I’ve said it before and now I’ll say it again: I love John Arch’s voice. His work on the early Fates Warning albums was my ticket to progressive metal appreciation, and all these years later I still think his performance on Awaken the Guardian is a touchstone moment in the genre. Over the years I’ve come to understand not everyone shares my opinion on the man’s voice and to some of the tin foil hat set, his high-pitched vocal acrobatics can be distracting. This is absolute rubbish of course and such heresy shall not be addressed further. Following his departure from Fates Warning in the late 80s, Mr. Arch and his golden pipes ov steel left the music world for decades, returning only for an eponymous EP in 2003. Then in 2011 he re-teamed with founding Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos to release Sympathetic Resonance. This was a modern prog metal record in every sense, referencing the early days of Fates Warning but for the most part eschewing the past for a contemporary sound. It quickly became one of my favorite albums of that year and I still spin it often. Its taken this talented tandem a long time to record a followup, but Winter Ethereal is finally here and one of my most highly anticipated albums of 2019.
Just shy of an hour and ten minutes, this is a big album loaded with long, winding songs and it features a stellar group of musicians made up of Fates Warning alumni like Mark Zonder and Joey Vera, as well as Steve Di Giorgio (Death, Testament) and Sean Malone (Cynic). With such a distinguished pedigree you expect big things and big things are delivered. Opener “Vermilion Moons” is 9 minutes of stellar prog metal blending elements of early Fates Warning with a modern sensibility as Arch’s vocals entwine with Matheos’ slick, proggy riff-work to create intricate tapestries of mood and emotion. Arch sounds amazing as always, his upper range still pristine after all these years. This is what prog metal is all about to my ears and I can’t get enough of this kind of stuff. The use of reoccurring musical vignettes throughout the 9 minute saga make it feel more concise than it is and the song flows from one interesting segment to the next with class and veteran polish. “Wanderlust” is the most Fates Warning-esque cut here, recalling the sound of 80s prog metal as Arch puts on a vocal clinic, utilizing every aspect of his considerable range in service of the song’s shifting temperaments. “Pitch Black Prism” takes a somewhat darker slant with traces of doom interwoven into the usual proggy soundscapes with good results.
“Wrath of the Universe” is the heaviest song Arch / Matheos have penned, surprising with how intense and aggressive the riffing and overall energy become at times. It gives an equal showcase for Arch’s vocal acrobatics and the band’s uber chops without ever letting things devolve into a soulless wank-fest, and the song is loaded with memorable refrains and moments to keep the listener fully engaged. “Tethered” is a more restrained power ballad of sorts, not far from what Dream Theater was doing on Awake and it works very well, featuring some of Arch’s most restrained crooning and understated, subtle playing from Matheos and company.
Sadly, not every song scores a win, and there are a few cuts that have issues. “Straight and Narrow” attempts a kind of urgent hard rock that doesn’t work well with Arch’s vocals, resulting in some awkward moments. The song eventually transitions to a more suitable approach, but it’s just not a rousing success. “Never in Your Hand” is better with some interesting moments and nice vocal touches, but stretches its ideas out too long at 8 plus minutes. Some judicious trimming would benefit even some of the better songs, like 13 minute closer “Kindred Spirits,” which feels several minutes too long despite some truly epic moments. Another minor complaint is the bass presence. They have world class talent involved on the 4-string, but there’s not much of an audible presence. You need to really focus at times to hear what the likes of Vera, Di Giorgio and Malone are doing, which is a shame.
Mix issues aside, this is music for musicians by musicians. Matheos loads the album with interesting riffs that dart and weave all around. He’s a consummate prog guitarist and yet restraint has always been his watch word. He isn’t here to bury you under 300 note runs, or drive you to the wank bank. He plays with and for feeling and his backing luminaries follow suit. If anyone is wanking, it’s John Arch, with his unusual style stretching his range across songs, and sometimes sentences. He can sound rather manic at times, but that’s what I’ve come to love about his style. He definitely delivers a powerful and animated performance throughout.
Winter Ethereal has some dizzying highs with a few nagging issues, making it less impressive overall than Sympathetic Resonance. It’s still loaded with the kind of music I want to hear from this pair, and there’s no shortage of high quality material to bask in. I expect this will be one of my most played prog albums this year, and fans of the genre should heartily enjoy what this talented twosome have crafted for them.
Written By: Huck N’ Roll
Let’s get this out of the way. John Arch is my Green Eggs & Ham. I do not like him. No, I do not. I’m much more of a Ray Alder guy. I mean, go listen to this song and you can hear why. It’s pure emotion. It’s “less is more.” The guy doesn’t run through his entire range in every line of every verse of every song, trying to be Destiny’s Child’s vocal coach. In fact, I own the last Arch / Matheos album, Sympathetic Resonance, and it came as a two-CD pack: one regular, and one instrumental. I still play the instrumental one, and think it’s great. The absence of Arch’s caterwauling allows me to focus on the brilliance of Jim Matheos, one of progressive metal’s more underrated guitarists.
Okay, that viewpoint is a far cry from good old Steel Druhm’s, so obviously I’m here to be the wet blanket of reason1 to his fanboyish adoration of Mr. Arch and his trilling habits. I came into Winter Ethereal expecting to hate it for the very reason listed above, but you know what? A funny thing happened between this album and Sympathetic Resonance: John Arch’s voice improved. Not to the point where I love it. The man still destroys all sense of rhythm in a song by practicing scales constantly. But eight years ago he sounded like an old dude who hadn’t kept up with his practice regime. Here he’s much more polished, cleaner and in control. In other words, his vocal performance doesn’t completely throw the music off the rails.
Arch’s best work does come when he at least tries to restrain himself. Here that is most evident in back to back tracks “Wrath of the Universe” and “Tethered,” the former showcasing rare power and grit at times, the latter a subdued, nearly tender performance. Sure, they’re both still overwrought, but in relation to other songs here they’re fairly impressive. More performances like this and I might actually turn into a fan!
And the music, as expected, is superb. Matheos has always made use of the best guitar tones of anyone. In that regard, I think of him as prog metal’s version of David Gilmour. Such pure tone is hard to create, but he’s a master in that respect. He’s also equally adept at both rhythm and lead guitar, which is a rarity. The solos in “Kindred Spirits,” where the back and forth solos make one think Matheos is playing with a guest (he’s not), and “Wanderlust” are works of art, as is the sick riff featured in stellar opening track “Vermilion Moons,” made all the more special due to it appearing only twice in the song’s nine-minute runtime. The crack band, again featuring a ton of Fates Warning members, but also bass playing from Sean Malone (Cynic) and Steve Di Giorgio (Death, Testament), holds up their end of the bargain, backing up Arch / Matheos perfectly.
Winter Ethereal is pretty much the album I expected Arch / Matheos to put together. It’s far, far too long, and certainly a few songs could have been culled, or held over for the next album. After eight listens, there are still some tracks that don’t stick.2 But with a few really good songs, excellent production, solid musical performances from Matheos and all the guests, and a passable turn on the mic from John Arch, this album will satisfy fans of prog metal in general, and make fans of Arch in particular quite tingly.
Rating: 3.0/5.0 – but nearly 3.5!