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The Dark Side of Cherry Red

Photo by Ted Soqui
"AAAAAAAEEEEEEGH!" RAY ALDER IS screaming and singing these days. With his new side project, Engine, he can afford to flex his cords a trifle more than he does with the respected Connecticut prog-metal outfit Fates Warning, which he's fronted for the past 10 years while contributing little of its material. With that band on between-tour hiatus, Alder flopped back in L.A. (where he's lived on and off for years) with the notion of realizing a dream that had long simmered under his 3-foot waterfall of hair. Though the multilinked, stop-and-start Fates arrangements were an essential part of his life, he jonesed for the kind of heavy, nasty grooves over which he could rage his own melodies, his own lyrics and his own screams.
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What happened the first time he cut loose one of the soul-tearing wails that slice now and then through the new Metal Blade Records release Engine? "I didn't want a cigarette for a couple hours," says Alder. "Let's put it that way." His momentary hoarseness isn't from the screaming, though; he's just returned from Europe, where he estimates he did 75 interviews in three days for a Continental press that was showering top ratings on Engine before it even came out.

The scribes responded to a new facet of Alder's identity as well as a new musical direction. "The album is very dark, despondent," he says. "Funny, because I'm the happiest guy in the world."

In spite of his Caligari eyes and Mephistopheles beard, you believe him: Here's a smiling guy who talks like a play-by-play announcer, spins around town in a cherry-red Mustang GT, has a beautiful longtime girlfriend (actress Amy Motta) and loves his adoptive city. He surely fits here better than he did back in Connecticut, where he first signed on with Fates as a drop-jawed 18-year-old Texan named Raymond Balderrama.

"Everyone was looking at me, going, 'What is he? Puerto Rican? Cuban?' They'd never seen a Mexican."

So how does a sunny gent do justice to the dark sound in his bones? Never having penned lyrics before, he drew on new fears, old family disruptions and painful relationships to compose words that are both intelligent, and nonspecific enough to mean something to anyone: "I love it when you teach me how to hate you," "I know the monster wants me," "Suicide is superseded" -- hey, he even spells superseded right!

And lord, can he sing 'em. Alder possesses a combination of power, control and range that's rare anytime, but especially rare in an American hard-rock band of the present moment.

"There are a lot of great bands now -- great riffs, heavy as hell, knock the shit out of you. ã But all the singing is kind of the same: gwah-gwah. I think we have just the right mixture."

Listeners certainly agree in Europe, where virtuosic heavy-metal vocals have never receded from fashion. Engine's instrumental sound doesn't require much of a leap for Americans, though. Guitarist Bernie Versailles, locally known for his work with Agent Steel, collaborated with Alder on riffs desperate enough for any urban commando.

"I'd call Bernie," says Alder, "and leave messages on his answering machine: 'This is the riff -- da-da-da,' and 'Here's how the drums should go, and this is what the vocal melody's gonna be.' And he'd call me later and say, 'Come down later, I put it down on tape.' And it was exact . . . same key and everything."

Pete Parada, of the hardcore punk band Face to Face, is a killer. "He beats the shit out of his drums. You see him, and he's always cut. He's got a busted finger, he's got blood on his shorts."

And Joey Vera, formerly of Armored Saint, made every bass note do the work of four with his imaginative harmonic sense and enormous low-end deposits. Just as important, his production savvy turned the small demo studio where Engine was recorded into a dynamic furnace -- this is one of the best-sounding records you'll hear.

SCENE: THE FOUR ARE PERFORMING live for the first time at the Garage in mid-September, pounding through five songs for a crowd of interested parties and random onlookers, just to see what it feels like. It feels good. The riffs are big and simple enough to overcome a mediocre PA. Some jaded listeners are rocked back on their heels; their heads soon nod to the beat.

Alder is bent over, howling out his gospel as if he expects the boards to memorize it, his eyes tight closed -- which they might as well be, with all that hair hanging over his face. Everything works. Except the stage. Even though he doesn't move that much, this is one singer who needs more room. Hope he gets it.


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