Progressive metal…the term has a fair share of connotations. What does it really mean? I believe “progressive” music is that which is original and ambitious, pushing the traditional limits set by genres. It forges its own path of artistic discovery, defying trends and refusing to rest on its laurels. Dream Theater and Tool are both progressive metal bands, but they are musically very different. With A Pleasant Shade of Gray, Fates Warning carves its own little niche in the progressive metal world. As far as progressive metal goes, this is one of the most absorbing, original, and experimental albums in the genre.Since Awaken the Guardian, Fates Warning has been known as one of the more sophisticated metal bands in the business. Still, their progressive touches were just that — touches. Never before have they so fully embraced their progressive side. A Pleasant Shade of Gray seems to me to be the culmination of the band’s career, combining the best of their melodic awareness, emotion, and creativity with stirring new musical directions. This album sounds little like the band’s previous work. If you see the back of the CD case, you may think it’s unusual that there is no track listing. That is because A Pleasant Shade of Gray consists entirely of its title track, a 55-minute progressive opus. It is divided into 12 parts so that it is easy navigate, but these tracks have no individual names themselves. It does not to me seem to be a concept album…more of a dream, really. It seems to be a constant stream of thoughts about love, loss, and sadness, brought to an end but the sudden ringing of an alarm clock in the album’s final seconds. Jim Matheos’ lyrics are usually simple, but very poetic and expressive. Aside from the complex, textured production, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the addition of keyboardist Kevin Moore (ex-Dream Theater). His role is critical on this album, because this song/album relies so heavily on subtlety, mood, and texture. A Pleasant Shade of Gray is almost uniformly slow and heavy, so don’t expect an adrenaline rush like Dream Theater’s Scenes from a Memory. Only occasionally does it speed up, as on Parts V and XI, and briefly on Part VIII. The album is characterized by despondency and sadness, lucidly reflected in the lyrics and the music. While this is artistically interesting, it does initially make the album feel boring and ponderously slow. There are no hooks to speak of…nothing that leaps out at you. This album requires an intuitive and patient listener. After several listens, a listener will begin to detect repeated themes, such as the shared chorus of Parts V and VII, the repeated piano melody of Part VII and VIII, and many more. These qualities tie the album together and effectively lend credence to its assertion of being “one big song.”A Pleasant Shade of Gray is really a study in subtlety and emotion. While you expect most progressive metal bands to make you dizzy with their technical skills, Fates Warning resigns themselves to using their admirable skill to create beautiful atmosphere and emotion rather than pretense. Mark Zonder’s crisp cymbals lend delicious nuance rather than fiery octopus drumming (although he’s still a killer musician). Jim Matheos plays only two guitar solos on this disc (Parts VI and IX), but they’re both gorgeous. Rather than shred-fests, they are slow and emotionally charged. Vocalist Ray Alder is stunning, singing comfortably inside his range and conveying more emotion than on any previous Fates Warning album! His singing style is similar to Geoff Tate, and he’s just as emotionally powerful. Nowhere is this more evident than on Part IX, which would be a simply stunning ballad if taken on its own. In context with the rest of the album, it is so much more powerful. Kevin Moore doesn’t play any leads or fancy stuff, but his contribution is stunning. His keyboards are a huge part of what creates the music’s icy tone. The piano/acoustic guitar interplay on Part VIII is beautiful beyond words.I recommend listening to A Pleasant Shade of Gray through a good set of headphones. Otherwise, you might find it just blending into the background. The production is very intricate and full of subtleties that may not be detected unless the music is sent directly into your ears. This way, you can hear the album’s wealth of nuance — the layers of chilling synths, the subtle electronica textures, the quieter chords, the faint hiss of a cymbal, and so on. All these ingredients make me marvel at Jim Matheos’ compositional ingenuity.Those lacking patience and expecting a thrill-a-second musical explosion will be disappointed. Those with an appreciation for creativity and emotional, heavy, and atmospheric progressive music should enjoy this release. Or maybe not. But I know I like it, and it’s unfortunate that so many people pass it up.