Review: Arch/Matheos “Sympathetic Resonance”

John Arch and Jim Matheos

In 1986, one of my favorite albums of the year was the Fates Warning epic “Awaken The Guardian.” “Guardian” was an incredibly accomplished piece of progressive metal — full of complex, heavy-yet-catchy songs, amazing vocals by John Arch and great guitar work by guitarists and songwriters Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti. “Guardian” was — and remains — a classic (you can read more about it here).

After “ATG,” however, John Arch was booted from the band; I’ve read interviews where the rest of the band doubted Arch’s commitment to the touring-recording-touring lifestyle — and perhaps with good reason; it would be more than 15 years before Arch would record songs again.

But when Arch did come back for the 2003 EP, “A Twist of Fate,” he was again working with his old Fates Warning comrade Jim Matheos. When word leaked last year that Arch and Matheos (along with Aresti) were working on a full-length album, I was really excited.

But I wondered: A lot of time had gone by; could Arch and Matheos recapture the power, spirit and precision of “Awaken The Guardian”? Could they go home again?

No — but to be fair, they didn’t try, either. Arch and Matheos (who decided to call the band Arch/Matheos rather than working under the Fates Warning label), didn’t write a bunch of material that sounds exactly like the “Awaken The Guardian” era. In retrospect, that decision makes sense; after all, if people like “Awaken The Guardian,” they can simply spin that album again and not bother with any of Matheos’ new music.

The end result, “Sympathetic Resonance,” is very good in large part; in particular, the songs “Neurotically Wired,” “Midnight Serenade” and “Any Given Day (Strangers Like Me)” are well-realized, well-played and very pleasing. Also, the album is much heavier than I originally expected, and that’s a plus; I’m glad every “progressive metal” band (Hi, Opeth!) isn’t abandoning metal entirely to follow their King Crimson/Yes muse into the ether.

Most of the songs on “Sympathetic Resonance” are exhaustively long. “Neurotically Wired,” “Stained Glass Sky” and “Any Given Day” all clock in at over 10 minutes-long — and they’re filled with the multiple time signature twists and turns reminiscent of early Fates Warning tracks like “Epitaph” or “The Ivory Gate of Dreams.” In that sense, the album is actually less controlled than “Awaken The Guardian,” which can be a drawback.

Arch is a great vocalists, but his lyrical phrasing can be a bit jarring at times. On “Guardian,” the songs were so tight that Arch wasn’t able to fly too far from the melody; the songs on “Sympathetic Resonance,” however, are a bit more free-form, so at times Arch seems to be singing against the melody. It’s just his style, I know, but occasionally it does sound odd.

But when the man is on, he’s really on — “Midnight Serenade” is equal to anything Arch did with the band on “Guardian,” and “Any Give Day (Strangers Like Me)” showcases voice to the fullest extent.

The musicianship here is stellar. Matheos and Aresti go for broke on the opening instrumental barrage of “Stained Glass Sky” and the guitars impress throughout. Arch and Aresti came of age in the era of the guitar solo and their chops have only gotten better since the 1980s. Drummer Bobby Jarzombek is a phenomenal drummer who stands out on every single track. As for Joey Vera, he’s not really given much to do beyond follow the melodies — but, considering the complexity level of the songs, that’s probably enough

I have some quibbles. Lyrically, the album is riddled with clichés — you could almost make a drinking game out of the number of times Arch lets fly with a stock phrase — and the songs are certainly less focused than the tracks on “Awaken The Guardian.”

So, this isn’t the album of the year I was hoping it to be, but am I disappointed in “Sympathetic Resonance”? No. The album takes patience and multiple spins to really appreciate, but the songs have grown on me with repeat listens (Incense and Myrrh” is notable in that the track seemed like a throwaway effort on first listen — but has gotten more and more impressive on every successive listen).

Anyway, it’s good to hear Arch, and Matheos together again. I certainly hope there will be a tour in 2012.

Interview: Municipal Waste guitarist Ryan Waste ready to get back to band’s trademark punk-metal attack

Reviewing music is a pretentious business. Just look around the Web and you’ll find scads of half-educated, opinionated dolts like me trying to find something meaningful to say about every damn album that plops onto their desks.

