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Vox - Ray Alder

The wonder and sometimes challenge of music is the degree to which it remains forever subjective. I state the obvious because as I prepare each quarter to evaluate the measurable abilities of a vocalist for this column, I receive email suggestions and from others the wish to dialogue about past vocalists whom I’ve covered. It becomes necessary in each instance for me to return to the frame whereby certain capabilities can be appraised and compared against a musician’s peers. Among the measurements belonging to this frame are things such as diction, phrasing, pitch, as well as dynamic variance, range and the use of interpretive techniques to influence the way a song is rendered. It may remain for the listener to decide whether he or she believes these yardsticks matter for their own music enjoyment; nevertheless these same yardsticks certainly separate vocalists from one another, defining levels of craft and ability. And in progressive music as perhaps in no other musical medium, the successive layers of a singer’s attention to this frame creates appreciation from that performer’s audience.

That said, this issue I will take a closer look at the work of Fate’s Warning vocalist Ray Alder.

As a prefatory note, Ray did not begin with Fates Warning; before him, the group used the abilities of singer John Arch. However, after 3 studio releases, the change was made, and Alder has been singing for the band ever since.

Initially, I would point to an often overlooked element of vocal work as being one of Alder’s strongest contributions to Fates Warning’s sound: phrasing. One doesn’t have to spend much time listening to Ray sing before recognizing a unique approach to the way the lyrics are applied to the musical rhythms. To be frank, at first the choices in this regard do not always seem obvious, and thus are sometimes challenging. However, for precisely that reason, the words impress themselves on the ear and the listener is invited into a contract whereby some extra effort is at times required but always rewarded.

In addition, Alder is often singing over odd time signatures—another hallmark of the band for which he sings—which complicates the phrasing of meter in a way that makes sense to a listener. To his credit, Ray works back and forth across odd time, syncopation, dynamic shifts and other musical devices to weave a fluid appreciable vocal line.

There are, of course, plenty of lines of verse which fall in customary and more predictable patterns. And these are in no way less impressive. However, the exceptional variation in this particular vocal delivery lends an air of instrumentation to the vocals Alder delivers that, frankly, is largely lacking in most of his colleagues. In service of this point, my discussions on Ray’s vocal work has often yielded comments from fans in which it is postulated that one of the other musicians in the band—likely the guitarist—has married the phrasing to the music. The argument being that singers are unable to remain legato in their offerings while making such unorthodox rhythmic choices. To which I answer, whether the creator or not, Alder carries off his part with aplomb.

It is then, the next point to be made about Ray’s exceptional ability: his legato style. There are interpretive moments when short, staccato beats or shouts or runs may enhance what is musically being expressed. Yet, the mark of strong vocal technique, indeed of the attention to craft I mentioned earlier, is a vocalist’s ability to render their lyrics as a smooth, rounded line. In contrast, you may think of the typical delivery of most any punk rock singer. Of course, such deliveries as are common from a punk rocker perfectly suit that medium. But it won’t reasonably be argued that these artists are models of qualitative singing. To return to the point, Ray Alder demonstrates the high art of singing in giving us what I like to refer to as the "connective tissue of song." By this, I mean to say that singing can be defined, at least in part, by sustained notes, and the fluid movement between words and note changes. A wonderful example of this comes in the song "The Eleventh Hour" from the Parallels album. Here we have a beautiful legato in both the soft, low dynamic sections and the soaring upper range cries. The skill to achieve such legato at both ends of his range signifies a level of craftsmanship few may achieve or even aspire toward.

For many vocalists, males in particular, it has been a benchmark of ability to sing with confidence and volume in a clearly soprano vocal range. While this is not a trend among today’s popular male vocalists, progressive metal, and to a lesser degree progressive rock, still rewards singers who cultivate this ability. In a strict sense, the wider a vocalist’s range, the greater his or her potential response and conveyance may be when musically expressing a song. Similarly, a seven string guitar has all the same potential that a six string guitar offers, but adds something more should the artist find a need for those low notes. Thus, a singer with a wide vocal range will find opportunities to utilize range that others may choose not to cultivate. In this regard, Alder exhibits exceptional prowess.

