Arena - Immortal? - Round Table Review
Immortal? is the latest offering from British mainstream 'prog' band Arena. Most people reading the DPRP pages will know of Arena, but the lineup for the latest album might have slipped the attention of some of you. Amongst the many things about Arena that don't change is the backbone of the band, comprising Clive Nolan (keyboards and backing vocals) and Mick Pointer (drums). For anyone not familiar, Clive Nolan has appeared in many British/European bands associated with the prog scene, including Pendragon and Shadowland. Mick Pointer, former member of Marillion, featured on the band's '80s prog staple Grendel. The current lineup is completed with Rob Sowden on lead vocals, John Mitchell on guitars and backing vocals, and Ian Salmon on bass.
DPRP got four of their team members to review the CD. Please take into account that both Hester and Ed contribute pictures and translations to The Cage, the Arena fan club. This tells you something about their mindset regarding Arena (although Ed is probably the most critical member of The Cage team). To counterbalance this we got Remco and Neil, of whom the latter never really could get excited about Arena, to add their opinions as well. This should give you a balanced roundtable review.
Hester: Slowly, a buzzing sound fills your ears... As it gets louder, it appears to be
the sound of a huge cloud of insects, maybe flies [which could be a reference to the (in)famous
Lord of the Flies, Beelzebub; maybe a bit of a hint to illustrate the "unholy" influence the
internet is described to have on people in the lyrics of this album...[!?]]. Drums that sound
as if they've been recorded in a cathedral move from ear to ear while the vocals join in,
daring the listener to "take a leap of faith if [he/she] want[s] to find out"... Then the
keyboards sweep in, "howling" the first song of Immortal? into full action. Great
After some possibly "un-Arena-like" heavy bars of guitar and keys, vocalist Rob Sowden gets into the first verse, accompanied by some eerie little keyboard melody. This uneasy tranquillity is not to last for very long though, because the band returns at full force when the chorus is sung over the intro-tune.
Following the second chorus, there's a mysterious sounding bit of acoustic guitar. After two more lines of text, Mr. John Mitchell lashes into a guitar solo. The guitar sound is a bit Floydish, but since John obviously also has some faster tricks up his sleeve than Dave Gilmour has, I'd opt to call his manner of playing "Gilmouresque plus"...;)
Mr. Clive Nolan gets to play the second solo on the album. The knife-like quality of his playing is emphasised by the heavily distorted power chords played by John. The keyboard solo leads back to the chorus, which takes the song to its end.
Like A Crack In The Ice was on The Visitor, this track is - in my opinion - the perfect introduction to the album. Apart from that, it has everything that I like in a song: aggression, both heavy and more sedate parts, a hookline that keeps swirling through one's head [you'll catch yourself snarling "You have been chosen!" at people while walking to the tram...;)] and a "big" sound. Need I say more? This is absolutely my favourite song of the album!!
Ed: Without a doubt the best track and one of the few surprises on the album. This must be one of the heaviest songs Arena has ever written. It starts with a thunderous beginning and features typical Arena 'whispering' sections, a great guitar solo and a mid section with acoustic guitars. Interesting sound effects can be heard throughout the song, but it's a shame Clive has chosen such an annoying keyboard sound for his solo at the end of the song.
Remco: I am a great lover of the more bombastic prog acts, and as such I
also like Arena a lot. Especially The Visitor is a favorite, and A Crack In The
Ice is my favorite track. This in order for you to calibrate my views on the new Arena
album. After listening twice to the album, I already had the feeling the songs were
becoming very familiar. In hindsight, this is no wonder, but more on that later....
Also note that I only had the album for four days when I wrote this review, so it didn't have time
to sink in, even though I played it a dozen times by now. The cover is strange, and the
album title weird. The promo-copy doesn't contain a booklet so I did not take the
time to really analyse the lyrics and their relation to cover and title. Some things
are up to the buyer of the album ;-).
Like The Visitor, this album also opens really bombastic and powerful. The first thing one obviously notices is the new vocalist. I quite like the vocals, a bit less theatrical than those of Paul Wrightson and in the really powerful parts, his voice breaks. But, all in all, not half bad! From this song it is already clear that there is not much evolution in Arena's music since The Visitor. Style and performance are basically the same.