Thing is, most of our smart-guy opinions are 99 percent crap. “Oh yes, most people think ‘Deliverance’ is about a man drowning his beloved, but it’s really about a time when Mikael Akerfeldt couldn’t get it up in Japan.” But is it really? Every music review is subjective, so perhaps the reviewer is subconsciously being influenced by the time he couldn’t get it up in Japan. You see? There’s no “truth” in most music reviews, but there’s a ton of bogus-intellectual claptrap and self-congratulatory yap. Take it from me, I know.

And that, my friends, is why I love bands like Municipal Waste. You don’t have to rack your brain on a song like “Knife Fight” or “Blood Hunger,” cuz everything you need to know about the meaning of the song is right there in the title. What’s “Poseur Disposer” about? It’s about a thing that friggin’ shreds poseurs, that’s what it’s about, baby.

But being straightforward lyrically doesn’t mean Municipal Waste is musically simple. On the contrary; it takes a lot of work to cram so many riffs and hooks into a 47 second song like “Dropped Out” or to hammer out a 13 second manic masterpiece like “Death Prank.”

The Richmond, Va. band’s first album, “Waste Em All” was like “Reign in Blood” boiled down to a shorter, even-nastier thrashing machine, with an S.O.D. sense of goofy black humor and a Dead Kennedy’s viciousness in Ryan Waste’s unrelenting riffage. It was fun — mosh-out, head-bang, kick-butt fun.

“Hazardous Mutation” was also a blast — and sonically very much like Metallica on meth (check out “Unleash the Bastards” and tell me that doesn’t sound like “Kill Em All” Metallica if James had given up singing and grabbed a hard-core punk to be Met’s new frontman).

“The Art of Partying” — to make yet another comparison — is “Seasons in the Abyss” at supersonic speed, musically intricate and rifftastic, but not nearly as self-serious as “Seasons.” I mean really, “The Inebriator” is totally “Dead Skin Mask” — but sixteen times faster and not nearly so full-of-itself. And the title track, “The Art of Partying” is amazingly crushing and fun — it’s music for smashing the furniture and throwing the TV out the hotel room window.

While Municipal Waste evolved its sound over the years, there’s a sense that Ryan Waste feels the band strayed too far from its dirty punk roots and gross-out humor on their 2009 release, “Massive Aggressive.”  In a recent interview, Waste said the band — which is recording tracks for its next album — wanted to get back to the feel of their earlier thrash epics.

“It sounds like an old Waste record,” Ryan Waste said of the new material. “We’re bringing the old Waste and bringing the old themes back. We’re keeping the music heavy. (Lyrically), it’s still tongue in cheek — songs about death, with our sense of humor.

“We’re producing it,” Ryan Waste said. “We’re not a pretentious band; we don’t need a big-name producer to make Municipal Waste sound like Municipal Waste.”

The band was about half-way through the recording process at the time of the interview, Ryan Waste said. “It’s totally written, but I’m trying to put some (guitar) spice in it,” he said.

It’s hard to fault Municipal Waste for wanting to broaden their lyrical horizons on “Massive Aggressive;” after all, the band was heavily inspired by punks like Dead Kennedys and D.R.I. — and god knows those guys weren’t afraid of tackling political and social issues in their songs.

“Massive Aggressive” dealt with some pretty serious topics, such as media manipulation, environmental destruction and religion. To be fair, the songs were good and the attitude on “Massive Aggressive” was definitely punk — but the songs lacked the short, brutal sucker punch of “Waste Em All” and “The Art of Partying.”

The upcoming album won’t be quite as thematically serious as “Massive Aggressive” tracks like “Upside Down Cross,” Ryan Waste said.

“We’re not trying to be a serious band,” he said. “We’re just being ourselves. The songs will be more like the quick head kicks of “Waste Em All,” Waste said.

“We started out with songs that were three minutes-plus,” Ryan Waste said of the new material. “We forced ourselves to write some shorter songs.” Keeping the intensity of punk rock at the core of Municipal Waste is crucial to the band, because they’re passionate about punk rock, he said.

“Me and Tony grew up listening to punk,” he said. “The only kind of metalheads I like are the ones that appreciate punk. I always considered Municipal Waste a punk band … it’s a (mixing) of punk rock with heavy metal.”

