2016-02-04

Album Review: Jim Matheos - Away With Words


Image courtesy AllMusic.com

Typically, when a heavy metal band's guitar player releases a solo album, the listener knows what's coming: technical guitar solos, and lots of them. I remember when I discovered Jim Matheos' Away With Words album in my local music store, and that is precisely the impression I had. I was, however, intrigued by the fact that, on the album's reverse cover, there is a note intended for music store inventory managers: "File under new age / fusion."

When I brought the CD home and put it into my stereo, a couple of things happened.

First, I was given a purer look at the compositional vision behind Matheos' full-time band, Fates Warning, for which he serves as the primary composer. As I mentioned in my review of Awaken the Guardian, Fates Warning's music is harmonically and sonically dense, requiring a tremendous attention to very subtle details in order to fully appreciate. The listener has to do a lot of work. 

On Away With Words, however, that density is peeled back considerably. In place of distorted guitars, Matheos plays acoustic instruments exclusively. No distortion, no sonic clutter, just the pure and unadulterated sound of the acoustic guitar. To that, Matheos adds a violin as a lead instrument for most melodies, the stunning bass playing of Michael Manring, and then-Fates-Warning drummer Mark Zonder. Just as musicians in an orchestra tend to create rich, dense harmonic content by playing one note at a time, in unison, so too do the musicians on Away With Words showcase the richness of Matheos' compositions by sticking to single notes and arpeggios. 

So, like I say, it's a purer look at the musical mind of Jim Matheos. Truth be told, I never fully appreciated Fates Warning's music until I got ahold of this album. This was the perspective I needed to have seen, the filter through which to appreciate the much heavier music of Matheos' main band. And this is the perspective I got by buying this album. I'm glad I did.

The second thing that happened when I put the CD on for the first time is that I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite records, a true "desert island" disc that I, personally, couldn't live without. Of all the albums in my collection, none other has held as much universal appeal among everyone I know. This is an album that can be appreciated by my prog and metal fan friends, my daughter, my wife, my parents... literally everyone I know who hears this record enjoys it. 

That's not to say that you should turn it on at parties. The music is soft, dark, and moody. It sounds like a cold Autumn afternoon. It's appropriate for long drives, quiet afternoons, cups of coffee, or romantic evenings. In those circumstances, I've simply never encountered anyone who disliked the album. To be sure, popular sentiment doesn't determine artistic value, but it's worth noting that people tend to love this album.

For my part, it fills a necessary slot in my musical appetite. Sometimes I need to hear something soft, but complex, but with more energy than a string quartet. Sometimes I need to hear progressive music without the glam or the theater. Sometimes I need to hear instrumental music that isn't intended as a technical display. Sometimes I just need to relax. Away With Words satisfies all of these needs in a way that no other album in my collection does.

It's too bad that the only audience who would be inclined to purchase this disc is composed solely of existing Fates Warning fans, because Away With Words offers so much more to so many more people. If you pay no attention to any other album review I write, pay attention to this one. It is a true hidden gem. You won't be sorry.