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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.