On previous albums, the band sped through the recording process — something they didn’t want to do with the new album, Ryan Waste said.

“We’ve never really took the time like we did on this record,” he said. “… We took the year off from touring to record. Everything we’ve done has been rushed and we didn’t want to rush this one.”

The time off from touring was needed as well; after a brutal touring schedule for “Massive Aggressive,” the band members needed time recharge themselves and get ready to write and record the as-yet-unnamed new album.

“We had a rough year touring (in 2010); it was non-stop,” Ryan Waste said. “Everyone needed some time off. You don’t want to come home and practice (after) you’ve been sitting in the (tour) van for a year.”

The new album, which is due early next year, will be the band’s first with Nuclear Blast records. “Massive Attack” was the last album the band recorded for their three-album deal with Earache.

Having a new label gave the band new energy, Ryan Waste said.

“We’ve got something to prove. You want to do your best to show it has gotten better,” he said.

Currently, the band has only one show booked in the near future — a Nov. 4 show at NYC’s Gramercy Theatre, as one of the headliners of the “Metal Suckfest.” Ryan Waste said he is starting to get anxious to get back on the road.

“I’m actually missing touring now,” he said. “We usually go out a lot more … You’re not a band unless you’re a live band. It’s feeding off the energy (of the crowd).”

www.facethewaste.com

Book review: “Enter Night, A Biography of Metallica”

I had never heard of author/music critic Mick Wall until I stumbled across Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica last week, but Wall certainly knows his way around much of the hard rock and heavy metal world.

In addition to writing for various metal mags and publications like the London Times, Wall has penned bios of Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Bono and Guns N Roses.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Wall’s stuff, because Enter Night is an intelligent, thorough, high-quality work — filled with both sharp insights and cutting anecdotes, while not lacking on the lets-look-at-the-car-wreck sleaze that made rock bios like “Hammer of the Gods” so much damn fun.

Wall has interviewed Metallica members James Hetfield and Lar Ulrich numerous times over the years. Wall has also spent a good amount of time with Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton (much less with Jason Newsted, but more on that later). Wall also interviewed other prominent figures in Metallica’s history, like Dave Mustaine, Rob Trujillo, Ron McGovney, Jonny and Marsha Zazula, Brian Slagel, Bob Rock, Flemming Rasmussen and members of Armored Saint, Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and other bands, tour managers and insiders.

All of that access did not turn Wall into a sycophant; indeed Wall is unafraid to slaughter Metallica sacred cows like “… And Justice For All” and “Death Magnetic. Wall also doesn’t gloss over unpleasant band history… especially when it comes to the decisions Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett made after Cliff Burton’s death in September, 1986, and how they marginalized Newsted for years after Newsted was hired as Burton’s replacement.

Wall has an encyclopedic knowledge of the NWOBHM bands that young Lars Ulrich idolized so much as a teen with a rock dream.  Wall extensively interviewed Ulrich’s friends and associates, showing Ulrich as a man with the ambition to make his band (which didn’t even exist until “Mettallica” was offered a chance to play a song on the first “Metal Massacre” album) the biggest band in the world.

As a drummer, Ulrich was often so bad that Hetfield would spit on him at gigs, Wall writes … but without Ulrich’s drive, Metallica would never have achieved one-tenth of the success the band eventually reached.

Hetfield gets equally close scrutiny. Wall’s portrait of Hetfield’s childhood (with an absent father and a mother whose Christian Science beliefs led her to forsake treatment for cancer and die while Hetfield was a teen) goes a long way toward explaining the anger Hetfield displayed in his music — and the shell he kept erected around himself for much of his life.

To reach the top, Ulrich and Hetfield made some controversial (some would say callous) decisions. The firing of long-time friend McGovney for Burton made sense musically, of course. But Wall doesn’t downplay the fact that Hetfield and Ulrich (and Mustaine as well) screwed over McGovney — partying and causing chaos while Ron paid the bills — before tossing him unceremoniously out of the band.

Later, Hetfield, Ulrich and Burton would do the same thing with Mustaine — who, Wall writes, competed with Ulrich and Hetfield for leadership of the band — and upstaged the shy Hetfield onstage. Hammett was both a more intricate player (but not an innovator like Mustaine, Wall writes) and someone who would follow Hetfield and Ulrich’s leadership, Wall writes. The decision to basically dump managers Jon and Marsha Z was also a somewhat cold one (the band had actually lived for a time with the Z family while recording “Kill Em All,” and Jon Z put himself into serious financial hock to make that record)… but the move to new management did help the band find the larger audience it was seeking.

