Released: 2011, Metal Blade
Yes, I got excited when I heard that John Arch and Jim Matheos were collaborating on a new project. The two stalwarts and architects of progressive metal as we know it today need no introduction. They are both best known for their work in the widely revered band, Fates Warning. As a young teen, I considered the duo’s “Guardian” one of the best songs that I had heard up to that point in my life, a song that made it onto countless mix tapes for friends and my own personal soundtracks of that era. Even to this day, I find myself occasionally returning to the song, older and wiser, but still impressed by Arch’s innovative and unconventional vocal melodies coupled with Matheos’s penchant for melodicism.
Now that I have unleashed my inner fan boy, the present day has Arch and Matheos together again for the first time since 2003’s A TWIST OF FATE, along with former Fates Warning alum Joey Vera on bass, and Frank Aresti contributing some guitar work to the album. Most of the material had been composed by Matheos for the next Fates album, but with Ray Alder unable to commit at that time, Matheos sought Arch to complete the album. Two things are immediately apparent with album opener “Neurotically Wired”. First, are the pummeling production values, which are balanced and punchy with the bass playing a prominent and thumping role. Second, is that John Arch has not lost his range and still has the muse for creating those surprising and daring vocal lines that has inspired so many rabid fans of his style. Matheos continues to embrace the modern, and as he has often stated that albums like AWAKEN THE GUARDIAN are alien to him, you can expect almost no nods to the far past. Thus the guitars are down tuned in places and aggressive with start/stop and open spaced staccato riffing, similar to the guitar sound on FWX and TWIST OF FATE. Jim also employs some wah-wah on the opener, and subtle clean guitars throughout.
“Stained Glass Sky” introduces the first truly progressive riffing and complicated changes that you would expect, resulting in a 4 minute instrumental intro, before Arch joins in. The chorus is vintage Arch, managing to grab all the focus of the song in those few fleeting seconds. My favorite track and the direction I would like to have seen more of on the album is the semi-ballad album closer “Incense and Myrrh”, probably the closest track to a throwback that fans of days past will get. The album on the whole is a triumph, even at just under 55 minutes for six songs, there are plenty of things going on to stay interested. Understandably, it will take some time to digest the nuances and complexities of this album. My only minor gripe is the guitar solos that with the exception of a fairly melodic one on “Stained Glass Sky”, and the excellent work on “Incense and Myrrh”, come across as too deliberately unconventional and oddly lacking in melodicism. However, Bobby Jarzombek does an excellent job on drums providing a framework without overplaying; a welcome change from Portnoy’s busy drumming on A TWIST OF FATE.
Man, it is great to have Arch back. He is unquestionably the main event on this album, and while I preferred the Fates Warning albums with Alder, Arch has really stepped up to the plate and delivered on this one. The rest of the band is amazing of course, their pedigree long established and with less to prove, it is easy to hear who worked their ass off the most on this album. Welcome back John. We missed you. This is recommended for all progressive metal fans and will likely be in many discussions for album of the year.