It’s been eight years since Fates Warning alumni John Arch and Jim Matheos last collaborated under the Arch/Matheos banner. The pairing was understood to be a no-pressure setup from the get-go due to their other commitments but seeing how Sympathetic Resonance is still one of the greatest prog metal albums of the 2010s, hopes for a follow-up have always lingered in the background. Winter Ethereal isn’t quite the second coming that fans have spent a near decade mulling over, but it makes do on the promise of a more introspective Arch/Matheos outing.
The passage of time and an expanded cast of supporting musicians have tweaked the Arch/Matheos approach, but the project’s core dynamic is secure. Arch’s vocals are as excellent as ever, exerting his signature off-the-wall phrasing and high-pitched warbling, and Matheos’ guitar work puts in the usual melancholic crunch. The numerous bassists and drummers that appear on select songs also put in solid performances with healthy helpings of prog metal technicality, but they’re here for support rather than spectacle. It’s a little weird to see classic Fates members and other players like Steve DiGiorgio essentially staying in the background, but such inclusions are still welcome.
But while the songwriting on Sympathetic Resonance was like nothing else that the musicians involved had ever done, Winter Ethereal feels like an extension of Fates Warning’s recent works. Matheos’ guitar work is more dynamic, putting greater emphasis on more uplifting textures, but the actual riffs and melodies aren’t as distinct. This in combination with Arch’s relentless vocal acrobatics can make songs feel a little too dense, especially during the album’s first half. It’s certainly heartfelt and further listens help crack the codes, but a blasphemous part of me wonders how some of them would’ve panned out with Ray Alder at the helm instead…
Fortunately, things perk up considerably for the back half. In contrast to “Tethered” featuring the album’s most subdued soundscapes and gentlest instrumentation, lead single “Straight and Narrow” charges in with one of its most aggressive riff sets. While its structure is decidedly more straightforward than anything off its predecessor, the fuller tone would help it fit in without much fuss. “Pitch Black Prism” sustains that heaviness quite nicely and pushes it into a more ominous direction.
Arch/Matheos’ second full-length album is an inevitable step down from Sympathetic Resonance, but I can’t really call it a disappointment. The key players still have plenty of chemistry, making the most of their strengths as performers, and you can tell they still take their craft seriously. Like anything else they’ve released together, it’ll take some extra listens to really get a feel for. If anything, diehard fans should still get a lot out of it and it does make me that much more interested to see what could be developing in the Fates Warning camp.
“Straight and Narrow”
“Pitch Black Prism”