Ray Alder has accumulated some major prog bona vides during his time on the music scene. Replacing the mighty John Arch in Fates Warning way back in 1988, Alder became one of the major faces of American prog-metal. His sojourn with prog super group Redemption only reinforced his place in the genre pecking order. After 30 years in the game, 2019 sees the man release his first solo album1. What the Water Wants find Alder in a reflective, introspective mood, with material stuck between the 90s and his modern output. There’s a strong similarity to Queensrÿche albums like Empire and Promised Land, but modern Fates Warning is also well reflected in these tranquil waters. What’s immediately obvious and rather surprising is how tight and concise Alder’s writing is, with songs running in the 4-5 minute range, offering highly accessible hooks without any wanky prog tricks and tropes. This is stripped down, mood-driven music perfectly suited for Alder’s soulful vocals and far more accessible than I was expecting.
Opener “Lost” sets the stage for what’s to come. It sounds a great deal like something off Empire with Alder sounding uncannily like Geoff Tate at times. The song’s structure and guitar lines also reference what Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo were doing in the early 90s. Similarities aside, Alder’s voice shines bright, especially on the chorus, and the song is a highly enjoyable slice of mellow prog-metal with a side order of prog nostalgia. “Crown of Thorns” is a bit more offbeat, with a funky bass taking the lead, almost making things sound like the mellower side of Fates Warning with Red Hot Chili Peppers seasoning. It works though because Alder’s vocals are so smooth and convincing and he really nails the big chorus.
There are some outstanding songs here, like the heavier, more urgent “Shine” where the guitars gain heft and even wander into djent territory as Alder deliver’s his most forceful vocals and a stirring chorus that sticks like hot tar. “The Road” is a deeply personal, poignant number with heartfelt vocals painting touching vignettes through smart lyrics. It’s a complete bummer of a song but it’s beautifully rendered with gentle ebbs and flows that resonate on a sincere, genuine level. The biggest showstopper is “What Water Wanted” with its heavier, darker vibe. There’s a good amount of Evergrey‘s post-modern bleakness running through its veins, the chorus is huge and irresistible, I can’t stop spinning it, and it may end up my Song o’ the Year. The writing across the album is slick and engaging with a high hook factor and really good chorus arrangements. There are no bad songs, though “Under Dark Skies” and “Wait” feel a bit less impactful than their peers, good though they are. This isn’t a heavy album in the traditional metal sense, but it’s more or less in line with what Alder’s been doing with Fates Warning recently, and I hear subtle nods to Darkness in a Different light at various points. There’s enough edge to appeal to metal fans, but the songcraft is accessible enough to be on hard rock radio. The only types likely to be disappointed are those expecting prog-heavy numbers full of guitar excess and off-kilter writing. The linear tightness of these songs belies the man’s prog-metal background, and the material feels especially personal, benefiting from the stark, minimalist delivery the songs receive. At 46 minutes it’s an admirably lean, fat-free album, with nothing feeling drawn out or padded. In a way it’s the ultimate anti-prog platter.
As the central focus. Mr. Alder sounds great. As both Doc Fisting and myself have mentioned in past reviews of Alder’s work with Fates Warning and Redemption, his voice has changed a great deal over the years. Where once he was a Geoff Tate inspired wailer capable of ear shattering high notes, he’s grown into his tenor and now lives comfortably in his mid-range. Instead of trying to clobber the listener with crazy vocal acrobatics, he’s content to immerse himself in what the song is doing, weaving tales with well placed vocal lines, intelligent lyrics and smooth, emotive singing. And he truly owns these songs, conveying a great deal of feeling without ever sounding melodramatic or maudlin. Alder is backed up by some talented musicians who never try to outshine his vocal efforts or step on the mood. Fates Warning touring guitarist Mike Abdow and Lord of Black‘s Tony Hernando share writing credits with Alder and each lays down the guitar and bass lines on the songs they helped pen. The music is restrained, thoughtfully constructed, and pairs well with Alder’s vocals to create the desired mood. No wild solos, no crazy time changes, just good music.
What the Water Wants shows another side to Ray Alder and it’s one I think prog-metal and hard rock fans will enjoy discovering. It’s a very accessible, easy to like album with depth of mood and feeling, and it showcases Mr. Alder’s vocals well. Fans of Fates Warning and later era Queensrÿche should especially take heed. Give the water its due and check this out.