Kings Of Mercia – 2022
The combination of big riffs, driving rhythms, thick yet lithe bass lines and rich vocal melodies has made for some of the greatest music of all time, and in the hands of Kings Of Mercia this recipe is intoxicating. Best known as the founding guitarist for Fates Warning, but with countless other projects under his belt – including Arch / Matheos and most recently Tuesday The Sky – Jim Matheos is incapable of stifling his creativity. In early 2021, he started working on the songs that would become Kings Of Mercia’s self-titled debut album, bringing his distinct style yet doing something a little different. “I started writing without any real idea of what direction I wanted to go in or what I was going to do with the material. The first few songs came together quickly and were a bit more straightforward than I’m used to, and I really liked that idea, kind of going back to my early heavy/hard rock roots.” Not having any pre-conceived ideas of what the record should or would end up sounding like, at least early on, certainly helped, “as did the fact that it’s our first record, so there was nothing to measure it against or expectations to live up to, even if only in my own head.”
Churning out songs, Matheos’ next concern was to find the musicians who would help him realize the material, and his first priority was a vocalist. Putting together a list of 30-40 contenders he contacted a handful but none of them worked out for various reasons, and it was his friend Jeff Wagner who suggested FM’s Steve Overland, and another friend, rock journalist Dave Ling, who put them in touch with each other. “Jim had asked Dave for my contact details, we talked about his idea for mixing the two styles, his heavier background, with my melodic/bluesier direction,” says Overland. “We decided to try a collaboration on one song and see how it worked, we came up with the track “Humankind”, and we both loved it.” The combination of Matheos’ riffs and Overland’s vocals makes for perfect bedfellows, and the evident chemistry belies the fact they have never met. “We both wrote on our own, me completing songs instrumentally and then sending them to Steve who wrote the lyrics and recorded the vocals on his own. But there was never a moment where he said, ‘I don’t really like this part, or that song’, and likewise there was never anything that he sent me where I thought, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure about that…’ Everything I sent to him he worked on as is and everything he sent back to me ended up being final vocals, first time around. So there wasn’t any of the usual ‘what if you try this instead?’ that I’m so used to. That was really refreshing.” Having already settled on this hard rock direction, it was only once Matheos got the first couple of songs back from Overland that it became all the way clear of the shape the record would take, with the vocalist sending over his parts every few weeks, everything gradually coming together. “I think “Humankind” set a precedent for the way the album would go,” says Overland. “It’s a heavy anthemic track, but it’s hooky and has melody. Although the songs all have their own identity, I think they are all very powerful. Lyrically, it’s very varied, and there is a different subject matter and story in every song, so there’s no concept or thread that runs throughout the album.”
Behind the kit for the record is the legendary Simon Phillips (ex-Toto, Derek Sherinian), one of Matheos’ favorite drummers. “I decided to contact him on a whim, not really expecting that he’d be available or interested in this project. But, to my surprise, he liked the music and was able to fit some recording into his schedule. It’s an honor to share a credit with him and I couldn’t be happier with what he added to the record.” Rounding out the group is bassist Joey Vera – Matheos’ Fates Warning bandmate – who brings his trademark style and professionalism to the table. “My old friend and co-worker Joey Vera was a natural choice for bass. Not only did I know he would deliver performance-wise, but it was nice to have a familiar face among the new personalities.” With these players involved it was an easy, stress-free process throughout, making music for the love of it, and coming up with something that sounds familiar yet new, expanding the repertoire of all involved. This means songs like the half-acoustic ballad, half-swaggering “Too Far Gone” or the beautiful “Everyday Angels”, and the soaring “Wrecking Ball”, which opens the record on a high note, all brought to life in dynamic style.
The hardest part of the whole process was coming up with a name for the band. “We didn’t want to go with Matheos / Overland, or Overland / Matheos, etc, and Steve and I probably batted around 50 ideas before settling on Kings Of Mercia. It’s pretty much the only one we both liked. There’s no specific meaning or message behind it.” It made sense to self-title the record due to it being the band’s debut, and given how much life there is in the songs it would not be surprising if it did not become the first of many, the combination of those involved creating something special, and with Matheos’ permanent creative hunger you may well be hearing a lot more from Kings Of Mercia.