Really Good Terrible Things

Metal Blade
rating icon 8 / 10

Track listing:

01. Open Book
02. Flowers in Decay
03. Unmoved
04. Throwing Stones
05. Empty
06. The Mission
07. Where I'm From
08. We Move Around the Sun
09. Touch the Sky
10. No Maps

Jim Matheos and Ray Alder are progressive metal royalty. Best known as members of the unequivocally seminal FATES WARNING, they have each amassed grand catalogues of extraordinary music over the last 40 years. As their main band winds down, with 2020's glorious "Long Day Good Night" as a gleaming epitaph, these two esteemed veterans have continued their respective creative quests, and there is a degree of inevitability to their reconvening here as NORTH SEA ECHOES. When a partnership works, it would be insane to abandon it, and this low-key, melancholy record prolongs their songwriting relationship with a deeply satisfying touch of class. Ten brief but powerful songs, "Really Good Terrible Things" offers little in the way of virtuoso showboating, preferring instead to highlight the subtle, profoundly melodic magic that happens when Matheos and Alder join forces. If the singer's bravura second album "II" brought a tear or two the eye last year, this unexpected detour repeats the trick, but with the added bonus of Matheos's endlessly evocative and refined arrangements. Thoughtful, poignant and poetic, NORTH SEA ECHOES offer a refreshing alternative to modern prog metal's side-project fetish.

One of the great voices of our time, Ray Alder could probably sing any old nonsense and have them blubbering in the cheap seats, but the quality control that has defined both men's extra-curricular activities is artfully maintained here. Starting with "Open Book"'s sober reflections, "Really Good Terrible Things" is a study in the personal and the profound, as Alder's mellifluous tones drift across his partner's endlessly classy guitar work amid a lavish, prog-inclined production. There are no fireworks, no sudden leaps into heavier territory or anything resembling a blistering, fret-melting guitar solo, and yet the impact of these songs is undeniable. A shape-shifting haze of regret, "Flowers in Decay" is almost intolerably elegant, as Alder drifts through bubbling electronics and surreal synth lines, with Matheos ghostly guitar punctuating its delicate progress. Similarly restrained, "Unmoved" puts Matheos's glorious, light touch approach in the foreground, with fractured, digital beats and sumptuous surges of bruised bottom end underpinning the song's sublime, minimalist core. In contrast, "Throwing Stones" hinges on a languorous, dreamy groove: one of the album's most affecting moments, it builds toward a gently tumultuous refrain that Alder seems to draw from the depths of his soul, in response to Matheos's quietly dramatic ebb and flow.

Free from prog metal's insatiable need for bluster and bombast, these songs are all about liberating sonic space and emotional vulnerability. From the pulsing tension of "Empty", which switches seamlessly from somnambulant electro-fog to gritty, overdriven disquiet, to the quietly devastating "No Maps", which is as beautiful as anything either man has ever penned, NORTH SEA ECHOES maintain their distinctive identity throughout, neither relying on proven past endeavors nor abandoning them completely. Ultimately, the chemistry between Alder and Matheos is an established fact at this point, but they have affected such a moving and meticulous change of pace that "Really Good Terrible Things" sounds more like the start of something thrillingly fresh and vital than the next chapter in a long-established, collaborative saga. A triumph for tenderness and finesse, this comes straight from the heart.

Author: Dom Lawson
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