The Seventh Degree Of Seperation
Is Arena still here? Are they hidden from our sight? Did Arena suddenly expire? Did they walk into the light...?
These were some of the questions that arose when Arena didn't release a new album for six years. Was this the end? Luckily Arena found some time and had one more trick up their sleeve. There is still so much to say. Which leaves one question:
Can anybody hear them?
Can Arena's new album live up to the high expectations and put Arena (back) on the map? Rob and Ian don't participate anymore. A new line-up is formed: Clive, Mick, Paul, John and John. That sounds like the Visitor line-up! We all know and love John Jowitt, but the singer is a new Paul: Paul Manzi. How does this affect Arena? He makes a big difference. How and whether it's a good or bad thing, I'll explain as I go through the individual songs.The Great Escape
The first song on the album starts with Paul Manzi. It's almost like the band wanted to say: "We have a new singer!". It immediately becomes clear that this singer is in a different league. As much as I love Paul and Rob, this Paul is clearly a much more trained singer and it sounds more professional. I hasten to add that Paul W and Rob's vocal deliveries were always top notch and helped to create an atmosphere for each and every album they did. Lyrically, this song seems to be about a person who knows he is going to die. He remembers stories and secrets from his past and wants to share them, but knows that he has little time left. Musically, the first song is really good! It is full of subtle keyboard work (for example the organ(?) sound at 1:18, or more clearly at 1:39) and nice guitar work. Yes, the first song is certainly a winner!RaptureRapture
sounds like a Threshold song to me, especially in the chorus. That's not bad per se, but I just noticed. In good Arena tradition, the song has a calm bit in the middle. I like the "hysterical screeeeaaaaam"!
When I listen to the lyrics of this song, I think this is about defiance against dying. But underneath that, I sense a fear of not knowing what is coming. At the end of the song, the person accepts his fate. One thing that leaves me disappointed on this song (or actually most songs on the album) is the lack of guitar solos. John Mitchell is such a crafted guitarist and his solos are the best. There are some guitar parts that sound like it could have been extended to a great solo, but it is always buried beneath Pauls vocals. Anyway, this song is also really good!One Last Au Revoir
In this song we discover more about the life of the protagonist. It seems that he's suffering from OCD ("Tapping the table fourteen times. Setting the cutlery down in line. Don't leave the house til the gas is checked, and checked and checked and checked and checked."). He wants to be in control, but now he has to let go, so he can die peacefully. This song is the first uplifting song on the album. To me it doesn't sound much like Arena. It's as catchy as it can get and I can almost see the audience waving their lighters. But what I find very positive in this song is the guitar solo and the synth back-up with a rhythm that strongly reminds me of "Cinema Show" by Genesis. I'm sure Clive & Co. did it deliberately since it's so obvious. Not a problem at all, it sounds delicious! So not a dark proggy song, but still very very nice.The Ghost WalksThe Ghost Walks
on the other hand sounds very dark. Manzi's performance can be compared to the "Take a leap of faith" part in Chosen
, or the verses in Ghost In The Firewall
. I am not really fond of this prayer-like chanting. The instrumental second section is better and sounds more like Arena. With the choirs and epic guitars. I am not sure about this song... I guess the second half of the song can't redeem the song as a whole.Thief Of Souls
The fifth song starts with a piano and reminds me a bit of Tantalus
from the "Pepper's Ghost" album. Arena sure knows how to build up a tension. It took me a few times before I knew how to estimate its value. Now that I wrote it down, I must admit that the comparison with Tantalus
holds very well, since it also has a build-up and shifts gear in the song. The chorus is ok, but sounds a bit misplaced somehow. Also, the chorus (and the way Paul delivers it) sounds like it could have been on a Threshold song again.Close Your Eyes
With Close Your Eyes
Arena has another of those songs of which the chorus sticks in your head. The percussion and guitar loop gives the song a 'jungle feel' (for lack of a better description). Again, the guitar parts are nice, but it's always so subtle... I miss a phenomenal guitar solo. I expected one somewhere between 1:40 and 1:55 (right after the silence would have been the best), but it never came...Echoes Of The Fall
The intro of this song promises excitement! And indeed, this is an uptempo song. Very powerful. Great instrumentation, although I must say most of it is because of John Mitchell's guitar work. Paul Manzi's voice is everywhere. This song is the shortest in the list (only 2:26 minutes), but still has seven verses in the booklet. Arena could have made an awesome instrumental out of this with a guitar solo here and a synth solo there, but instead they opted for as much vocals as possible. I can't say it's bad, but I can't help but think it could have been so much more...Bed Of Nails
At last a guitar solo, albeit a short one (there were even longer ones on the Kino album). At 3:15 there's a break from the chorus and we hear only Mitchell's guitar, playing a tension building riff. You wonder "what is coming?", but then the chorus re-enters. The last minute or so, there actually is something of a guitar solo, but it is once again buried deep in the mix, and Paul's vocals are at the front, just repeating lines which have already been sung in all the choruses. Yes, the song is catchy and it drags you into singing along. The melodies are nice, but I miss something... I think courage, emotion.What If?
