A-Z – A-Z Review

The last Fates Warning album, 2020’s tepid Long Day Good Night may have marked the end of the band (pure speculation, frens), but the fellas have not been resting on their laurels. Look at this summer alone: bassist Joey Vera has been touring for Mercyful Fate, and Ray Alder and ex-drummer Mark Zonder are dropping their straight-ahead metal album, A-Z, this week. Next month Jim Matheos does the same with his new band, Kings of Mercia. If you’re a long-time fan like me, this is exciting stuff! And first to the punch is the Alder-Zonder collaboration, cleverly called A-Z (A-thru-Z), a play both on their names and the fact that they are trying to write songs across the entire spectrum of heavy metal. Do they succeed? Let’s find out!

In a number of ways yes, A-Z totally succeed in writing some killer heavy metal/hard rock material. Accompanied by Philip Bynoe (bassist for Warlord and Steve Vai), French composer Vivien Lalu on keys, and Lalu’s guitarist/solo artist Joop Walters, the band flex their muscles across all eleven tracks. The opening trio of “Trial by Fire,” “The Far Side of the Horizon,” and “The Machine Gunner” are superb metal cuts loaded with big guitars, bombastic drum fills, and hard-rocking vocals. All three of these tracks, each with their own unique redeeming qualities, can and should be featured on plenty of metal playlists. While most of the tracks are up-tempo, the band knows how to tone it down as well with the ballad-like “Rise Again” and the slow-burning “Stranded,” both being effective change-ups and demonstrating the group’s diverse songwriting abilities.

With the prog metal pedigree here one might expect that style to rear its head on occasion, but it really doesn’t. Restraint is key across A-Z, with the band displaying a high level of talent while keeping overt noodling in check. Wolters drops a number of excellent guitar solos, and Zonder’s fills remain complex but not distracting. The key to A-Z’s success isn’t the musical complexity, though; in fact, it is the relatively simple yet effective arrangements combined with the classic, memorable vocal hooks that will keep listeners coming back. With Zonder producing the overall album, and each member responsible for recording their own parts (the members live in different countries), the songs sound excellent and the mix is aggressive and engaging.

Alder and Zonder both play on my favorite Fates Warning album, the excellent yet underrated Disconnected. On that album, Zonder’s drumming is absolutely mind-blowing, and even here in a more conventional format he kills it. Whether it’s the subtle cowbell on opener “Trial By Fire,” the Simmons drum fills on “The Far Side of the Horizon,” or just his overall killer groove, the man has it. And what can be said about Ray Alder? He sounded tired nine years ago on Darkness in a Different Light, but since then his voice has gotten stronger and stronger, and here he belts it out hard, hitting every note and wail perfectly. His voice is aging better than fine wine, and I love it. Add in tasteful arrangements from Lalu, rock-solid bass playing by Bynoe, and some stellar solos from Wolters and you end up with a cohesive unit that fires on all cylinders.

I have yet to hear all of the upcoming Kings of Mercia album, but one wouldn’t be out of line wondering why Fates Warning didn’t just put out a metal album. As it stands, and assuming the Matheos project will also be of high quality, we will be left with two outstanding metal albums. A-Z has set the bar high with this album, as there isn’t a single song on it that I’ve skipped once over the past month. There’s skill, variety, strong songwriting, and consistently strong performances across the entire 51 minutes. Top it all off with that amazing Hugh Syme cover and you’ve got a hands-down winner.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320kbps mp3
Label: Metal Blade
Websites: a-zband.com | facebook.com/AthruZBand
Release Worldwide: August 12, 2022

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