Back in 1986, a Connecticut band called Fates Warning released Awaken the Guardian, their third LP and a cornerstone of what would come to be known as progressive metal. With its labyrinthine song structures and John Arch’s wildly expressive vocals — which combined swooping, acrobatic range with bizarre melodic invention — this was music for headbangers who somehow felt that contemporary albums by the likes of Iron Maiden were a little too tame.
The album was a new peak for Fates Warning, but it was also their last release with Arch, who was let go in 1987 after he declined to choose the band over his day gig. Fates Warning continued on with a new singer, and Arch left the business entirely, pursuing a career in carpentry. But in 2003, Arch reunited with Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos for an EP, and in 2011 — 25 years after Awaken the Guardian — the pair released a new album, Sympathetic Resonance, under the name Arch/Matheos.
Like that album, the duo’s new second LP, Winter Ethereal, features sleek, state-of-the-art production values. Beyond that, though, the singer and guitarist don’t seem concerned in the slightest with sounding contemporary. Album opener “Vermillion Moons,” a nine-minute epic that moves from charging hard rock to placid balladry, continues in the same vein that made Awaken such an escapist blast. The music — played by Matheos along with a rotating cast of rock/metal aces, such as bassist Steve DiGiorgio and drummer Thomas Lang — sounds unfailingly tight and dramatic but what’s most striking about the track, and the album as a whole, is Arch’s performance.
The singer has lost none of his extraordinary elasticity (check out those vertigo-inducing high notes in the song’s opening minutes), but the intervening years have given his delivery a new poignancy. The song’s climax, which finds him grabbing ahold of a twisty, unabashedly theatrical melody, is a serious goosebump-inducer, and a reminder of what a formidable talent Arch is — and how lucky we are to have him back.