Sympathetic Resonance is now rightly viewed as a classic of progressive heavy metal. It delivered the promise of the Twist of Fate EP and completed the comeback of one of prog’s most important duos: Fates Warning mastermind Jim Matheos and early Fates singer John Arch. More than that, the first Arch / Matheos full length delivered something new; it wasn’t just a clone of Awaken the Guardian, nor did it just sound like modern Fates Warning with Arch on vocals. It was a labyrinthine, complex, deeply melodic, and somewhat mysterious album that was rich in a sense of exploration and storytelling.
Now, nearly eight years later, the duo returns with Winter Ethereal, a record that shares its predecessor’s complexity, stunning quality, and eagerness to surprise. It succeeds not just because of any signature sounds, but because these two guys are seemingly as hungry as they’ve ever been in their long musical careers.
But let’s step back for a second to appreciate just how special it is having another album full of John Arch’s voice. There is simply no one else like him in metal, and that’s no hyperbole. His disregard for conventional rhythmic choices (extremely varying “words per minute” rates), mastery of phrasing, and quirky, wailing use of melody make him not just unique, but almost constantly captivating and downright idiosyncratic. Check out his rhythmically wacky delivery of “In the deep of the night / When the lightning might strike twice / If you get much closer” during “Wanderlust.” It’s a beat poetry cadence applied to a fairly complex and infectious melody, and it rules. Also awesome: the way he extends the line “When it all goes down” in “Wrath of the Universe” as if his voice is descending a spiral staircase, and his phrase-jumping during the chorus of opener “Vermillion Moons.” Anyone familiar with the man knows his skills, but it’s amazing just how incredible he still sounds, likely due in part because he’s only been a part-time musician since the late 80s.
Of course, the difference between Arch and Matheos is that the latter has spoiled us with both quantity and quality, particularly of late. Since Sympathetic Resonance, Matheos and the proper Fates Warning lineup have delivered two of their best records since their classic run. Matheos has been on an absolute tear as a songwriter, and as listeners we now benefit from two bands, each representing a separate part of the Fates lineage, and each moving ever forward.
Every performance is rife with both the expected virtuosity and a perhaps less expected nuance, and Matheos dialed in possibly the best production performance of his career. This record sounds absolutely immaculate and never loses clarity of sound or purpose no matter how many elements are weaving in and out of the background (and sometimes it’s a whole lot of elements). The studio refinement gives particular benefit to the album’s quieter moments, whether they be shorter passages within more winding tracks or the entirety of the lush, gorgeous “Tethered.”
That track brings us to one of the album’s greatest qualities: flow. The record is bookended by its two longest songs in “Vermillion Moons” and the whirlwind, leave-it-all-on-the-field closer “Kindred Spirits,” and has a clear centerpiece in the aforementioned and downright unforgettable “Wrath of the Universe.” These stand out as initials hooks for the listener with their more obvious moments, but repeat spins help listeners not just unravel the secrets of these songs, but to also understand how songs like “Tethered,” the mature and graceful “Wanderlust,” or downright rockin’ “Straight and Narrow” add to the whole.
As for those secrets and details… bring a bigger boat. Some are mind-numbingly technical, some are simple, some heavy, some playful, some fresh, and some tried and true. Any venturing into somewhat new ground also makes the more familiar ideas feel even more special. Of these, none will be more crowd pleasing than a couple Matheos-Aresti solo duels in “Never in Your Hands” and the closer. That these extended exercises in (gasp) self-indulgence also serve the songs as a whole should go without saying. Controlled self-indulgence, just like the band drew it up.
Also unifying things and providing further secrets are Arch’s lyrics. While there isn’t one obvious theme to the record, common ideas do come across. “Wanderlust” appears to be as much about wonder as it does wander or trying in vain to find oneself, while “Kindred Spirits” deals with innocence, the loss thereof, and both fear of and acceptance of the unknown. Even when Arch gets in metaphor mode (which is thankfully quite often), everything still feels extremely human in nature. He even sprinkles in various nods to classic rock and metal music just to let you know how much he’s enjoying every minute of this.
Perhaps the most inviting aspect of the record is that, much like the most recent Fates Warning album Theories of Flight, Winter Ethereal feels like just that: an invitation. These extremely experienced musicians are still pushing themselves, but they don’t do it from feelings of pressure or boredom, but from their perpetual sense of curiosity, and they want listeners along for the ride. It isn’t just in the lyrics, but also in music that fits those words perfectly and in the performances of musicians that are beyond excited to be there. We should all be lucky enough to have such passion for anything after such a long time. Perhaps that’s the true theme of the record, that the world will do everything it can to beat us down, but no matter what, we must keep lit the pilot light of positivity.
This feeling is the natural result of lyrical themes, subtle stylistic variety, constantly engaging ideas, and album-wide dynamics. It all makes Winter Ethereal feel shorter than Sympathetic Resonance, despite running about 13 minutes longer. Let’s put that another way: Arch / Matheos followed up a modern classic with a record that might be its superior. In reality, placing one over the other is an exercise in silliness because they’re both available for us to hear, but the fact that this thought even occurs says so much about what they accomplished… again. Together, John Arch and Jim Matheos have crafted yet another sparkling jewel that is nothing short of a treat for the ears, the mind, and the heart.