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A little over a year ago I was digging through a pile of CDs at a flea market, 3rd rate groove metal shit from around 2000 to 2004, I’d picked through this pile many times occasionally excavating a gem, Syrinx’s “Crystal Ciffs”, Deteriorot’s “In Ancient Beliefs” and Nuclear Assault’s “Alive Again” to name a few. But one nasty, festering, Texas summer afternoon I happened upon John Arch’s “A Twist In Fate” EP. Immediately recognizing the name as the legendary voice behind the early masterpieces Fates Warning churned out in the eighties I purchased the disk for a mere fifty cents.
As customary procedure when I initiate a new CD into my collection, I inspect the booklet that comes with the CD, read lyrics, check the cast and crew of the music I am about to hear. The line-up was one that set me to drooling; John Arch on vocals (“First time since ‘Awaken the Guardian’!” the booklet proudly professed), Jim Mathos covering guitars and keys, Joey Vera on bass, and Mike Portnoy covering drums. This was one of those dream team line-ups that every prog fan imagined in their heads at night, just thinking about that brought thoughts into my brain that what I may just soon be hearing maybe something like the bastard son of Dream Theater and Fates Warning, or at the very least something like Trans-Atlantic.
When I put the CD in and played through the two tracks, I was rather dumbfounded at first. Musically the EP was something like Dream Theater, probably Octavarium era Dream Theater to be precise. I wasn’t disappointed, no, the music was top notch, tight as a drum and Arch, he sounded wonderful, much like Michael Kiske it seemed that as they age their voices age like fine wine. But what caught me off guard was in the musicianship, there sat behind John Arch, an incredible team of musicians, all talented in their own right but in this were no solos, room for jamming by the rest of the band. Now looking back to this, I do realize that it is a project titled “John Arch” so therefore the man is going to sing, and sing and sing. But somehow deep inside of me I had expected that there would be more room for the rest of the instruments to breathe.
But after my initial confusion with this record I spun it on occasion, letting the music sink in. And while not being the monster prog jam that I had expected the EP has some lasting value, John sings his heart out on this, weaving catchy, lasting melodies over the two epics the four men have constructed. Both songs have a great sense of progressive rock build, letting the tension and pressure accumulate and allowing it finally explode at the end. As far as the individual tracks go, the opener “Relentless” is by far the better of the two tracks. As I have previously stated the sound of this EP greatly resembles the sound of Dream Theater’s “Octavarium”; “Relentless” mirrors the title track of the 2005 Dream Theater release pretty well, this is not a bad thing in any sense seeing as both tracks are utterly phenomenal (and “Relentless” has a vocalist who can still sing…). “Cheyenne” the second song is more on the symphonic side of things, taking a rather Symphony X, keyboard happy approach to it, but like “Relentless” once the build has completed and exploded it takes to the Dream Theater-esc prog.
Despite the fact that my initial reaction was that of confusion, over the time that I’ve listened to this EP, I have come to enjoy it, while the fact that it is a good release in the end it is far too short. It does make me happy to hear that eight years after this, Arch and Mathos have once more teamed up to play some good old prog metal this time toting along another crazy good line-up. I’ve yet to hear this new album, and maybe I will one day…when I have money, but until then, this EP will have to satiate my rabid desires.
A brief word of (Fates) warning: I may mention the Arch era of a certain band here, I may make comparisons to this said band, and it's more than likely to impair my judgment – as is often the case. That said, if you want an impartial review from a logical, reasonable fellow I suggest you try elsewhere.
Well, on the plus side it would seem that John Maurice Archambault's voice is in fine form, and I suppose that's somewhat of given his that he hadn't really sung professionally for TWENTY FUCKING YEARS! Seriously, barring the occasional appearance with Fates Warning Archy boy had all but disappeared from the limelight (there's a Rush-related pun there – I suppose it's somewhat relevant to the direction FW took without John). Perhaps the title of opening number on this EP is an in-joke; is he relentless in his inactivity? Mayhap. The vocal melodies, too, are certainly the arcane, spacey fare we've come to love (or is that grown to?) from Arch. This certainly leads me to hope that he'd continue work with some other musicians, though, six years on mine my spirit is somewhat dampened.
But then there's the rest, well, a bit too modern progressive for my liking. I suppose maybe I have some prejudice against Mike Portnoy: he's terminally boring. Sure, he tries his best to keep things interesting what with all those accents and clever fills. Indeed, he's a very clever boy – I'm sure his drum teacher is very much impressed. But that's the thing: I know Portnoy can play, I just wish he'd do something interesting with his talents. His tone's actually making matters worse – it's all very clean and pristine but ultimately the neat-freak separation to it all just makes me yawn and wish they'd tried to find someone who's maybe less well-known, maybe less drum-clinic-esque and maybe he's called Steve Zimmerman. Who knows?