Hammett doesn’t get much attention compared to Hetfield and Ulrich. But Wall does spend quite a bit of time on Cliff Burton — who Wall describes as both the most musically adventurous member of the band and the most grounded.

As Wall writes, Burton was practically an idol to James, Lars and Kirk; he was the man who would never “sell out” his integrity and beliefs. He was the most musically trained (Burton had studied classical music and was a fan of Bach) — and also introduced the band to a variety of influences, from Skynyrd to Kate Bush and The Misfits. Some of Burton’s musical influences would continue to be felt long after his death.

If Cliff wasn’t the leader of the band, he was the person Ulrich and Hetfield had to convince before major decisions were made.  According to Wall, the impact of Burton’s death in a bus accident on the band cannot  be overstated.

Burton was killed when the band’s bus slid off the road and overturned during the “Master of Puppets” tour in Sweden on Sept. 27, 1986. The accident threatened to sideline the band at a time when “Master” was receiving raves and a mass audience beckoned. The band’s management, Q Prime, urged the band to stay on the road, and Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett made the decision to find a permanent replacement for Burton, rather than just hiring a stand-in for the tour.  Nine weeks after Burton’s funeral, the band was touring Japan with new bassist Jason Newsted.

Wall isn’t particularly sympathetic to Newsted; Wall is part of the “cult of Cliff” himself, and tends to idolize Burton while dismissing Newsted’s skills as a bassist. It’s not necessarily fair — but Wall writes Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett did much the same thing. The rest of the band looked down on Newsted as almost a groupie — someone who had  jettisoned his old band, Flotsam and Jetsam (where Newsted was the primary songwriter and businessman) to grab a secondary position in Metallica. It was a choice, Wall writes, that Newsted lived to regret. Rob Trujillo, however, is depicted by Wall as someone who isn’t awestruck by his new superstar band mates and as someone who is more than capable of holding his own on stage.

Wall’s assessments of the albums are spot on; he rightly praises “Master of Puppets,” “Ride the Lightning” and the “Black” album, while noting the revolutionary impact of “Kill Em All” and the incredibly alive (and fun) sound of “Garage Days Re-Revisited.” It may be against conventional wisdom, but Wall’s right in that “Load” had a lot of terrific songs (he’s also correct in saying “Reload” is mostly dreck). Further, Wall is also right when he says “… And Justice For All” is a cold, sterile album that is almost unlistenable, except for “One.” Wall doesn’t care much for “Death Magnetic,” but a lot of old-school fans weren’t impressed and Wall definitely is an “old school” fan.

I came away from Enter Night with a greater appreciation of Metallica — the band that almost never existed and nearly ripped itself apart after Burton’s death. I don’t know if the band likes it, but Wall’s account is, ultimately, exceedingly fair and entertaining. I was surprised at how little about Metallica I actually knew.

Highly recommended.

Interview: Wolves in the Throne Room bring three-album cycle to an end with “Celestial Lineage”

Wolves in the Throne Room (photo by Alison Scarpulla)

 This month, Washington State’s Wolves in the Throne Room will close a circle the band opened four years ago, with the release of “Celestial Lineage.”

In a recent interview, drummer Aaron Weaver and he and his brother, vocalist/guitarist Nathan Weaver, embarked on what they envisioned as a mythic trilogy in 2007, with “Two Hunters.” The second part of the trilogy, “Black Cascade,” followed during the frozen early months of 2009.

“Two Hunters” was raw and primal, combining black metal with dense, intricate arrangements and moments of acoustic beauty. “Black Cascade” retained the attention to arrangement, but was fiercer in overall assault; while lacking the acoustic melodies of “Two Hunters,” Black Cascade also contained hints of the psychedelic.

“Celestial Lineage” is the marriage of all that came before. Highly structured in places and roaring with power in others, “Celestial Lineage” is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes crushing reach for transcendence and escape from the modern world.