Listeners familiar with Fates Warning will have no need of being reminded of Ray’s phenomenal range. But for those unacquainted with his work, I highly recommend any of his vocal offerings; each album features this stunning level of craftsmanship. For instance, on perhaps Fates Warning’s most known single, "Eye to Eye," Alder sings the line: "Is it coldness we feel . . . of the moment we met." These phrases come and Ray ascends to notes most singers never work to attain. More than this, the use of his considerable range in these moments works in perfect harmony with the emotion being carried by the lyrics, and gives release in a kind of catharsis. The point being, Alder does not gratuitously use his amazing reach, but utilizes it for effect. The result is an often thrilling moment for the listener.

Regarding tone, many will consider it a subjective matter. And to a degree, this is true. But just as some speaking voices will almost universally be considered grating, so too are many vocal timbres annoying. I scarcely have to make such a point before most listeners will identify vocalists which they agree are difficult to stomach. It is, however, something which can be modified and improved. Such is done by placing the voice in the mask, or masque, of the face.

Trained vocalists and vocal students who have studied classical technique understand this terminology. And I have mentioned it in previous columns. But it remains the single greatest piece of vocal instruction of which I am aware. Though the technique is classical, effective singers from every musical genre employ it to elevate their craft. It is a matter of moving the emphasis of voice from the throat to the facial musculature and sinuses, where the tone may resonate. The result is a brighter more resonant sound, and directly impacts a singer’s tone.

Ray Alder effectively places his voice in the mask of the face, and resultantly has a warm, clear tone that becomes very appealing. Though again from the same album as "Eye to Eye" I would mention the song, "We Only Say Goodbye" as an indication of Alder’s surpassing vocal timber. And indeed, it is not simply with his softer, lower register work that Ray sings with a signature warmth and intimacy; the upper range to which I refer earlier is equally strong, round and developed. For it is often the case that higher register vocalizing produces a thinness or brittle quality. Instead, with Ray we have a smooth transition across his entire range that consistently shows a musical tone well placed and controlled.

Other standards of measure are met successfully in Alder’s work. In speaking of pitch, I can speak both to his studio albums and his live performance; in both instances he is a consummate musician, hitting his pitches with virtually no variance—a feat worth applauding considering the catalog of vocally challenging songs upon which he draws. As the voice is a biological instrument, it is subject to stressors that other instruments are not. That Ray meets the expectations of his audience in rendering his music with such a high degree of accuracy is a credit to his musicianship. Few singers asked to meet such expectations could respond at the level he does.

Further, Alder’s diction is to be applauded. The tendency with vocalists who choose to use notes deep into their upper range is to loose some enunciation. While this is sometimes an artistic choice, Ray moves throughout his range while remaining true to the integrity of the words he sings. Many with whom I share these kinds of observations do not fully appreciate the difficulty of such vocalizing. But perhaps that is due not simply to their lack of training, but to the ease with which Alder sings difficult passages. For some, the sound of the singer’s voice is more important than what he says, but for those who take an interest in the lyrics, Ray’s attention to this element of craft will be especially appreciated.

Other tools in Alder’s vocal toolbox include a powerful, engaging vibrato; strong breath support for sustaining long passages and notes; and an understanding of how to match vocal dynamics to the needs of the song—any of the song titles I’ve listed are clear illustrations of this last point.

Finally, Ray might be said to be one of the great "undiscovered" vocalists currently working. In attending a Dream Theater concert for which Fates Warning opened, I found several DT fans that were unacquainted with Ray and his band—granted they were acolytes to progressive metal. Still, because progressive music is not a radio standard, and because progressive metal enjoys its real market overseas, the fine talent of Ray Alder is less known than he deserves. For the several reasons enumerated in this column, and for the more ineffable qualities given to male rock vocalists to touch a part of their listener inwardly, Alder is among the very best currently using a microphone. He is a hard working, creative, powerful voice in a landscape of aspirants less committed to their craft.

Vox Column
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