Neil: The album opens with some interesting sounds; a nice stereo mix of buzzing bees and other atmospheric effects, and after four repeats of the mantra "Take a leap of faith if you wanna find out", the band kicks in (after 45 seconds - no wonder Arena never broke into the pop mainstream!) with its characteristic "rock with keyboards" sound. Although Arena have achieved a pretty large-scale sound in the recording, with fairly heavy riffing and rich production, musically I can't help but think there's nothing new going on here. I always thought progressive rock was all about progress, but I'm disappointed that this album merely reheats many well-trodden ideas. Nonetheless, this is one of the stronger songs on the album, and a strong opener, and probably a good posing opportunity for the band when it's played live. The riffing (and that repeated mantra again) continues, punctuated by a number of quieter ambient sections, complete with Mellotron strings and the first signs of Fish influences creeping in in the vocal department. John Mitchell adds an accomplished and expressive guitar solo but for me it's let down by the band simply plodding along slowly in 4/4, in a single key for 50 seconds. It seems there's never any attempt to push the boundaries and try something a bit harder. The band play what they play well, but I personally would rather see them earn their money and stretch themselves. The guitar solo is shortly followed by a synth solo of similar length, although this is laid against a slightly more advanced harmonic structure, which helps, as does the quite raw sound which goes well with the generally heavy feel of the song.
Waiting for the Flood
Hester: After the rather violent start of the album, we get to hear Rob's voice
accompanied only by some acoustic guitars during the intro of the second song. Barely any drums
at all in this track, just the guitars, some string and "choir" sounds from the keyboards and a
simple, but very effective bass line. This song seems to flow on dreamily like a quiet little
stream; very nice!
Somehow or other Rob's vocals remind me a bit of the voice of Marco de Haan (vocalist/drummer with Dutch progband PTS) in this song, especially in the way he pronounces words like "blood" and "flood".
Ed: It's not a bad song at all, it's just not very special. It sounds too much like Queensryche's Silent Lucidity. As a matter of fact, the acoustic guitar line at 2.34 minutes is taken straight from that song ! People who liked the title track on The Visitor will probably like this. Again, a rather cheesy keyboard sound has been chosen by Mr. Nolan for the obligatory solo.
Remco: A ballad-like track, with guitar lines that sound a bit like Silent Lucidity (by Queensryche). This track lacks a climax and is my least favorite track on the album.
Neil: Acoustic guitar is next on the menu, in Waiting For The Flood. The space in this song gives Rob Sowden a chance to show off his expressive and textural voice. I can't help but think that he was told by someone to sing like Fish on this track though. Certain vocal pronunciations are without doubt (C) Fish 1983! The song builds into one of those live sing-along opportunities Arena (and even more Shadowland) specialise in. And then, out of nowhere, the song cuts and we're arbitrarily treated to the sound of Mellotron flute, Strawberry Fields Forever style. A pleasant song, with some nice melodies, but maybe would have been a stronger song without the cut and paste prog nostalgia.
The Butterfly Man
Hester: Another quiet beginning without drums. In this case though, when the chorus comes
up for the second time drums, bass and (distorted) guitar join in. From then on, John Mitchell's
guitar has a very prominent role in this song: solos that bring back memories of previous Arena
songs, heavy power chords, very early-Genesis-like 12-string guitar bits and some other
significant melodies in the background. The song alternates from soft music to some very heavy
stuff, but the connections between those parts sound very natural. A nice touch is the sound of
butterflies fluttering off at the end of the song.
The emphasis on the image of the butterfly made me wonder who he could be, the Butterfly Man. The lyrics seem to indicate that he's an incarnation of Death... [note, for instance, the line "He'll take them all."] The use of some choir sounds and church bells may confirm this theory... Also, in some ancient religions the souls of those who had died were believed to turn into butterflies. In this form they were judged by the gods and either sent to Heaven or Hell. Hmm... we'll probably have to wait until the next extensive interview about the album to find out if this theory would be correct, or to at least get some clues in that direction.
Ed: A long moody track that could have come straight of The Visitor album. Lots of howling guitar. Nice, but I've heard it all before.
Remco: The Butterfly Man opens with a Pendragon-esque keyboard loop (Queen of Hearts, if I remember well). In fact, the whole track has references to Pendragon, IQ (the middle section sounds like Widow's Peak), and early Marillion (in the drumming), and their own work like The Hanging Tree. Really cool, dark and athmospheric track, if you're not to much bothered about the fact that it all sounds so "familliar".