“When we completed ‘Two Hunters,’ the idea for the tracks (for ‘Celestial Lineage’) had already been formed,” Aaron Weaver said. “By the time we started ‘Black Cascade,’ We knew we would make a three-record cycle; we were already planning the musical ideas on all three records.”

The writing for “Celestial Lineage” was finished over the winter, when Nathan and Aaron retired to Calliope Farm and lived like hermits in the wilderness while they worked on the songs.

“We usually like to do our writing and recording in the winter time. It’s a quiet and introspective period,” Weaver said. “That’s especially true in the northwest, where the days are very short and gray and rainy for months on end.

“Definitely I like to avoid contact with other people” while writing, Weaver said. “No one understands the mindset when you’re in a very intense creative endeavor; we need to be in a really quiet space and get into the head space of the record we’re working on.”

While the wild woods and  mountains of Washington State — and the farm where the Weaver brothers live and work when not making music — remains the core inspiration for the band’s brand of black metal, some of the songs on “Celestial Lineage” have the feel of religious ritual. The ceremonial sound of songs like “Woodland Cathedral” was intentional, Weaver said.

“‘Two Hunters,’ to me, sounds feral and wild; that was the image we had … the idea of transcendency,” Weaver said. “With ‘Celestial Lineage,’ we had the idea of, ‘what’s the next step? If someone has that (transcendent) experience, what’s the next step?'”

The ‘next step’ when a person makes a spiritual connection, Weaver said, is often to attempt to codify it into a religion. The need to build a liturgy or ceremony around the quest for a spiritual connection can be both positive and negative, Weaver said.

“I think there’s a really beautiful side to that; We can all agree there’s something beautiful in a great cathedral in Europe … and there’s something dark in turning that into a liturgical (ceremony).”

One of the themes of the record is that, even when the original transcendent connection is cloaked in ceremony, that connection is still alive and obtainable.

When a religion is built, the initial connection “becomes something else,” Weaver said. “But at the same time, that spark is still there.”

The album also reflects changes in the lives of the Weaver brothers as well. When the band was founded in 2002, both Aaron and Nathan were in their early 20s; naturally, they have changed as people and now have more complicated lives — and that is reflected in the music.

“Maybe part of the reason we wanted to do a record on establishing tradition has to do with being older,” Weaver said. “At 34 and 32, we definitely don’t feel as wild and free as we once did. I’ve established a home and am working the farm with my wife.”

In terms of pure sound, WITTR are a black metal band; it’s not difficult to hear the echoes of Burzum in the band’s guitar sound, or feel the larger-than-life atmosphere also captured by Emperor’s “In The Nightside Eclipse.” Like Burzum’s Varg Vikernes (not to turn this into a conversation about him), the members of Wolves in the Throne Room create music that is intensely personal — but not nearly as cold as that created by the Norwegians who initially inspired them.

But one thing Wolves avoids is the “Satanic” fixation of some black metal bands. In fact, when asked if he believes WITTR is a “black metal” band, Weaver said, rather, Wolves uses its black metal influences to express its own ideas.

“We’re certainly inspired by Norwegian black metal and I feel a (resonance) with the themes you hear in Burzum, Mayhem and Darkthrone,” Weaver said. “But, we’ve taken it an applied it to our own situation.”

Norwegian black metal “was so clearly emanated to place — it was emanated from the spiritual landscape of Scandinavia,” Weaver said. “That is something that’s very important to me. I feel very committed to the northwest and the landscape.

“It was clear we could take black metal and express the mountains of the northwest,” Weaver said. “We want (the music) to be reflective or our own experiences and lives here in Cascadia.”

There’s a symphonic feel to Wolves in the Throne Room — not in the “let’s add strings and a horn section” sort of way, but in how the band’s melodies intertwine and move both on and under the surface. When asked if either he or Nathan have studied classical music, Aaron scoffed.

“I don’t even consider myself to be a musician at all,” Weaver said. “… I don’t want to be a musician. I never practice drumming … For me, the music is a means to an end; we’re concerned more with atmosphere and texture than (any) technical aspect of the music.

“All the music theory has been secondary to, ‘how do we convey the emotion and feeling, and how do we express it?'” Weaver said. “I think that fits into the black metal tradition; it’s more about feeling than technique.”

“Celestial Lineage” will be released on Sept. 13.