Although I have no particular qualms with the later, Ray Alder era of Connecticut's finest metal band (and in fact enjoy several of his albums), I will always most strongly identify Fates Warning for their first three albums. The John Arch years represent some of the finest American power/speed metal ever conceived, taking a clear influence from Priest and Maiden and then developing upon their strengths with a myriad of charisma. And though Night on Bröcken is perhaps the least impressive of the three, it's still got a charm to transcend the ages, with the bands signature mix of dark, brooding rhythms and Arch's Dickinson-meets-the-stratosphere vocals, which slice right through the mix like harpy claws tearing through the flesh of some witless Argonaut.
Essentially the band's demo material releases as a full album, Night on Bröcken represented the classic lineup in full, with Jim Matheos & Victor Arduini's dual guitar weaving, Joe DiBiase's choppy bass and Steve Zimmerman's stick slinging. The tones of the album hold up very well, with an unsung purity to the melodies and a rather raw perspective when compared to nearly anything they've released since (The Spectre Within and Awaken the Guardian do possess a few of the album's sonic wiles, but with a denser polish and better songwriting). Though the album is not looked upon favorably by the one surviving member of the original lineup (Matheos), I can hardly understand why. It's solid with a great many memorable vocal hooks and guitar lines, all glazed in a rare, nostalgic atmosphere which you simply don't here anymore.
Wailing feedback spearheads "Buried Alive" into a sequence of rugged chords that recall the earlier Queensrÿche for their inherent melody, a band who had only a year's jump start on this one, and an apt comparison: both would eschew their power/speed metal roots for an infusion of progressive nature not long into their careers, with Fates Warning the less commercial of the two. Despite the slew of fetching riffs here, Arch simply dominates, his higher lines pitching and swaying like a twilight air raid siren. "The Calling" moves at a bruising trot, like a more melodic cousin to "The Trooper", with some great, loose drumming and a deep, mysterious guitar rhythm in the verse. "Kiss of Death" bears a clear influence from Accept or Judas Priest, with a vicious guitar rhythm that wouldn't have been out of place on Metallica's Kill 'Em All. Though it might have the crudest composition on the album, it's still got a dose of the band's shrieking character through the vocals, though the leads feel a little sloppy.
"Night on Bröcken" itself is quite a lovely track immersed in the witchcraft and revelry of the German mountain region in older times, and it's got the great fantasy/folklore-driven lyrics which I always so loved from this band (before they got in touch with their 'feelings' and 'reality' like most prog metal bands). This is one of my favorite cuts here, with a beautiful, soaring chorus around 3:30 and some nice segments of acoustic tranquility. "S.E.K." is one of two instrumental pieces on the album, a vibrant, rambling acoustic which lasts about 80 seconds before the early Maiden thunder of "Misfit", a ballsy epic which celebrates the Greek epic/tragic hero, which features some of the better solo work on the album, including a nice morose dual melody before the 3:30 mark.
This one not so lucky, as he fell to his knees.
Suddenly inflicted, deranged with disease.
His father act with fury, you must not scorn his name.
Cast him to the forest, return never again.
"Shadowfax" is the second instrumental, though more of a groovy, cruising metal piece which gets rather swashbuckly in the bridge, though the title would imply that it's a tribute to Gandalf's horse, and it does possess a nice charging climax rhythm. The final tracks of the album are its longest (6 minutes and up), beginning with the tranquil plucking harmonics of "Damnation". Here is a beautiful ballad which transforms into a very Sabbath-like power hook before, chock full of amazing melodies from both Arch and the guitars. Along with the title track, this is easily one of my favorite pieces on the album, difficult to forget. "Soldier Boy" is also extremely strong, with graceful melodic riffing that casts a surprisingly ominous shadow beneath the wailing vocal surge. Agan, the guitars break out a kickass dual melody deep into the track, and it all ends in raw cannon fire.
As crude as it might often feel, Night on Bröcken is nonetheless a strong start for the Connecti-cunts, starting a low level of buzz that would sadly only become a roar with the band's shift in vocals and direction. I would easily hold this alongside the early Queensrÿche, Riot, or Omen records as a clear example of American power metal done right, but it also comes with a large amount of nostalgic value. It's the type of album you actually want to listen to on as old a format as you've got around (vinyl or cassette preferred), smoke a cigarette for old time's sake and admire your old, yellowed Eddie posters or your decaying 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook. It's far from my favorite Fates Warning effort, but a fine debut with a surprising amount of staying power.
Highlights: Night on Bröcken, Misfit, Damnation, Soldier Boy
Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (let the plague begin)