Arch/Matheos – For the Love of MusicSunday, 26th May 2019
John Arch is probably best known for his impressive stratospheric vocal range unearthed on the first three Fates Warning albums during the early to mid-1980’s. His abilities have continued to gain acclaim in the progressive metal realm – further cemented by the special reunion shows with the Awaken the Guardian album lineup who performed back in 2016 at the Keep It True Festival in Germany and ProgPower USA in Atlanta, Georgia.
He has returned with Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos for Winter Ethereal – the second full-length and another expansive, outstanding display of the progressive metal depth that these musicians possess and deliver to the world. Containing many stellar support performances from FW alumni like Mark Zonder and Joe DiBiase plus Steve Digiorgio, Joey Vera, Sean Malone and Bobby Jarzombek among others – it’s a wealth of material that will probably remind most of Arch’s rich multi-octave melodies combined with the emotional musical backbone to drive listeners through intense listening experiences. We reached out to vocalist John Arch one evening and he was happy to speak at length about the writing process, video making, thoughts on the current state of the music industry – and even talk about Fates Warning with Ray Alder and how audiences handle significant member changes when it comes to supporting their favorite eras and artists.
Dead Rhetoric: Winter Ethereal is the second Arch/Matheos full-length. Where do you see the evolution of your work from 2011’s Sympathetic Resonance, and can you tell us a bit about the magic when it comes to songwriting and chemistry between Jim Matheos and yourself?
Arch: Well…the magic. I suppose that is not realized until we are sitting back and are done, listening to it from a different perspective. When we start something such as this, especially a full-length like this record – we are pretty much starting with a clean slate. It was designed for an Arch/Matheos record, not a Fates Warning album like Sympathetic was originally started as a Fates Warning release. This album was designed for Jim and I. When we start, Jim goes into his own head, he starts writing away. Maybe it’s a matter of two or three weeks and then I get a file, this is the humble beginnings of the first song of the album. It’s all a big unknown, there is so much work to be done. Every time he sends me a song, I try to interpret it emotionally as well as intellectually for the lyrics and subject matter. It’s not really until we are almost done before we really start to look at (the songs) as a band would look at them. In the interim we are so busy rewriting parts, movements of the songs, getting things complete. That takes an awful lot of time.
When I hear something that Jim gives me and it hits me really well, I can get excited about it because it’s moving me emotionally. That’s a good indicator on the early steps. Now listening to the whole album as it’s all mastered and it’s all done, I can sit there with my headphones on and digest it as a whole rather than a work in progress. You call it magic (laughs). I don’t want to be redundant. When we get beyond the demo stages of the songwriting process, we start getting more comfortable with the songs because Jim has refined his guitar parts, I’ve refined my vocal melodies and the lyrics, where it’s all starting to become cohesive. I think that’s when you start to hear results and some of the magic that you refer to. Especially from my standpoint, it’s not until I’m 100% comfortable with the song and I’ve listened to it hundreds and hundreds of times. I can start to do things in the studio where things are more spontaneous, and leave some of the old melody lines behind. Sometimes when I’m comfortable with something, I’ll go more off my emotional side to do something spontaneous. Sometimes that’s the best stuff – and that is where the magic happens that you are referring to.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you want to take the lyrical content this time around – as you’ve always been adept at taking the listener on a special journey through your words, phrasing, and melodies?
Arch: That is a one step at a time thing too. When a listener hears an album for the first time, they hear it as a whole. That becomes a lot with becoming ‘wow, there’s so much going on here’. There’s so much layering of the guitars and so forth. When Jim sends me a musical composition, it can happen in any different way. I could have melody lines come to me first, I could have a song title idea come first- or maybe it hits me as far as subject matter. For instance “Straight and Narrow”- it’s a little bit different because I asked Jim to write something for me. I was thinking of an idea of doing something balls to the wall, not necessarily a long song, but I came across those words – and it hit me, personally. It’s semi-autobiographical for me, growing up I was pretty high strung, I could never follow the rules and I wanted to take my own path, learning the hard way. I liked that, so I asked Jim to write a high energy song. He wrote the song, and I had the song title, the lyrics came after- and I knew what I wanted to write about. The movements of the song took me in a little bit of a different direction so I added a couple of other characters to represent certain things.
