This was FATES WARNING's fourth studio album and the beginning of a major transition for the band. With the departure of vocalist/lyricist John Arch, the boys from Connecticut signed up Arizona singer Ray Alder and shifted to a more introspective and realistic approach to their songwriting that would eventually culminate on "Parallels". "No Exit" also signalled a more advanced but also more accessible sound, as well as the first and only time the band would record a concept album. ("A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" was not a concept album, it was a pile of shit.)
"No Exit" is by far the heaviest FATES WARNING album and certainly their heaviest ever with Alder. The guitar sound is very similar to what they used on "Awaken The Guardian", only a bit drier and crisper. The drums sound huge and Steve Zimmerman gives his best performance with the band - his last before being ousted in favour of Mark Zonder. The song writing here is not the RUSH like sound of later albums, nor the dense and idiosyncratic style of the previous three, but a step in between. The first half of the album is straightforward and hard-hitting with some excellent Metal tunes like "Anarchy Divine" and "In A Word". It's obvious that Ray Alder is still finding his stride here, as he doesn't have the authority and confidence he would show on later works. And it's equally obvious that the band are finding their voice as lyricists. Jim Matheos does fine here, but Frank Aresti's lyrics need a little work.
The first four songs are only warm-up, however, for the real meat of this album "The Ivory Gate Of Dreams", an eight-part epic that contains some of the best music ever produced by the band. "Quietus" in particular still stands as one of FATES WARNING's finest moments. With musical and lyrical thematic elements that recur throughout the piece, "The Ivory gate Of Dreams" hangs together as a real example of Metal song writing on a grand scale without keyboard wankering or pointless 'atmospheric' interludes.
In a true departure from the previous albums, the cover for "No Exit" is genuinely ugly. I don't know what Third Image was thinking when they did this, but it sucks. The interior layout is minimal and dull, but does include the lyrics, which are worth reading. The 'concept' of the album is rather nebulous, dealing with the schism between dreams and aspirations and the cold, heartless crushing reality of life. Wonderfully uplifting.
Musically this is another fine release from this great band despite some transitional bumps. Lyrically and conceptually this is a step down from FATES WARNING's first trilogy of works and I can't say I have ever really liked their later lyrical direction, despite the maturity of later albums. Whether you prefer the band's early sound or the more accessible later recordings, "No Exit" is essential for understanding the transition from one to the other. (Online January 21, 2004)