As we're getting near the end of Counting Out Time, the albums chosen here are fresh in our memory, and so is the case of this week's choice: Arena's The Visitor. Which has been chosen by DPRP's 'visitors' as their favourite album of 1998. But there's another reason why Arena simply couldn't be overlooked by us for Counting Out Time: without Arena, DPRP wouldn't have existed at all. DPRP started as an Arena page in 1995, after Martijn Albering returned from a visit to Thin Ice Studios, where he did some backing vocals on Song's From The Lions Cage.
Arena was born in 1993, when former Marillion-drummer Mick Pointer was introduced to Clive Nolan by Richard Jordan, editor of Silhobbit magazine. Pointer had been thinking about recording an album for a while and Nolan seemed to be the right person to re-introduce him in the world of progressive music, which had changed a lot since Pointer left Marillion in 1983.
By that time Nolan had made a name by playing for Pendragon, and releasing albums with Strangers On A Train and Shadowland. Funnily enough, the first gig Clive ever saw, was Marillion in 1982, with Mick behind the drums. A sheer coincidence.
After a writing period in the winter of 1994, recording started in July after several auditions had been held to attract the right musicians. It was around that time when Martijn Albering and a friend visited Thin Ice Studios (at the time in Maidenhead), which also appeared to be the home of Threshold's Karl Groom and Pendragon's Peter Gee. Much to their surprise they were invited to return the next week to sing some backing vocals to Valley Of The Kings, together with Clive Nolan, singer John Carson, bassist Cliff Orsi and Tracy Hitchings. It was a dream come true.
At the time Arena is still called Avalon, but soon Mick and Clive find out that a band named Avalon already exists. Arena seems the right alternative, especially since it fits the album title 'Songs from a Lions Cage' so well. This title, of course, has been subject to many discussions, because of the comparison with Mick's debut with Marillion: 'Script from a Jester's Tear'. Clive has explained the origin of that title: 'In the beginning Marillion was called Silmarillion. When somebody quit the band, the name was changed to Marillion. So the joke was born that every time a member would quit the band, the name would be shortened. So when Mick left the band, they should have called it Lion. After a few ways in which we could incorporate the word Lion into the title of the new album, we ended up with Songs from the Lions Cage. Accidentally this looks a lot like the structure of Script from a Jester's Tear, but it was never intended that way.'
With the help of the Marillion fanclub The Web, who invited Arena to play on their annual convention, Arena is introduced to a large group of fans. Clive and John, accompanied by Keith More on acoustic guitar, play their first gig in front of a large audience. Jericho and Crying for Help IV are received with great enthusiasm, among other songs like He Knows You Know and Afterglow (originally by Genesis). After the gig many Marillion fans buy the album, even if it was for Steve Rothery's guitarsolo on Crying For Help. It was the little push a starting band like Arena needed, but soon it appears they are able to convince prog-fans by themselves as well. Songs From The Lions Cage is voted best album by The Classic Rock Society.
Regrettably, personal problems force Arena to change their line-up even before their first European tour. John Carson has to leave because of personal problems, but especially the split with Cliff Orsi, who had been a friend of Clive since their early days together in a band called Sleepwalker, was painful. Replacements are found in John Jowitt, known for his work with Jadis and IQ and singer Paul Wrightson.
With this line-up Arena records Pride, the 'always-difficult-second-album'. Pride (released in September 1996) follows the structure of Songs, with another couple of Crying For Help-tracks, some shorter and some longer tracks and a real epic, Sirens to finish it all off. Personally, I like the sound of this album better than Songs, the band sounds much tighter and shows much more of an 'own' sound. For some reason however, 'Pride' isn't received as good as 'Songs', but the following tour was! With two albums of material, Arena could easily fill a full show, giving their audience a great version of He Knows You Know as an extra. Keith More and John Jowitt appear to be energetic musicians and Paul Wrightson turns out to be a charismatic frontman with a powerful voice. Despite the initial criticism by some magazines in the vein of 'Arena's a cheap Marillion rip-off', the audience really appreciates what Arena is about.
However, a set-back is around the corner, because Arena has to part ways with Keith More. Keith himself wants to participate on a session-basis, which is no longer possible within Arena, because of the financial position of the band.
One of Arena's roadies, Mark Westwood (now also known for his work with John Jowitt on Dirtbox), introduces Arena to John Mitchell, a young talented guitar-player, who is introduced to the fans on The Cry EP in April 1997. This album is a collection of all the Crying For Help-songs, some of them re-recorded with the new line-up. Isolation is Mitchell's first contribution in composing, as The Healer is John Jowitt's.
Both Johns will join the "No-Po" writing team for the writing of the long awaited third Arena-album, which from early on was planned to be a concept-album. John 'Tarquin' Mitchell is received very well by the Arena-fans. The second part of the Pride tour even features Marillion's legendary Grendel as an encore and brings Arena to the Unites States and Canada, where a live album, Welcome To The Stage, is recorded. This live album, released in November 1997 captures the live atmosphere of what Arena is. Most of the material of the first two albums ends up on this live one, and as a result this can be considered a 'best-of' and a closing chapter of the 'early' Arena years.
