The inherent problem with being the gold standard for your musical genre is you've got to meet those expectations every time you release a new album. There are inevitably misses along the way, and even stalwarts like Dream Theater haven't been immune to it.
And so arrives Winter Ethereal, the new record from prog rock pioneers and Fates Warning founding members John Arch and Jim Matheos. Arch/Matheos' follow-up to 2011's Sympathetic Resonance frankly doesn't just meet expectations. Instead, it pats those expectations on the back, seizes the proverbial bar and zooms ahead to put a stake in the musical ground well beyond the point of what was once thought possible.
Simply put, Winter Ethereal grabs you by the cochlea and takes you on a journey that culminates in a physical manifestation of emotions. If you've ever owned a dog I'd recommend listening to the final track with a tissue in hand (more on this later). Somehow Arch is still peaking as a songwriter and pushing his vocal performances to new places, and Matheos has produced his best music to date. The result is a meticulously crafted masterpiece that boasts the most insanely talented cast of musicians to ever appear on a progressive rock album. The complex, layered guitar work Matheos puts together defies definition and is best experienced while wearing headphones.
What is the elusive combination that produces such genius? It could be the fact these two men have known each other for so long they can push the other to find new professional limits. Perhaps the amalgamation of talent playing on this record--guitarist Frank Aresti, bassists Steve Di Giorgio, Joey Vera, Sean Malone, Joe DiBiase, George Hideous, and drummers Thomas Lang, Bobby Jarzombek, Mark Zonder, Matt Lynch and Baard Kolstad--have somehow perfected musical chemistry.
One thing I am certain of is Arch once again flexes his songwriting muscle and plants you in the center of emotional floods capable of transporting you to your own tumultuous youth in one song, and then delivering you deep inside the secretive Soviet Union in another.
"Pitch Black Prism", which runs just over 7 minutes, places you at the heart of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The song, which is based on a real-life account of a Chernobyl survivor, is a beautiful tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: a sacrificial ballerina is made to perform in order to distract those dying from the nuclear fallout. Arch ponders what was going through her mind as she knew she was dancing her final dance and wanted to put on the performance of a lifetime. As she spins her final times her "iridescent silken hair" begins falling to the floor.
She didn't cry she didn't dare, dead doll eyes fading away As the musing turned fantasia Unraveling all her fears Did you feel alone, were you drifting through those dead doll eyes, fading away through a pitch black prism?
The guitar that takes over at the 3:40 mark magnifies the emotion and helps you visualize this musical moment and think about what it's like to literally dance with death. The closing 15 seconds are hauntingly perfect, bringing the song and her life to a memorable end.
Arch will never be accused of being a lazy writer. He researches his subject matter like few others, which brings additional depth to an already rich story. For those fans who also hold an interest in history you'll find a fascinating backstory brilliantly included in these four lines:
Perilous flight of a songless bird that could see over the horizon Was blinded by the northern lights and flew into the sun
This is a reference to the Duga antenna, an over-the-horizon radar that was intended to be an early warning missile detection system. It emitted a repetitive tapping noise at certain frequencies and was dubbed the Russian Woodpecker (Arch's "songless bird"). The building of this radar system came at a massive cost to the Soviets, but its development was short-sighted and became unreliable in certain atmospheric conditions ("blinded by the northern lights"). Some conspiracy theorists believe the Chernobyl meltdown was no accident, instead it was orchestrated to take the focus off of the failing radar system and those responsible for it.
Winter Ethereal closes with its longest track, "Kindred Spirits". This epic clocks in at roughly 13 minutes and explores the relationship between humans and their dogs. Anyone who has experienced the death of their dog will find this song is finally able to put the pain and loss into adequate words.
In the palm of my hand Melting into my heart You changed my life Took my darkness away And all that you were Is now all that I am Your kindred spirit Alone again Blue sky, spirits high In that moment we believed Forever would never die Sad eyes, tired eyes It's never easy to say goodbye
The nine tracks on Winter Ethereal bring you on a powerful musical and emotional experience that lasts more than an hour. There is something intangible in its depth, diversity, and overall sense of freshness that sets Winter Ethereal apart from other releases.
Winter Ethereal is sure to be on many Album of the Year lists!
Jim Matheos and John Arch. Copyright Mark Cubbedge [website]