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.

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