That said if you’re into modern progressive metal – this should be very much to your liking. All those shifting ideas, changing tempos and rather whimsical synthesiser sounds, it’s actually very competent stuff and, of course, that vocalist is top-notch! But I do have a larger complaint; this production is rather dull, it’s somewhat typical of the affordable-clean-yet-lacking modern production sound – every instrument is clear and clean but ultimately lacks something to take it from beyond the ordinary “I can hear what’s going on” into the realms of something magical, floating far above the humdrum, the plain and laughing at their pitiful ant-like exercises. I can remember an album that does that and has an absolutely fantastic production job, and its name was Awaken the Guardian and it was pretty much THE BEST THING EVER (capital letters being necessary because I’m like a six-year-old talking about his favourite Power Ranger when that record is involved). The shortcomings of this production are most readily apparent in Jim Matheos’s guitar playing (just as they are with Portnoy’s drum sound, maybe they’re chums?). The clean tone is perfectly acceptable but for the distorted sounds it’s too sterile, absolutely nothing to write home about – in fact I can’t really find anything to it really, it’s just there; occupying a space in the mix, doing what’s expected of it. Note to Jim: remember the settings and gear you used on Awaken the Guardian write them down on your hand if necessary.
I’m somewhat saddened by this record – it’s competent, mostly tasteful in its construction and clearly Arch has not lost his magic. But ultimately it’s just not my thing – I’d love to have seen something a bit more riff-orientated here. There are too many flaws made fairly obvious and the writing isn’t quite good enough for me to overlook, which in the case of Virgin Steele’s Visions of Eden it is (everybody send David Defeis £20, I don’t care if we are in the midst of a recession – we need good production on the next VS album!) If there’s a lesson to be learnt here I suppose it’s that you need to be made of stronger stuff than I to venture into the realms of Arch-era Fates Warning, as it will affect your judgement. Let’s face it; those records open up parts of your brain you don’t normally use – increasing your imagination ten-fold and such. This record does not, however good it may be, and that’s pretty much all I have to say on the matter. Still, I’d love to see John continue with this whole singing business that he’s totally fucking tits at.
For many underground metal fans early Fates Warning with John Arch is like a bench mark in both musicianhip, vocals, and songwriting. When John Arch was given his walking papers from Fates Warning and never showed up in any other bands or released any new music, it was heartbreaking. A man with such talent, not only in his amazing vocals but in the way he crafted his uplifting melodies and lyrics.
It's now been 17 years since the release of the last Arch-era Fates Warning album, Awaken the Guardian, and this is John Arch's first release since then. With so many years passing by one has to wonder if John Arch still has it in him, he freely admits he hasn't sung a note since at least his audition for Dream Theater. But somehow Arch dusts off his pipes and gives it a go that brings the listener under his enchanting vocal spell, bringing one along for the ride.
Musically it's really not too surprising given the personnel Arch enlisted for the album, Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) and old writing partner Jim Matheos (Fates Warning). This sounds like a mix of predominantly new Fates Warning (with the odd hint to the old) and Dream Theater. Relentless and Cheyenne with their keyboard swirls, slightly progressive stop/start guitar riffs definitely drip of "newer" prog metal.
What brings the album back and gives it more a definite identity is that all encompassing vocal of John Arch who soars and weaves his magic over and over again, from the openings vocals of both songs (Cheyenne almost bringing a tear to my eye, being as beautiful as it is) to the climax and endings where John really shows how he's matured, bringing forth smoother and a little less disjointed melodies (compared to the early days of course). John still knows how to write a vocal melody that's very different and that's his trademark, that's what makes you recognize him from the very instant those vocals start. He's not usual and he definitely does not create the easiest melodies for one to sing.
John Arch has returned to the metal world, for how long we don't know yet but by god I hope he can stick around a little longer.
John Arch, ex-frontman of Fates Warning is one of the walking legends of progressive metal scene and some time ago he crawled out of the shadow through his newly formed solo project, simply called - John Arch. Of course, he gathered some of the top-ranking musicians: Jim Matheos with who John played in Fates Warning; Joey Vera (Armored Saint, Fates Warning, Engine, Seven Witches); and famous Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Transatlantic, etc). "A Twist Of Fate" is Arch's debut release, an EP with only two songs, but more than 28 minutes of total playtime! Now that's really a something. Since the songwriting was pretty much individual (each of this guys did their job, recorded instruments, and passed stuff to the other) this EP sounds quite good. Opening track "Relentless" features one of the sickest vocals I have heard in some time. Crazy, dude! Since John and Jim have been working on O.S.I. at the same time this song was written, there are some obvious influences. But here, the music is much more natural and not so electronic-oriented. Acoustic guitars, nice keyboards, good guitar work (what else did you expected). "Cheyenne" is much more sympho-like, bringing the classical atmosphere back to life. Acoustic guitars are now used much intensively and melodies are floating naturally. "A Twist Of Fate" is very dynamic, but then again very natural sounding album. Something like Opeth do in their song constructions. Technically very strong release from one of the progressive metal originals, John Arch. Good start of his solo career.
