Steel Druhm needs to ramble on for a bit so kindly bear with me, or else! As a life long metal fan, I can look back and pinpoint those few truly special albums that blew me away upon release and continue to feel magical after decades of listening. Right at the top of that very short list are two classics by Fates Warning. Hailing from Connecticut, they released three albums in the early to mid-80s that really embodied the American take on the traditional NWOBHM ethos and at times sounded quite like vintage Iron Maiden. Of those three albums, 85’s The Specter Within and 86’s Awaken the Guardian were their masterworks and any fan of classic metal really needs to hear them immediately if not sooner. After so many years, both easily stand the test of time and I find myself going back to them frequently. The main draw, aside from the expert songwriting, are the vocals by John Arch. The man had a one-of-a-kind voice, killer range and the ability to write hyper-intelligent lyrics. When he left the band following Awaken the Guardian, Fates Warning sank into mediocrity and I lost all interest. Arch himself left the music business entirely and I always hoped he would resurface and grace us with his voice again. He finally did in 2003 with the short but excellent Twist of Fate EP, which I hoped was the start of a serious comeback. Well, it took another eight long years but he finally has resurfaced again for a collaboration with his old Fates Warning guitarists Jim Matheos (OSI, Gordian Knot), Frank Aresti and other Fates alumni, bassist Joey Vera (Armored Saint, Anthrax, Seven Witches) and drum lord Bobby Jarzombek (Halford, Riot, Iced Earth, Rob Rock). So does this mega reunion bring back any of the potent magic from days long gone? Well, it seems that isn’t a fair question since Sympathetic Resonance is quite a different animal than Fates Warning. It’s way more modern, proggy, convoluted and heavier than anything their old unit attempted (I was actually surprised how heavy some of this material gets). Overall, its very polished and aggressive progressive metal from old dogs that obviously have plenty of life left in them.
Things start off with the enormous, eleven minute plus track “Neurotically Wired.” This song has a lot going on and much to absorb musically as it cartwheels through many moods and vibes, from the very Fates Warning-like chorus to off-kilter proggy moments. Its immediately clear that Arch hasn’t lost any power during his long downtime and his pipes are as impressive as ever (unlike some former vocal gods who shall be nameless, G.T. [Wait. Who!? GEOFF TATE!?!? *cough* – AMG]). With a backdrop of riffing that gets quite heavy at times and a myriad of tempo shifts and odd time signatures, Arch soars above it all like an eagle (check out the chorus at 5:04 for some great, emotional singing). Naturally, Matheos and Aresti bring the goods with some great playing and dizzying leads (especially at 5:50). Sometimes incorporating Nevermore-like heavy riffing, other times utilizing more rock-based grooves, they shift and morph constantly and keep the listener engaged. “Midnight Serenade” is much more immediate and benefits from crunching riffage juxtaposed to Arch’s high register power. The extended instrumental work leading into “Stained Glass Sky” is top-notch and brings Symphony X to mind (especially the wild fret-work), while the remainder features memorably impassioned vocals, Voivod-style stutter-step tempos and amazingly melodic leads. While its tough to choose standouts here, “On the Fence” gets the nod for its power, ominous vibe and perfectly placed vocal patterns and “Any Given Day (Strangers Like Me)” for its aggressive style and nonstop energy.
Although there are only six songs here, most are quite long and it feels like a dense, full album. All the songs are very good and overflow with technical ability. Despite the ambitious songwriting, all the songs flow organically and don’t feel like disparate pieces glued together (unlike much of the new Opeth opus). No matter how diverse the songs get, Arch’s vocals bind everything together into a cohesive whole and keep things accessible and memorable. Its also admirable that this all star line-up never let things drift into pointless instrumental wank-fest territory. While this is an instrumentally rich album, the tech wizardry is in service of the songs themselves rather than anyone’s ego.
After so much effusive praise, Its only fair I mention the few minor qualms I’m left with. As good as the production is, it would’ve been nice to have Vera’s bass more present in the mix and hear him get more time to shine. Also, there are a few spots scattered across the album where Arch’s vocals get too busy, as if he’s trying to cram too many vocal lines into the song (he did that sometimes with Fates Warning too). Lastly, a few of the super long songs could’ve been trimmed down a bit without losing their charm or epic scope.
All things considered, this is a very successful and highly enjoyable release by some well respected vets and I’m hoping it leads to more (without the eight year wait, if possible). If you’re a fan of Dream Theater or Symphony X and love technically-sharp, well done prog metal with balls, this is right in your wheelhouse. It’s great to have you back again Mr. Arch, now try sticking around this time!