Review: Arch / Matheos “Winter Ethereal” [Metal Blade Records]

Review: Arch / Matheos “Winter Ethereal” [Metal Blade Records]

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Score 78%
Taking it up a notch
78 %
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It’s been some years since John Arch and Jim Matheos formed Arch/Matheos and once I’ve heard the two men would come up with a second album, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Sympathetic Resonance certainly had its moments, but felt rather uneven and could have done with some clear re-arrangements here and there. Fortunately, Winter Ethereal is quite a superior, if bloated output and convinced me that Arch/Matheos has definitely taken steps in the right direction.

It’s not that Sympathetic Resonance was devoid of any captivating riffing, but whereas the debut felt way too divided between labyrinthine and straightforward tracks (the latter often sounding too one-dimensional for its own good) Winter Ethereal sounds like more compact successor. The biggest surprising factor comes down to Jim Matheos, whose riffs hit harder and faster since… well, decades. This is already notable on “Vermillion Moons”, as track serves as a punchy progressive/power metal opener and expresses itself through a series of straightforward and busy riffing. Somewhat more conventional and less sophisticated for the sake of it, Matheos brings back the fun in progressive metal instead of turning it into a game that involves guessing time signatures (something that some progressive metal fans might have a thing for but I personally don’t), But there’s more: Winter Ethereal features plenty of session musicians and while this could have resulted into inconsistencies, everyone involved knows their place when it comes down to contributing – my favorites being the pounding drumming intro of “Pitch Black Prism” and rapid-fire shredded trade-off that appears on “Never in Your Hands”.

That said it’s a bit tricky to describe what kind of style Winter Ethereal exactly falls into, but let one thing be clear straight away: by no means would this record fit in between any Arch-era Fates Warning records, as it lacks the purely riff-focused approach that defined those albums, even if Jim Matheos surprisingly enough has regained his touch when it comes down to the most riff-fronted material. This is perhaps best exemplified by the contrastive, yet epic voyage of “Kindred Spirits”, where Matheos’ riffs get shot through a rocket launcher and present the track’s action between the tender ambiance of the first and final minutes. Generally speaking Winter Ethereal balances between the light and shade of things, deceives one with tranquil amenity, yet it never takes too long before something metallic presents itself though a speedy or groove-laden riff. The contrastive moody swings of “Wrath of the Universe” and the autumnal, yet robust flair of “Wanderlust” provide a good fix for those who yearn back for a harder-hitting fix of progressive metal, even if they don’t resemble the earlier incarnation of what progressive metal once was. Still, given what this style has turned into over time, I doubt you’ll find anything more riff-driven these days – let’s just say that I wouldn’t mind newer bands replicating this sort of style in the future.

And what about John Arch himself? Let’s just say that he continues to sound as recognizable as ever. Somehow this man just doesn’t age at all – whereas Jim Matheos’ comrade Ray Alder turned into Ray Older once his voice started to change, Arch must be immortal; there’s simply no other solution for the longevity of this man. Through his famous phrasing tactics that only he is capable of, he sounds as recognizable as he ever did. I’ve heard some people complain about him over singing, but I honestly didn’t even notice the amount of words that came out of his mouth before. Each track expresses itself like an elaborated novel and even tracks like “Vermillion Moons” and “Never in Your Hands” perhaps have lyrically more in common with the fantasy-typed lyrics John Arch wrote back in his Fates Warning days.

Praise aside, Winter Ethereal is not without its flaws. Whereas Sympathetic Resonance could have done with some obvious re-arranging, this album feels surprisingly bloated and indeed, I could have done without some songs here, even if they never turn into something awful. “Solitary Man” does rely on a catchy and straightforward chorus but otherwise drags on with some so-so groove riffs surrounding circa its verses. “Tethered” allows one to take a breath from the heavier compositions and instead offers tranquil landscapes, not unlike “Incense and Myrrh” from Sympathetic Resonance – but overall overstays its welcome quite a bit. “Straight and Narrow” is an energetic hard hitter and again relatively straightforward, but I could have done with some more clever riffs Jim Matheos had otherwise laid down instead… let’s just say that the track is more ideal on paper than anything else.

Otherwise Winter Ethereal is certainly a solid offering, even if a part of me has some odd feelings about it. On one hand I’m glad Jim Matheos has partially shown his riff-driven side again and Winter Ethereal is therefore his best piece of work since Perfect Symmetry. On the other hand part of me only wonders why it took him this long to create something this enjoyable again. Perhaps John Arch brought back the worthy riff-writer that he is in him and since the chemistry between these two men is certainly still there, I’m hoping a third collaboration will take place at one point.

Release date: May 10th, 2019

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