Neil: If you could try to imagine Pallas doing a cover of Fish's Vigil, you'll probably have a good idea what The Butterfly Man sounds like. A more powerful song than the previous one, building up and dropping down, with the odd diminished chord thrown in to get a mysterious, slightly murky, slightly Victorian atmosphere. Some would laugh at the cliché, while others lap up this kind of prog. A powerful guitar solo contributing 80 seconds to the song's 9 minutes, leads us into a quiet middle section featuring the sound of monks, bells, and more dark vocals. The second half of the song continues with another similar guitar solo, and another visit to themes established near the beginning, finally ending the song as it started, but with some nice creepy whispering samples and a final fluttering sound. And if that's the butterfly from the title, then it's a very big butterfly, maybe about the size of a pigeon!!
Ghost in the Firewall
Hester: The muffled sound of what seems to be a cross between a heartbeat and a drumband
fades in, shortly followed by an "electronic" sound with heavy delay. Mellotron strings
introduce some more "electronic" sounds while some guitar wails can be made out in the
background, helping to create the threatening atmosphere of an approaching storm.
The chorus is unexpectedly "big": suddenly one is facing a huge wall of sound; the storm unleashing, as it were. Yes, very cool track, this!! The abrupt end feels a bit awkward though, but that's my only [slightly] negative remark about this song.
Ed: Creepy little tune with the same atmosphere as Don't Forget to Breath. Interesting sound effects and keyboard sounds. The similarity with Midas Vision from Arena's debut album is striking !
Remco: Something in this track reminds me of Pink Floyd's The Wall, like an adaptation of Young Lust, but slower and featuring the deep pounding basses of later Floyd, but also Fish rears his head in the way the vocals are treated. Again, a dark, powerful track.
Neil: Ghost In The Firewall begins with some nice rumbling sounds, and interesting echoing electric guitar twangs, and Mellotron strings swells, and some nice sequenced rhythms, showing off one of the better things about Immortal? - the production. It's a very nicely recorded album, maintaining a crisp clarity most of the time, but with scale, and some nice samples for good measure. Much of this song is composed of evolving layers of samples and sounds bubbling away, adding a depth of sound worth listening to and exploring (good song for headphones!). The drums are uninspiring and dull, unfortunately. Some attentive interplay with the sequenced percussion, rather than simply punctuating the bars would have been good. The song cuts unexpectedly and finishes with 30 seconds of a beautiful bell-like repeating percussive sound. A completely arbitrary and unrelated end to the song, but pleasant to listen to nonetheless.
Climbing Up The Net
Hester: The first thing I thought when hearing the first few bars of this song was:
"Gee, an up-tempo track!! A song in a major key for a change!!" As you may have noted, I didn't
write "finally" there, because - to be honest - for me this track doesn't really belong to the
rest of the record musically seen, even though lyrics-wise it does. The dark atmosphere that is
omni-present in the other tracks is audible in the middle of the song, but for some reason
fails to convince me entirely. And then there's the fade-out... Okay, I realise that I have a
prejudice against fade-outs, since I think that they often are the easy solution to postpone
having to create an ending for a song until the tour starts, but that's my opinion of course. I
probably wouldn't have minded it that much though, had the fade-out not coincided with the
beginning of the wonderful epic Moviedrome. Real shame, that!
Sounding a bit like Welcome To The Cage, I think Climbing The Net definitely has the potential to become a favourite when played live though, because of the catchiness of both the parts before and after the middle.
Ed: Thanks ! Finally something lively for a change. An energetic track, not unlike Welcome to the Cage. You could even detect a slight Garden Party resemblance.
Remco: Finally the typical Nolan keyboard lines pop up! More uptempo and lighter, this song breaks the album a bit, a track like Landmarq could have produced as well, with some typical Pendragon parts halfway through the track. Nice and a good track to get the crowd going when played live.
Neil: Market Square Her...ooops I mean Climbing The Net comes next, taking a stroll down a very well used prog backwater first explored a couple of decades ago. Some of the multiple guitar harmonies (not to mention the basic drum pattern) remind me a little of Grey Lady Down. It's a very melodic song, with plenty of themes in its fairly short length.