A very beautiful song! A wonderful chorus! At 3:11 there's a guitar solo, but it just follows the vocal melody and lasts only ten seconds. Disappointing! It really is a decent song, but this could also be... I don't know... Asia or Ten, just to name a melodic AOR band with Prog leanings.Trebuchet
Well, this starts out really good. And it's a good track, but nothing sticks out in particular. Nothing memorable.Burning Down
The first track I heard, since it featured on DPRP radio. This is what I said about it almost two months ago:
"It's a very powerful song, not really proggy by Arena standards, but still really nice. I think I heard JM's voice too. And Clive did a nice keyboard solo with a cool sound, that sounded very much like Arena.
" I also said this: "I am very much looking forward to the other songs as well. And secretly I hope it sounds a bit more proggier than Burning Down.
" Well... I'm sorry to say that most of the album is not much proggier than this song. Again, it's not bad, but my anticipation was so high.Catching The Bullet
This is a big step forward. The vocal melodies are really something special this time. It is daring. It sounds very epic and feels like a second Opera Fanatica
in so many ways. At 3:22 it sounds so magical. From 4:22 and onwards it is Arena back in instrumental business. And I love that so much! It feels like Solomon
. It sounds big! And finally, at 6:05, there it is: John Mitchell is back with truly an Arena worthy guitar solo! Better late than never, I guess.The Tinder Box
From the start you just know this is the final song. Its recapitulatory character comes through very well. As the song moves more towards the end, the tempo becomes faster. But to be honest, it just repeats and repeats. And there is no real end... It just suddenly stops and Paul says: "The end". I'm sorry but was there really no other way?Conclusion
I realise I'm being pretty negative, but I ensure you that I didn't mean to write a negative review. I just listened and wrote down what came to me.
When I look at the credits, I see that Nolan is responsible for most of the writing. Pointer participated in the writing process of seven of the eleven songs. John Mitchell and John Jowitt both only co-wrote three songs... To me, it sounds as if the band had finished most of the album, but were still waiting for John Mitchell to bring in his guitar solos. He never came to it and they decided to release the album anyway.
I also miss Clive's keyboard. It is present on the album, but so subtle... Actually, the only thing that jumps out are Paul's vocals. Paul Manzi is a great singer. But in my opinion he is really too prominently in the mix. After a few songs I get a bit tired of Paul's singing. He's excellent, but there's no need to show off his vocal capabilities ad nauseam.
There's not really a recurring musical theme, which is why it's hard for me to recognise this as a concept album.
The production is superb. Probably the best production Arena has ever had. Every sound is crystal clear.
Arena has made a drastic change in the line up, and seems to have chosen to play safe. Perhaps this was actually the right move. They mentioned a new album next year, let's hope for something better!
I'm sure this album is a grower, but a very very slow grower. It's already better than most things released in 2011, but I admit to have expected a bit more from Arena.