- My Oblivion
- Hands of Time
- Waiting for Some Sun
- Silence the Enemy
- Keep Wandering
- Those Words I Bled
It wasn't enough for Ray Alder to reinvent his voice. He reinvented his entire sound. Not only is “II” a worthy successor to ”What the Water Wants,” it also demonstrates the distance this onetime wailer has come since his riff-heavy Fates Warning debut kept exasperated shredders reaching for the metronome all those decades ago. The sound of “II” is the sound of an ever-maturing artisan tackling more ground with fewer flexes. That he's so goddamn good at this but doesn't want (or need) to highlight that fact only proves further that less really is more