FATE – If Not For The Devil

In the minds of many, Danish rockers Fate will always be best remembered for being “that band that previously featured Mattius Eklundh on guitar”. When it comes to guitar based histrionics, Eklundh’s best work is hard to beat. On the first two albums released by his subsequent band Freak Kitchen, he managed to construct riffs that blended the grunge of Alice In Chains with the bendy jazz of a mid 70s Zappa and add the more bizarre elements of Steve Vai, but still end up with something strangely accessible and melodic. His guitar instrumental albums feature jaw-dropping sounds that are guaranteed to make the listener wonder how the hell he actually achieves some of his best tricks, and ‘Freak Guitar: The Road Less Travelled’ features the most insane version of ‘Smoke On The Water’ you’re ever likely to hear.

Fate, by contrast, were never as interesting. However, their early albums featured some solid, old school melodic rock and metal, and their first three “reunion” discs further showed off the talents of a solid band able to construct massive riffs around some huge choruses. Eklund was only ever a small part of their history – although, by historical association, an important part – but even without him, these releases proved Fate had retained a knack for solid arrangements. Arguably the best of their comeback discs, 2013’s ‘If Not For The Devil’ captures Fate’s second wave at somewhere near its strongest, with a host of numbers that straddle hard rock, melodic metal and good old fashioned AOR in almost equal measure.

Despite being able to deliver a great range of rock sounds, the band go all out in terms of pure bombast on the opening number. ‘Reaping’ is the sound of a full bore Fate, opening with a pumping bassline and thundering drums. Like a dirtier sounding Malmsteen number where the Swedish maestro believes he’s creating the perfect homage to 80s Deep Purple but misjudging the mood, the track quickly sets some old style metal in place, almost guarantee to tire out all but the most patient listener by the end of its first chorus. Nevertheless, it’s tightly arranged and perfectly played; if you can make it through the first minute without being floored by the pure force, you’ll actually discover some great playing. The interplay between guitarist Torben Enevoldsen and keys man Mikkel Henderson driving the instrumental section is pure showmanship – almost bordering on a farcical busyness, akin to the work between Malmsteen and Jens Johansson back in 1988 – and the underlying bass work advertises a player that’s almost as frantic when it comes to melodic fills. Keeping everything in balance, vocalist Dagfinn Joensson – making his debut on a Fate album – finds a sweet spot somewhere between melodic rock and classic metal and is able to sell a huge, harmony drenched chorus delivered at speed. A few of his vocals during the more tuneful verse belie his Scandinavian origins, since there are occasional pangs of Mike Tramp, but overall, this first blast of Fate circa 2013 showcases everyone brilliantly, even despite the song’s lack of subtlety.

Also showing off more of the band’s metal tendencies, ‘Taught To Kill’ shares a very 80s inspired metal riff, a raft of booming power metal keys and a big vocal that occasionally drifts into a territory best described as James Labrie crossed with an on form Jorn Lande. It all comes with more than its fair share of moody overtones and Spinal Tap-ish lyrics concerning “children of war” with “poisoned minds” “kneeling by the sword” and “cold steel and a fate that’s sealed”, but it just about gets away with that due to the band showing off a truly committed approach to the arrangement. The latter part of the track features some absolutely fantastic guitar work, firstly through a perfectly executed solo with eastern tones, then by Torben’s lead dropping in a couple of swift arpeggios, and subsequently peaking with a brilliantly played harmonic/twin lead sound. Overall – lyrical quibbles aside – it’s great old style melodic metal.

Those tracks show how well the reformed Fate can still play, but it’s when moving away from the pure metallic bombast and trying less hard to impress, however, that ‘If Not For The Devil’ really comes into its own. Slowing down and stretching out a little, ‘My World’ opens with a mid tempo melodic metal chug, over which Enevoldsen adds an array of bluesy metallic sweeps, before the track settles into a moody number that evokes the best melodic metal of the late 80s. With further vibratoed notes filling space between the vocals, the guitarist really helps to give Fate a broader sound than your run of the mill melodic metal band, and with the help of a few TNT-esque backing vocals, the track has a faint air of the bombastic that’s typically Scandinavian. The combo of Hendersen’s keys and Dagfinn’s confident vocal genuinely helps to bring out the melodic core of the track, really selling an epic chorus hook, but if anything leaves its lasting mark, it’s the lead guitar work which returns for a frantic solo midway, and then drowns out half the vocal on an extended coda. It could be tiring, or sound a little overblown, but there’s plenty with regards to Enevoldson’s playing that just works. If it weren’t clear before, he’s a man who is more than able to straddle that perfect balance between showmanship and melody.

