Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Album Review: Arch/Matheos - Sympathetic Resonance

Artist: Arch/Matheos
Album: Sympathetic Resonance
Year: 2011

I make no apologies for my long time love of Fates Warning.  I think Jim Matheos is one of the best song writers in the progressive rock/metal arena, a fabulous guitar player, and a groundbreaking artist.  Likewise, John Arch is one of my favorite vocalists, both for his clear, powerful voice and his truly unique vocal melodies.  Their collaboration produced some of the truly influential albums back in the 80s.  I believe that the entire genre of progressive metal owes Fates Warning a huge debt.

However, real life gets in the way, music may not always pay the bills, and John Arch split with band after their classic record Awaken the Guardian.  Fates continued, evolved and Jim Matheos' writing continued to mature.  John and Jim collaborated back in 2003 for the EP A Twist of Fate, which was excellently received and really had fans begging for more, particularly for John's unique vocal work.  More years passed, though, with nothing new.  Fates released their last studio recording in 2004, though Jim kept himself busy with OSI amongst other things.  But nothing new from the pair.

Why mention all this history?  What bearing could it possibly have on the album in question here?  Expectations.  It is all about expectations.  When I heard that Jim had some songs for a new Fates Warning record, my excitement started to build.  When I then heard that Ray Alder (vox for Fates) was too busy and that Jim had contacted John and they decided to move ahead with their own record, my excitement hit 11 and stayed there until the album dropped.  I had incredibly high expectation.  Foolishly high.  High to the point that it would have taken an almost superhuman feat to meet them, let alone exceed them.

It would appear that this was a superhuman collaboration then.  Expectations: exceeded.

Sympathetic resonance is a harmonic phenomenon in which a passive vibratory body responds to external vibrations to which it has harmonic likeness.  Incredibly appropriate.  Bringing these musicians together again seems to have lead to a synergistic response, in which each responded to the other, augmenting their individual skills and contributions. I suppose what I am trying to say is this: this is some incredibly great music.

The group is rounded out with Frank Aresti on guitars as well (former guitarist for Fates Warning), Joey Vera on bass (current Fates bassist) and Bobby Jarzombek (current drummer for Fates, amongst other gigs). Each person contributes magnificently, and despite the band bearing the names of John and Jim, this really does feel like a group effort.  And it is that collaboration that makes this come together so well.

The guitars are excellent.  Crisp, clear, yet with a rich, heavy bite to them.  This is the heaviest Jim Matheos' guitars have sounded since No Exit.  No question about the "metal" side to this record.  Frank Aresti's solos further add to that, with some soaring, blazing solos peppered throughout the album.  The rhythm section adds to this strength.  Joey Vera is as solid and reliable as ever, with a rich, low driving bass that fills out the album.  I was saddened when Mark Zonder left Fates after X, as he is an incredible drummer.  All doubts have been erased after hearing Bobby Jarzombek on Sympathetic Resonance.  His playing is masterful.  He has all the technical chops necessary to play the intricate, progressive music that Jim writes.  On top of that, he brings a power, precision and inventive style that adds to the energy and urgency of these songs.  I have a new person to add to my list of favorite drummers (in good company with the likes of Neil Peart and Gavin Harrison).

But what about the vocals?  After so many years, was there any possible way John could still hit those high notes?  And would he still write the most unique and unconventional vocal melodies in rock/metal?  The answer to all of those questions is a resounding "Yes".  He sounds as good as ever, in fact possibly better than ever.  His voice is crystal clear, and carries with it power and emotion that are unequaled.  The melodies are fascinating, going places that only John Arch would take them.  Lyrically, he continues to eschew the banality of contemporary rock music and draw from the wells of poetry, mysticism and life experience.  A word of warning though, the vocals are not what people are generally used to.  It took some time for me to really appreciate John's vocals.  Now, with this release, I would say he is at the top of my list of vocalists.  There just is no one like him, and he shines on this album.  And if you have something bad to say about John Arch's vocals, well, it might be best if we just didn't talk.

Sympathetic Resonance is a fantastic record.  It is powerful, vivid, provocative and reaffirms my love of this style of music.  Every track is stellar, with "Neurotically Wired" and "Under Stained Glass Sky" epitomizing everything that makes progressive metal appealing and challenging.  This is not an easy album.  It is challenging.  However, it never becomes actively antagonistic, a trap that progressive music can fall in to.  It is a richly rewarding record, with accessibility to hook you, and depth to keep you coming back.  After dozens of listens (yes, plural), I still find myself drawn inexorably back to this album.  I haven't grown tired of it in the least, and other releases have suffered by being compared to this or coming out after it.

Final verdict: Adore it
If you couldn't guess that from the text of the review, one of us is in trouble.  Sympathetic Resonance sets a new high water mark for what modern progressive metal can be, and what I feel it should all aspire to be.  Powerful, technical, emotional, evocative are just a few of the words that come to mind to describe this stellar release.  I'll add one more term: Album of the Year.  I'm calling it now.  If something comes out in the next two months that tops this, my gast will be officially flabbered.    

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