Review Summary: Jim Matheos of Fates Warning returns to his hard rock roots.
For those unaware, Fates Warning is over (or at least on indefinite hiatus). In the opening of their recently released book, Destination Onward
, the author talks as if the band is through even though no other announcement has ever been made. Apparently, they quietly called it quits after the release of Long Day Good Night
– an album littered with hints that it was indeed going to be their swansong. Whether Fates Warning is over or not, it didn’t take the various members long to find other projects after Long Day Good Night
’s release. Ray Alder re-teamed with long-time Fates Warning drummer Mark Zonder on A-Z, and Jim Matheos started working on the songs that would eventually become Kings of Mercia’s debut album. So, what does a songwriter known for forty years of complex prog do when his band comes to an end? It’s not jump straight to another complex prog project, that’s for sure.
When Jim Matheos first started writing for this album, he didn’t give himself any direction or limitations. After writing a few songs, he found they were a bit more straightforward than he was used to (which I’m sure he appreciated after Fates Warning), and he eventually settled into the idea of writing songs that went back to his hard rock roots. The first song he wrote, “Wrecking Ball”, is representative of the entire album. It features a simple verse/chorus format, a rhythmic drum beat that is easy to latch on to, a prominent chorus, and Jim’s chunky guitar riffs. If it wasn’t for Jim Matheos’ riffs, the song would fit comfortably with any 70s or 80s-inspired hard rock band. Kings of Mercia isn’t just Jim Matheos, though, there are three other solid musicians present.
Kings of Mercia is rounded out by vocalist Steve Overland, Drummer Simon Phillips, and Fates Warning bassist Joey Vera. Anyone familiar with Fates Warning (or Armored Saint) should be accustomed to Joey Vera and his fat groovy style, but you should still know that the simpler rock of Kings of Mercia really features his style and is a highlight. Without all the tangents, nuances, and dual guitar harmonies of Fates Warning, Joey Vera is really allowed to shine. Songs such as “Sweet Revenge” sit on the solid groove created by Joey’s bass, and even venture into a brief funk style about two-thirds of the way through. On lighter songs such as “Everyday Angels” he provides the foundation for the clean guitars and emotive vocals. His counterpart on drums isn’t any slouch either.
Simon Phillips played drums in various rock and new wave bands in the 80s and was in Toto from 1992 to 2014. With Kings of Mercia, he lays down a simple beat that is easy to catch the groove while providing just enough flourish to keep things from sounding stale. Honestly, he reminds me of Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree with way he can craft beats that feel simple and accessible while still being an obvious master of his craft. In any rock band, the vocalist is what is really going to make or break a band, and fortunately Steve Overland fits in perfectly. Steve Overland is a British vocalist that was in a rock band called FM through the 80s and early 90s. To me, though, he doesn’t sound like your typical 80s rock vocalist. If you’ve heard the raspy singing of Evergrey vocalist Tom Englund, then you have a general idea of what to expect, except Steve Overland range seems to be a little larger and his style a little more expressive.
Anyone expecting Kings of Mercia to be another progressive metal band in the vein of Fates Warning, Arch/Matheos, or even OSI are in for a surprise. Kings of Mercia is a sophisticated hard rock band that harkens back to the traditional sounds of the 70s and 80s, but with a few modern twists. Each member brings something to the music that allows it to be more than just a generic homage to a different era. There are the chunky riffs of Jim Matheos, the energetic rhythms of Joey Vera and Simon Phillips, and the vocals of Steve Overland that have just enough grit to stay out of the stereotypical rock sound. Together they’ve created a consistent hard rock album full of strong choruses, memorable riffs, solid vocals, and even the occasional shreddy Jim Matheos guitar solo.