Arena
April 20th, 2003
The Renfrew Ferry, Glasgow, Scotland

By John Stout


This was my first chance to see the band live, since the opening salvo of A Crack In The Ice hooked me four years ago. At that point my interest in music was directionless and half-hearted, but this song caught my imagination, and after tracking down The Visitor and Pride albums, I wanted to find out more about the band.

Frequent visits to The Cage pages followed, and by the time I’d acquired the remainder of the back catalogue, it was time for Immortal to hit the streets. While I enjoyed the songs on Immortal, I felt it lacked that ‘something’ that made The Visitor such a great album, but when Contagion came out a few months ago, those reservations were soon dispelled. So with a fine album to perform, and their first Scottish gig lined up, my expectations were high.

However, when I arrived at the venue – a floating boat – things looked less hopeful, as I stood outside on the gangway listening to the band soundcheck and still no one else had appeared. Still, it gave me a chance to say hi to Clive and get an album autographed while waiting out in the cold.

Thankfully, by the time the doors opened a few more punters had arrived, and as we wandered in I was pleasantly surprised to see that the crew had managed to set up the back projection rig behind the stage. Having seen photos of earlier tour dates at bigger venues, I had doubted that the crew would manage to get the same rig set up in this relatively small venue, but it’s a testament to their skills that the rig seemed to work perfectly throughout the set.

And so to the music. It was no surprise that the band would play most of Contagion, but I think what surprised me was how involving it was hearing the songs live. From the crunchy opener Witch Hunt to the closing strains of Ascension, it seemed to be over all too soon. The sound settled quite quickly into the first number, and the guys played with the confidence of several shows already under their belt. The fact that this line-up has been stable for the last two studio albums has also helped the five players to bond into a band of seasoned pros; the renditions of the older songs sound so much better in comparison to a bootleg of a couple of tours ago when Rob Sowden and Ian Salmon  had just joined as vocalist and bassist respectively.

Rob seems to have a fair bit of stick for his early performances, and there were still traces of awkwardness during this show, but his singing was fine, faltering only during a couple of passages; An Angel Falls sounded a little ragged at times and the vocals were overwhelmed during the opening acoustic-electric guitar pairing on Cutting The Cards. But he certainly cuts a striking figure in front of the band, and although I couldn’t grasp the significance of his costume it added character to the proceedings. And throughout the show he struck up a warm rapport with the audience, culminating in the Glasgow Choir’s lusty rendition of Crying For Help VII as the set closer.

Of the new tracks, the instrumental This Way Madness Lies was a particular highlight for me, giving John Mitchell a chance to flex his fingers and produce guitar solos rich in melody and clarity. Salamander was also a winner, with its combination of incisive guitar riffs and cascading keyboard runs. City of Lanterns was particularly atmospheric, with the sun setting on the Glasgow skyline outside while inside the striking painting from the album was projected onto the backdrop above the band. Considerable thought appears to have gone into these visuals, as they perfectly complemented the music, interspersed with real-time footage of the band.

For me, this was a show of two halves, with the Contagion set turning out to be the stronger half. The sets were bridged by a beautifully played Serenity, with the guitar singing into the rafters, before the rest of the band returned to kick off again with Chosen, which was pretty much the same as the studio version. So far so good, but then the band bypassed Double Vision which they’d been playing earlier on the tour, and went on to play The Hanging Tree. Perhaps it was my disappointment at not getting to hear the first track, which ranks as one of my favourite Arena pieces, but I felt that Hanging Tree lacked the drama of the studio version and sounded a bit empty in places. Breathe, which followed, hasn’t been a track I’ve warmed to either, and my attention was starting to drift, held only by the sight of Rob in top hat and shades looking remarkably like Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Butterfly Man was up next, and things picked up, as this was a song that I hadn’t expected to be as good live. Whereas the studio version seemed a bit ponderous at times, here it sounded great with drama and emotion missing from the previous two songs. Again, John Mitchell’s guitar solos were beautifully clear and resonant.

Enemy Mine brought the main set to a rousing close with it’s singalong chorus, but the small and appreciative crowd were not in any doubt that an encore would follow, and sure enough, Clive began the twinkling keyboard intro to Solomon. Now this should have been a dead-cert winner, as it’s been played since the band first toured and it has all the classic Arena hallmarks, but oh dear, the wonderful guitar – keyboard call and respond section in the middle of the song was an inaudible mess. The keyboards were frequently drowned out by the guitar, the guitar solos sounded all distorted and the tempo was taken at such a rush that I wondered if the band just wanted to get the song over with. A great song poorly presented.

Still, the crowd loved it and the band duly obliged with a further encore of Crying For Help VII in it’s ‘We Will Rock You’ version, which I hadn’t heard before. After all the longer songs this was a nice way to end the gig, with some audience participation to help things along.

A bit more banter between the band and audience inbetween songs wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I hope that the guys felt that their first venture north of the border was worthwhile, as the small crowd certainly seemed to be happy that they’d made the effort. In spite of my personal disappointments, I was well impressed with my first live taste of the band. The sound was very good for the most part, and the visual effects made the gig feel larger than it was. I certainly felt that the set and the quality of the show offered very good value for money.

All in all, a great night out, and I hope the band will capitalise on their success and continue to tour up here to win over more fans.

Setlist:

Witch Hunt
An Angel Falls
Painted Man
This Way Madness Lies
Spectre At The Feast
Never Ending Night
Skin Game
Salamander
Bitter Harvest
The City Of Lanterns
Riding The Tide
Cutting The Cards
Ascension
Serenity
Chosen
The Hanging Tree
Breathe
The Butterfly Man
Enemy Without

Solomon
Cry For Help VII

 

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© 2003 DPRP