I don’t think there was any definitive plan for what I wanted to write throughout the whole album. I think it’s one song at a time, and I see how it hits me, and I make sure that whatever I’m saying isn’t a jaded topic or over-simplistic. These days I shy away from mythology-based lyrics because Awaken the Guardian had a lot of mythology and true-life lessons as well as emotionally driven lyrical matter as well. I knew I didn’t want to stay in the mythological realm, and since Twist of Fate and Sympathetic Resonance I’ve delved more into personally-based lyrics. I have living experiences that give me a well to draw from – based in real-life situations, whether it be pain, anger, any emotion. Or lessons learned in life. Believe it or not, whatever Jim comes up with for the musical concept, I know it can go a million different ways. It’s how the song hits me emotionally that starts to steer the course for me with the melody lines and with lyrical content.
Dead Rhetoric: Is it a difficult process to decide the track listing for a record like this, especially given over an hour plus of musical content?
Arch: I can safely say that I have nothing to do with that! (laughs) Jim takes care of a lot of the details. As far as the order of the songs, that was Jim. He picked the order of the songs based on the flow – the music and how the album builds. I can’t speak for him – I can say “Kindred Spirits”, having it at the end as an epic song closes out the album really well. And I think “Vermilion Moons” opens the album very well – it makes people wonder, is this going to be a melancholy album, they are curious as to what they are going to be hit with. “Vermilion Moons” is pretty cool because there are so many movements within that song, it’s got an old school metal feel at the opening with the guitars, and then the chorus and there are these other movements that make it more progressive.
We go into a real delicate passage where it’s reflective, and then at the end it repeats itself to go back to the heavy riffs again, making it a full circle. That’s a classic, progressive tune – it has a beginning and an end with a lot in between. Hopefully it will hit the fans in a proper way, it’s an opening track that won’t bore the tears out of anyone and gets them motivated. In the middle “Wrath of the Universe” I think is in a great spot. There’s a real building song, balls to the wall. Then it goes into “Tethered”, a more melancholy song. It balances everything out to make it a more enjoyable listening experience.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you know right away that “Straight and Narrow” would be the ideal first single/video for the record? And tell us about the shoot – as it combines live footage with scenes of you riding on a motorcycle, I would imagine one of your other lifelong passions?
Arch: How did that happen? Originally…Metal Blade was asking for a video for the song “Wanderlust”. It’s a great song, over five-minutes… when they brought that idea up, Jim and I were digesting it. We weren’t opposed to it at all, but the more we thought about it for a video song, there’s a time allotment that we have to stick to it. There were a limited amount of songs that fit that – and I really liked the song “Straight and Narrow” because we could come up with a narrative concept easier than the other song. Jim was on board with that. It worked out – I planted the seed and Jim spoke back and forth with Metal Blade. We had the opportunity to do “Straight and Narrow”, fly Steve Digiorgio out to PA where Fates Warning was playing at the Sellersville Theater that night. I would drive down, and we would have…Bobby, Jim, Steve and I. The live venue would be available in order to do the associated live performance- and the narrative was planned for the next weekend. It worked out, the timing was good – we got the performance part of the video done. Jim was unavailable for any additional appearances on the narrative part due to the Fates Warning tour.