Hester: What seems to be the voice of a nymph echoes through your head just before heavy
guitars, keys, bass and drums kick in. The aggressive intro is then replaced by a "flowing"
stream of sound consisting of a deep grinding bass, waves of synths and a nineties-Genesis-like
guitar sound. After the second verse there's a quiet intermezzo, but the band soon returns to
the heavy stuff. The song turns gradually more claustrophobic from that point on. Loads of
electronic sounds are mixed into the music, the guitar gets "meaner", Clive launches another
one of his haunting keyboard lines and the vocals sound more and more urgent. This culminates
into an at first unaccompanied Hammond organ which after a few moments gets engulfed in some
more heavy stuff. Out of this relative chaos a whirling keyboard solo emerges, followed closely
by a guitar solo [this part of the song reminds me quite a bit of the middle part of Sirens].
All instruments join in for a last piece of hectic sounding music, before it all calms down.
The next part of Immortal?'s epic starts out with Rob accompanied by a piano only. After two verses Ian Salmon's bass guitar joins in. They get back on full strength with another pair of Tarquin's "Gilmouresque plus" guitar solos. Another short calm intermezzo before a more or less mild version of Hell breaks loose again. This part is at times very heavy and features a lot of breaks and rhythm changes plus a host of shouting voices at the background.
The finale consists of a fast flowing Welcome To The Cage-like part which turns into a very bombastic ending, a bit like the beginning and the end of Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman's Jabberwocky. The nymph returns for a final cry and then BANG! it's over...
So... after 19 minutes and 47 seconds this impressive work of art is over... We've been led past a quite pessimistic view on the "blessings" of modern technology; focusing on the internet and TV in particular. Great track!! And one does hardly notice that it's almost 20 minutes long, since there's not a boring piece in it!!
Ed: A looooong epic. Starts with a minute of atmospheric keyboard sounds, followed by a heavy and bombastic section, that together with Chosen, forms the heavy side of the album. A keyboard theme that sounds an awful lot like the Theme from Halloween runs through the song. After 8 minutes the song goes into the second section of the track, a quiet piano ballad with one of those wonderful Floydian guitar solos by Mitchell. At 15 minutes it's back to the melody of the first section. The rest of this third section is nice and heavy again and builds towards a climax like we've come to know from the epics on the first two albums and Running from Damascus. The song contains some fine moments indeed but again I've got the feeling I've heard some of it before. Besides that, I probably wouldn't have minded if the song had stopped after the second section.
Remco: An almost 20 minute epic. As can be expected they go through all the ranges of their reportoire. From a very slow, movie-soundtrack like intro (remember the Titanic soundtrack), into a dark pounding part, recapturing the general atmosphere of the album. This track also features some of the finest collaborative guitar, keyboard and bass interplay on the album, as well as the best vocal and melodic lines on the album (there is a part around minute 12 that reminded me of The Sentinel of Pallas (keep watching DRPR for a review of the re-release of that wonderful classic album soon!). All in all a very well done track, even though at times it is too obvious that the track is composed out of subfragments. At times, even early Genesis shows its infuences (who, of course were the absolute masters of composing large epic pieces of music).
Neil: Lovers of the film Titanic theme tune will feel instantly at home with the intro to Moviedrome, with its ethereal choral sounds. But before you know it, the band appears on the horizon with more strong riffy patterns. The song is broken up by various quieter sections with vocals (some with that old chestnut the "megaphone effect"), and some sound effects. Arena also manage to pull off a short and simple 5/4 section, despite spending the vast majority of the album languishing in safe 4/4 territory. The production gives the songs a large, dramatic flavour, which helps sustain the song over its length. Like most 19 minute prog songs, Moviedrome has many sections, and at around about half-time we're led into a piece sounding like it was lifted from a Peter Hammill album. The near, low and descriptive vocal line sung over piano even borrows some of Hammill's favourite chord sequences. While I was listening, I felt this disturbing duality - it suddenly became a mix of Peter Hammill and Meatloaf. Thankfully another guitar solo breaks fairly quickly, but quickly leads into minutes of directionless instrumental meandering, eventually reaching a vocal / synth-choir section of a narrative nature. The song then sounds like it simply ends and a new one starts, but it is in fact the same track, just without much sense of continuity. Finally, the song darts around some more exploratory musical structures with several refreshing time changes and a slightly more daring outlook, albeit with the occasional visit to Grey Lady Down's Annabel for some chord sequences. Maybe if some of the repetition and meandering had been left out, and more attention had been put on the overall structure and direction, this song could have been a very strong song.