Further into a melodic rock/AOR crossover sound, ‘Gambler’ opens with a brilliant twin lead guitar and pomp keyboard combo, before finding its feet as a mid tempo rocker that’s driven by chopping guitars. The solid guitar work should be enough to sell the track to melodic rock fans, but the number’s other elements actually work better. The bright sounding keys continue to have a strong presence throughout – sounding even stronger when dropping into a few classic 80s stabs, AOR style – and an occasionally clean guitar brings an almost prog-like extra texture in a couple of places. The vocals boom throughout, reminding the listener of Fate’s more full on tendencies, but everything works together brilliantly, and it’s likely that the lead guitar dropping into a Darkness inspired melody – almost certainly not intentionally – will raise a smile. In terms of sheer commerciality in a melodic rock sense, ‘Gimme All Your Love’ heads straight back to 1989 with a full compliment of bright guitar sounds, massive chorus harmonies and a really buoyant feel. There are moments that sound like a great Swedish rock band channelling classic FM, but this is obviously a good thing. Even though the lyrics are pretty uninspired – a reliance on old AOR clichés “the root of my desire” and “I will walk the wire” feels especially tired here – the arrangement is great, the solo is even better (a massively melodic piece textured with sweeps), and the production really brings out the best in a cleaner guitar throughout. Clichéd or otherwise, its feel good nature makes it an album highlight.

With a near perfect blend of guitars and keys, the intro to ‘Turn Back Time’ sounds like a heavy version of Touch, but the track quickly takes a detour into something a little lighter. In a very strong example of the Swedish melodic rock “sound”, the number shares a great flowing keyboard underneath a choppy guitar, occasionally throwing in a proggy flourish beneath the main riff. It’s great, but the soaring chorus – loaded with AOR melodies – and lead guitar break are even better. Taking command of a few bars, Torben drops in a busy solo, loaded with fretboard melting antics that are easily the album’s biggest concession to indulgence, and the returning chorus manages to sound even fuller as a result. In terms of the band capturing a really accessible and very 80s style in the twenty first century, this is one of the album’s standout tunes. ‘Feel Like Making Love’ – not a Bad Company cover – fares just as well musically thanks to a pure AOR drive. There’s something at its core that sounds like it had been inspired by Danger Danger, given that there’s more than a passing resemblence to the mood of ‘Rock America’ in part of the main riff, even though the melody is different, and the Mike Tramp/White Lion inflections re-appear on the vocal, which also helps it to feel like something you’ve known forever. With another great, soaring lead guitar part thrown into the bargain, it’s got so much musical strength it deserved to be one of this record’s very finest offerings. It’s a shame, then, that the song gets dragged down by some fairly terrible lyrical moments throughout. “I feel it in my soul”, “burning for you baby” and “she’ll make you beg for more, like a child” are among the iffier moments, but “she’s got class, she knows how to shake that ass” and mentions of finger tips and honey drips are pretty unforgivable. Maybe they’ve been taking tips from David Coverdale and his TrouserSnake… It’s unfortunate, but it’s the only massive misstep on an otherwise strong elpee.

More classic sounding AOR/melodic rock can be found throughout the semi-chunky ‘Bridges Are Burning’ when Torben and Mikkel battle each other for dominance beneath a massive, harmony driven hook and ‘Man Against The Wall’ injects even bigger keys into a piece of driving rock that works the whole band quite hard. Both fall somewhere between the melodic metal workouts and the bigger sounding AOR tunes in a way that never really offers the listener anything different, but would still appeal, assuming you already love the overall sound of Fate with this line up. The title track, meanwhile, works a perfect mix of fist pumping rock and pompy keys in the manner of White Lion circa 1988. Here, much like ‘Bridges Are Burning’ and ‘Gambler’, the reasonably big sound that Fate are able to command works very well throughout, and its stop/start riffs really show off the sharper edge in Torben’s tones without impacting too much on a huge melodic style. It’s big, and yes, it’s cheesy, but in terms of reworking old melodic rock and metal moods twenty five years down the line, Fate share a very natural gift.

Those hoping to hear Fate tackling something intermittently softer will get their wish, too, when ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ ventures into ballad territory. Driven by strident piano and huge vocal, it revisits “80s AOR ballad 101” on the surface, and especially so when a huge key change ushers in a chorus, but it’s brilliantly played. The way the vocal glides over the mid tempo comes closest to Fate tackling classic melodic rock, but a slightly heavier guitar adds a little edge. There are times when this could lapse into something from the Alien back catalogue – never a bad thing – but the vocals provide a very obvious link with the rest of the album, and although the punch applied in a few places feels more than like Fate are playing with a safety net, it’s great to hear Enevoldsen shaking things up just a little more by applying a few Spanish guitar motifs throughout. This gives a very different musical flavour and shows off a band willing to experiment, even if they don’t always choose to.

Years on, aside from a couple of iffy lyrics, ‘If Not For The Devil’ holds up very well indeed. It often sounds more like a throwback to a world of hard rock between 1989 and 1991 than the era in which it was actually recorded, but in terms of retro rock and metal thrills, it’s all pretty huge. With the title cut, ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ and ‘Gambler’ really flying the flag for solid melodic rock, it has an accessible core, but it certainly isn’t shy in sharing some full on rock from time to time, either. In melodic metal terms, it has a little of everything – except maybe a regard for any musical fashion – and certainly showcases a band as at home with broad melodies as good old school Scandinavian bombast. It’ll always make you wonder how differently things would’ve turned out had Eklundh rejoined the reformed band – or at least dropped in on the sessions and brought some of his post Freak Kitchen bonkersness – but settling for what the album ultimately offers, ‘If Not…’ is a hard rock/metal treat that definitely deserves a little shelf space alongside those Von Groove and CleanBreak albums.

November/December 2023