I shared ideas for the narrative with director Dave Brodsky and Ally, they thought about getting me on my motorcycle. So that’s what we did – we watched the weather. I towed my motorcycle down on a trailer, with my wife Jeannie down to Pennsylvania. It was a Friday and Saturday, I made some wooden crosses, we were flying by the seat of our pants on this. Talk about last minute- we had a loose narrative. I got on that bike, I did eight hours and it was 38 degrees out. They did a lot of drone and Go Pro footage. The second day was 27 degrees out, and I spent eight more hours on a motorcycle. As you can see on the video, Jeanne did a great job getting on the back of the bike, freezing her ass off. It was a weekend of sacrifice, all for rock and roll. They did a great job putting it all together. I like the way that it’s left open for interpretation. Sometimes we take risks in life, sometimes we pay our dues and have consequences – and life is about taking risks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Dead Rhetoric: You took a prolonged break after first leaving Fates Warning in 1987. Many in New England (myself included) remember your special appearance at the Sports Palace in New Britain, CT before the Inside Out album came out on January 21,1994. Can you discuss the feelings that came over you at the wild reception when you performed “Guardian” with Ray Alder and the band – was that the start of rekindling the fire to begin recording and performing again?
Arch: Um, for the last part of your question – probably not! (laughs) I will say that… it was like anything else that I do. I don’t sing all the time, those things always scare the daylights out of me- I was asked by the band. Although I had nerves about it, this will be cool, because it was more about the camaraderie between my ex-bandmates and my friends, the fans too. I thought I was going to be a good sport, hop on stage and that’s what I did.
At soundcheck I showed up and it was just such a cool feeling being on the stage, it brought back so many memories. It was a relaxed thing, it gave me déjà vu. It was a good feeling – whenever I do any kind of performance, whether it’s on stage it’s all a blur to me. I can’t actually relax and be in the moment- which is really unfortunate, that’s the way it is. After it was all said and done, of course I sounded very rough but it didn’t matter to me. When I got off stage, the fans were so amazing, so receptive, I felt the love. One thing I do remember about the show, the fans still coming up to me which I felt was eons after Guardian was released and one fan telling me that he was in a bad road accident in real critical condition, and he just wanted the opportunity to thank me and the band for the song – it got him through some really rough times. I saw some old friends – Ray was very gracious, the whole band was gracious, Mike Portnoy was there. I’m glad I did it.
Dead Rhetoric: How have you been able to keep your voice and range in such pristine form, when other singers in the metal realm have to tune a half or full step down?
Arch: I have to be honest, it’s not like I don’t have struggles. The two live shows I did with Fates Warning at Keep It True and ProgPower, I just had to accept the fact that I’m not the singer I was back when I wrote Awaken the Guardian or The Spectre Within, 30-35 years ago. I was in my prime, early 20’s, feeling the best that I ever felt. I accepted the fact that I’m not going to sound like that. Having said that, the only thing I can think of that has helped me it’s not that I perform or rehearse all the time- which is unfortunate because when these times do come where I have to get up on stage and perform, it definitely would have been to my advantage to have been touring to be in shape. Studio work and being in your garage basement is a lot different than getting up in a live venue and fighting all the variables.
I do take care of myself. I don’t smoke, I do drink occasionally, I’m an avid mountain biker and cyclist, so I do climb a lot of big hills. That helps my pipes out a lot and has kept me fairly healthy. To be almost 60 and at the level where I can ride at a good level, I’ve been able to get through those shows modestly. I can go back into the studio and make a record that I can be proud of. Those struggles with my vibrato happened when I got diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease, just before the show in Germany. Since then, I’ve been struggling with my vibrato because I do not have a diaphragm vibrato, it is a musculature, neuropathy vibrato in my larynx, it almost paralyzed those muscles. Even on this album, it took a lot to get my vibrato close to resembling what it used to be. I can control every aspect of my vibrato earlier on – it made things a lot more difficult. Overall I’ve been in really lucky to be in good health and to sing at the level that I know I’m capable of. It just takes a lot of rehearsal. Every time that I take a long break, it takes that much longer as those gaps go by to try to get back into shape again. Doing Twist of Fate it had been many years, but then doing Sympathetic Resonance in 2010, my voice came back faster and stronger. This album here took a lot more for me to get to where I wanted to be.
People mention that some of the issues may have to do with not having to do so much extensive touring. There’s probably truth to that – but there’s also truth that when you don’t sing at that level all the time, it’s a detriment when you try to do something like do another album or live performances.
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