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Bang with Brains

Rock and roll has had its share of epic-length, "bathroom break for the deejay" classics: "Whipping Post," "Freebird" and, yes, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" are just a few that spring to mind. But with their latest CD, A Pleasant Shade of Gray, longtime progressive metal band Fates Warning have taken things a step further. It contains a single song -- the title track -- that clocks in at over 52 minutes and is divided into 12 "suites," which leaves the deejay time not only to take a leak, but to negotiate the mortgage on his house as well.

Pompous? Pretentious? Ambitious? You bet. And for all those reasons and more, Fates Warning is one of the most popular acts among the progressive/art metal set, which is filled with the sort of cerebral head-bangers who think Megadeth and Corrosion of Conformity are too mainstream. For better insight into the Fates sound, think of a Valium-induced Black Sabbath combo covering Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans or perhaps Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery. And while the Fates crew certainly has the ability to rock with conviction, their music demands equal parts close attention and serious patience.

Fates Warning was formed in the early '80s by guitarist/lyricist Jim Matheos and bassist Joe Dibiase, both of whom lived in that most heavy metal of states of the Union, Connecticut. Their 1984 debut, Night on Brocken, and the subsequent efforts The Spectre Within and Awaken the Guardian, established the band as prog-metal pioneers. Under the continuing direction of Matheos, the band has garnered a reputation for careful, if expansive, instrumentation that's seemingly designed specifically to perplex guitar students and their instructors. The Fates formula also includes just the sort of mystical lyrics that can provide fodder for high school poetry assignments when the Rush reserves have been exhausted.

Though the Fates lineup has changed somewhat over the years, the group's heady philosophy has remained more or less on track. Still, when singer Jon Arch was replaced by current vocalist Ray Alder, it did spark a debate among Fates fans not unlike the jawing among Van Halen followers when Sammy Hagar took over for David Lee Roth. But Alder's debut on 1988's No Exit (which included the 22-minute "The Ivory Gate of Dreams") was hardly considered a flop. Indeed, No Exit is considered by many devotees to be Fates Warning's masterpiece -- their 2112, if you will.

The current tour has Fates Warning playing A Pleasant Shade of Gray in its entirety before the band even addresses its older material. So those looking for a good mosh-pit brawl would do best to take their butts elsewhere; this ought to be the sort of show Wagner or Mozart might have attended if they'd really wanted to bang their noggins.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Fates Warning performs Thursday, December 18, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Divine Regales, Train of Thought and Final Exit open. For info, call 863-7173.

Chris Duarte -- It takes little effort for any Houstonian to find out firsthand what Chris Duarte is up to these days. He's been a regular attraction at Rockefeller's for what seems like forever, pulling in essentially the same loyal audience month after month, all of them convinced that the restless spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughan is coursing through the fingers of this San Antonio-bred guitar slinger. Fans (hell, even Duarte himself) split hairs over just how indebted he is to that blues-rock legend, but there's no disputing that Duarte has more to offer than the stale memories served up by your typical Stevie Ray clone. On his busy, well-produced sophomore release, Tailspin Headwhack (released this summer), Duarte makes an attempt to move away from the more obvious guitar-god implications of his 1994 debut, Texas Sugar Strat Magik. But Tailspin's efforts to boost his stature as both an instrumentalist and a songwriter mostly fall short. In the end, the focus swings back to the playing -- and Duarte's is as impassioned and unaffected as it gets. At 9 p.m. Friday, December 19, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $17 and $22.50. 869-TICS. (Hobart Rowland)

Long John Hunter -- Anyone who gives a damn about Texas blues ought to know the name Long John Hunter. Houston's own Duke Records released Hunter's first single back in 1954, about the same time he settled here. And ever since, the Louisiana-born singer/guitarist has been kicking up a storm at myriad blues clubs around the Lone Star State and elsewhere. As it happens, right now is a particularly good time to catch Hunter and his Walking Catfish band live, given how rejuvenated he was by the overwhelming response his recent tour of Europe generated. Then there's also the critical excitement surrounding his latest CD, Swinging from the Rafters. Hunter's guitar work generates a wonderfully controlled swing, using just a few notes to get the job done. His warm and relaxed singing is a bonus, as is his sharp songwriting. Put simply, Hunter's blues are of the open-hearted variety. At 9 p.m. Friday, December 19, at Billy Blues Bar & Grill, 6025 Richmond. Cover is $8. 266-9294. (Frank-John Hadley

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