No one crafts a vocal melody like John Arch. No one. It’s not just his ability to hit these ridiculous high notes and carry them, something that doesn’t seem to have lost its power more than 30 years after I first heard his voice on Awaken the Guardian. It’s the way he fashions his lyrical lines, almost (but not quite) cramming them into a cadence that never follows the riff, but always complements it, no matter how unexpected it turns. That’s the cornerstone of what made his time in Fates Warning unique, and it’s what makes Winter Ethereal, the second full length from Arch/Matheos such a dynamic powder keg of an album.
It’s incredible to hear how vibrant and powerful Arch’s vocals are after all this time, but Matheos feels equally invigorated. The last two Fates Warning albums have been some of the best music the band has put out in forever (particularly Theories of Flight), and riding that high it would have been easy to simply transport the same sound over to Winter Ethereal; after all, it’s basically what happened with 2011’s Sympathetic Resonance, an album I loved at the time but in hindsight feels a little too bogged down in modern Fates territory. It did fulfill the promise of what it would feel like to bring Arch back in the fold, something that no one thought could happen until 2003’s A Twist of Fate made heads explode.
But Winter Ethereal doesn’t feel like a Fates Warning record Arch happens to be singing on, and that’s to its credit. Putting together an insane lineup of players, including most of the current and former Fates Warning guys plus folks like Sean Malone and Steve Di Giorgio, everything was written specifically for the album. It puts its best foot forward with the killer “Vermillion Moons” with moments faster than anything Fates have put out since the 80s. “Wanderlust” is about as close to a single as the band can make, and its razor riffs, distinctive vocal hooks and that oh so wicked heavy break that comes just past the midpoint of the song makes it a highlight of the year.
That crushing heavy riff action continues in “Solitary Man” and right into “Wrath of the Universe” which might be the heaviest song Matheos has been involved in. Buried in the double kicks and lightning fast palm muted attacks is the sense Matheos is being challenged to move beyond what’s expected, and although nothing he writes will ever really lose that distinct identity that comes from his tone, his fingers and specific phrasing, “Wrath of the Universe” and the rest of Winter Ethereal does a great job of making you forget the Fates Warning connection and just relish in the songs on their own merits.
If the second half doesn’t quite live up to the attack of the first half, chalk it up to just how massive the front half of the record is. “Straight and Narrow” feels like an amped up Dream Theater song, and feels like a less successful attempt to craft a single, particularly in the chorus. But listening to Arch call out ‘But I will never fly the straight and narrow!’ after the chorus ends is a delight so skipping it isn’t an option. Both “Pitch Black Prism” and “Never In Your Hands” shows just how adept Arch is at crafting vocal lines that stretch and bend within more straight ahead, spacious riffing. And then there’s “Kindred Spirits” which not only perfectly encapsulates the musical connection between Arch and Matheos, but embodies everything you could possibly want out of the combination of their talents.
If it takes another eight years to get another album of this quality out of the band, I’ll gladly wait. Winter Ethereal breaks the shackles of being a Fates Warning off-shoot and is firmly its own entity, one that is thrilling and progressive and heavy and graceful and exquisite in a way that is firmly its own. Long may Arch/Matheos find its muse and bring it down from the heavens for us to bask in.