Hester: An acoustic guitar and some soft keys are the only accompaniment of Rob's voice
in the beginning of this song. Quite a large contrast after the huge sounding ending of
Moviedrome. In the chorus bass and drums come in to add some "body" to the song. The third time
the chorus is played, Tarquin's guitar soars above Rob's voice. Very nice!!
This is pretty much a "cooling down track" comparable with for instance The Visitor on Arena's last album, Made Again on Marillion's Brave and Fadeaway on Porcupine Tree's Up The Downstair. It's probably the most "non-prog" track on the album; a ballad that might even work for a wider audience.
Ed: A nice and very accessible ballad with acoustic guitar.
Remco: The second ballad. Not Arena's best genre. A bit of an open, poppy track. Nothing spectacular, but at least it doesn't end with doom and gloom...
Neil: Friday's Dream is the last track; a ballad led by acoustic guitar and vocals, offering a simple, light refreshing break from the bulk of the previous song. The vocals play with a couple of fairly memorable melodies and hooks that stay with you after the CD stops.
Hester: The more aggressive approach that Arena used on Immortal? could already be
spotted during their last tour, which was also the first one with their current line-up. The
songs are a mixture of the elements audible on their other CDs [one does get a bit of a "déjà
écouté" feeling at some points] but then combined with a more heavy metal-like approach. This
is not to say that it's an entire CD of full-distortion guitars and double bass drums, because
there are quite a few tranquil parts to be found on it. The sound on this CD is really huge at
times. There are points that you feel like there's a freight train thundering over you as the
instruments and voice seem larger than life.
I must say, that I really like this "new path" which Arena are taking a lot!! I'm definitely looking forward to hearing these tracks played live, in particular Chosen, Moviedrome and Ghost In The Firewall [I can already feel my neck aching from an overdose of headbanging...;)]. Until that moment, this CD will probably be found more often inside my CD player than in its box!!
Ed: There's a couple of problems with this album. First of all, it hardly has any
surprises. The whole CD sounds like a mixture of what the band has done in the past, especially
on Songs from the Lions Cage and The Visitor. The 'heavier' influence that was
mentioned by some people prior to release is unfortunately only present in Chosen and
the beginning of Moviedrome, and it's probably the only innovative direction in Arena's
Rob's vocals sound surprisingly much like ex-singer Paul Wrightson. This should without a doubt be subscribed to the coaching by Clive Nolan, who also set the direction of Wrightson's vocals. If you wouldn't know that Wrightson has left, some people might not even notice the difference.
Another problem is that the album sounds a bit unbalanced. Besides Climbing the Net the normal up-tempo energetic tracks we have come to expect from Arena are missing. After the opening track no less than 3 slow, melancholic tracks follow. I personally find that quite an assault on the attention span and mood of the listener.
It's not a bad album at all (I would indeed recommend it), it's just not as good as Songs ... or The Visitor.
Remco: In my opinion, this album is hardly any darker, albeit somewhat heavier, than The Visitor. The general trend is the same. As such, it can be quickly marked as a copy of The Visitor, but that wouldn't do justice to both albums. It is an album in a style that Arena has made its trademark: take everything good in prog music and mix and blend it into an album. Indeed the album has clear and obvious influences of all the great old and modern prog-bands, Yes excluded ;-). For some, this is the great strength of Arena, to some the great weakness: lack of originality. But hey, who cares? To me, this is a good album, but less impressive than the previous one. Would I recommend it? Yes, absolutely.
Neil: All in all, a fair album, and an advance forward for Arena, but I wouldn't say it
represents any kind of advance for progressive rock in general, if that is the category
it's designed to fall into. Rhythmically the majority of the album is predictable and basic,
and although there is often rich layering of sound, it seems to be mostly based around simple
minor chords with nothing new to offer. There is however some good musicianship, particularly
in the guitar department, and on some of the keyboard solos.
Fans of '80s Marillion who crave to hear new tunes in that style will probably like this album, as will mainstream rock fans who like keyboards and a bit of extra technical content. Prog fans hoping for interesting time changes, or unusual and experimental melody will, I suspect, be disappointed.