I like Fates Warning, both with Arch and with Alder. I happen to like most of their material, but this new EP pisses all over anything they've done recently in terms of sheer progressiveness (if that's a word), and technicality, and being memorable...Arch can still sing ridiculously well, and the shuddering cadences of his pipes are second to none, even now after his being out of music for so long...obviously something inspired him along the way, because this is very inspired-sounding and intense stuff. The songwriting is top-notch as well, and it's no surprise that his band consists of Fates Warning and Dream Theater members, because performance is first-class, and songwriting is very intense, with senses of buildup, climax, blahblahblah. Both songs kind of remind me of Dream Theater's A Change of Seasons, though the riff work is clearly Matheos' own. Not that this sounds derivative at all, but it's that same kind of sprawling yet heavy epic winding progmetal songwriting thing they've got going on. Riffs abound, Portnoy's drumming gets better with every album the guy plays on and this is no exception, instrumental interplay is very classy and thought-out without ever being flashy. That's one of the most pleasant revelations this disc held for me-it's not a wankfest in any way, every note and bit of atmosphere is there for a reason, obviously very well written, even the lyrics are obviously quite personal and Arch's talents help emphasize aspects of this very well, as the man truly uses his voice like an instrument. Both songs, while epic in nature, are instant classics, and I can't wait to hear more from John Arch after this triumphant return of his. Prog metal fans take note!
It seems there are two types of Fates Warning fans, the fans of the old stuff (particularly the John Arch albums) and the fans of the new stuff. While there are some fans of both, truth be told there really is a good amount of division between the two camps with even some bickering over who's better and name calling (Some of the Alder fans call the Arch fans cavemen with mullets and some of the Arch fans call the Alder fans limp wristed sissys). The problem was that before this album, the Arch fans could say that FW went downhill after he left the band and it's a direct result, while the Alder fans could say that Arch was only held on a pedestal because he had so little material with the band, while Alder was with the band more and had Arch been with them, he would have done the same. That was, until this EP was released.
I can safely say I am of the Arch fanatic camp, and while I have nothing in particular against more recent FW releases, they just don't "turn my crank" so to speak. Now, when I first heard that John Arch was indeed planning on recording and releasing an EP with a few songs, I was ecstatic, but weary. I had so many concerns: "John hasn't sung in 16 years, will his voice still be good?" "Will he still be able to write his off the chart trademark vocal melodies?" "Has he even been listening to metal in the past 16 years?" They were all valid concerns and were all vital to the idea that John Arch is the man and does deserve to be upon the pedestal he is put. When I first heard this, I was really impressed with how well his voice has held up over the years (I found out that he actually took the time to get back in shape vocally in preparation for recording of this album and while it just seems like it should be a given, so few singers do take care of their voices, so good for him). No exaggeration, he sounds exactly as good as he did in 1986. Musically, this is sort of a mixture of modern Dream Theater and Modern Fates Warning, but I'd say better written than either.
Relentless - When listening to this song for the first time, in the third verse, when John sings "Fly awaaaaaaaay", at that very moment, you know that he is back. This is chock full of patented vocal melodies the only way John could do them, like when he says "you were neeh-EH-eeeever there". The lyrics on this album are of a very personal nature, of how he apparently had a disheveled childhood and how he thought it was impossible to escape the patterns of his parents, yet manages to overcome them and learn from their mistakes and be happy for himself. This is definitely reflected in his performance and shoots down any criticism that he is only able to sing about fantasy lyrics. Not only are the lyrics personal, but they are very well written, picking the right words as to express what he means without getting in the way of the flow of the song and there is some awesome usage of symbolism and metaphor in here.
As far as the music goes, I'm not terribly wild about the mosh riff after John sings "Is this the only way?" in the opening, but other than that, I can't find too much wrong with this song. There's a really Dream Theater moment at 2:30 with the downtuned riff and sort of swirling keyboard melody and a definite Portnoy moment at around 6:30.
Cheyenne - I find this to be the weaker of the two songs, but still a fantastic song. It opens up with a nice melody that reminds me a little of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but then calms down for a nice mellow intro by John. This one again features his trademark melodies. This song is a bit confusing to me lyrically, because there's an obvious Native American strife theme throughout it with some of the sound clips, but the lyrics seem to be of reflection upon a lost love. I suppose the lost love could be a Native American, but it's hard to tell if that's what he intends. Overall, the song is a lot more mellow and more reflective than Relentless. The music is pretty good, sort of tame, there's a few Dream Theater moments here and there, but overall, it's more like a better modern Fates Warning. I think my favorite part about this one is the piano heard throughout the verses. At about 11:15, there's a great part where John just sings notes rather than words.
So, John Arch came back, proved himself and did it all for the love of music. I hope we hear more of you in the future John.