Around the time of the release of Welcome To The Stage, Arena's very busy recording The Visitor. The album consists of 14 shorter tracks, together forming one piece of music of about 60 minutes long. Hugh Syme, well known for his work for Rush, is responsible for the stunning cover art, which is chosen by DPRP's visitors as best artwork of 1998, just like The Hanging Tree is voted best song of 1998. These figures are just an indication of how well received the album was.
The musical success of The Visitor probably is the result of the co-operation of the four writing members of the band: Pointer, Nolan, Mitchell and Jowitt. The latter was responsible for large parts of the stunning opener of the album, A Crack In The Ice, as well as the beautiful epic The Hanging Tree. This song is preceded by the instrumental Elea, which is written by John Mitchell. With his brilliant Gilmour-ish guitar-playing in both Elea and the other instrumental Serenity, he's really put his mark on this record, just as Paul Wrightson did during the live-performance of The Visitor. The expressive nature of Nolan's lyrics and the change of atmosphere throughout the album (varying from the melancholic Tears In The Rain to the fierce and bombastic Running From Damascus) form a fertile soil for a great live-show, featuring the different characters from the booklet. These ingredients also give food for thought about the meaning of the story. One of these exercises of lyric-surgery has been made a couple of months ago, by myself and Erik Beers, editor of the Arena-fanclubmagazine The Cage. Together we have explored the lyrics of The Visitor from a religious point of view. The results have been published in The Cage magazine.
If this lyric is written from Saul's perspective, then the Visitor must be God ('I can hear the Visitor'). It's remarkable that throughout the booklet Visitor is written with a capital, just like God is written with a capital. The Visitor can be interpreted as an album about someone who has strayed from his faith and after a long inward conflict returns to God.
In A Crack In The Ice the protagonist has experienced something that has shaken his faith; there's a turning point, a crack. Maybe someone dear to him has just passed away, or maybe he's dying himself ('You held the white rose out/just before we parted'). This song is full of anger. The protagonist seems to be challenging God, because he's disappointed in Him ('I defy you to stand/On the crack in the Ice')
In Pins and Needles the protagonist's still away from God ('I'm not ready be taken yet' and 'Don't walk towards the light', light represents God in the Bible).
In Double Vision (the title already indicates the inward struggle) it's made clear that the leading character did believe in God, but that he sees the world through different eyes now, because of the negative experience in A Crack in tbe Ice ('Demon eyes watch what an Angel once saw'). The phrase 'I will always find you' is put between quotation marks and therefore cannot be from the protagonist's perspective. It could be God calling him; since He won't let His creatures go. This message returns later on in Blood Red Room ('You can't hide/You can't hide from me').
Then Elea follows. Although this is an instrumental track, combined with The Hanging Tree it does fit in with the general theme very well. According to some English dictionaries, the word 'tree' can signify the cross of Christ. Thus, the song The Hanging Tree might represent (the sufferings of) Jesus, just like Tbe Visitor represents God. Remarkably enough both songs have a strong resemblance too.
Elea sounds very much like the name of one of the prophets: Elijah. According to the bystanders, Elijah is the prophet who Jesus calls while he's hanging on the cross [Mark 15, verse 33 and Matthew 27, verse 45]. Furthermore, according to the Jewish tradition, Elijah is said to be the herald of Chist's return: 'And look, I send you Elijah, before the Lord's day comes' [Old Testament: Maleachi 4, verse 5]. Therefore it's striking that the song Elea (Elijah) comes just before The Hanging Tree (the Lord's day).
The Hanging Tree contains many references to the Bible. The first verse strongly resembles the flight of the Jewish people from Egypt [Old Testament: Exodus]. Thus, the protagonist's struggle of faith can be compared with the exodus. The people flee through the Red Sea along the walls of water that has receded ('Walk along the waterfall'). There are also references to the ten plagues that sweep Egypt ('Watching as the world turns red/And the blood on the riverbed'): when the Egyptians keep the Jewish people in prison, the Nile (and thus also the supply of drinking water) turns into blood [Exodus 7, verses 14-25]. The earth turns to poison. The people flee through the sea and through the desert ('Reach across the salt and the sand') to the Promised Land Israel ('Moving deeper into the land') [Exodus 14, verses 21-28]. The verse 'Climb to the top of a tree...' contains another remarkable reference: in Luke 19 [verses 1-10], the tax collector Zacchaeus climbs in a sycamore-fig tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus is an extortioner, so he sells his soul for money ('A life to be torn into pieces of gold/For a soul to be sold'), but now that he meets Jesus he repents: 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount'. So he also returns to God.
God calls the protagonist again: He wants him to come back to Him and kneel ('And the heart of the tree/Was crying for me to come back' and 'It was praying for me to fall down'). Again it's pointed out that the leading character has strayed from God ('Take me to the hanging tree/It's the place where I come from'). The Word of God is referred to: 'The Word was the first/And the last to be heard' strongly resembles 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' [John 1, verse 1]. The protagonist starts to obey God's call; 'take me to Jesus' he seems to call ('Take me to the hanging tree'). According to the Bible, through Jesus you find God. Now the protagonist kneels for God again ('I'm falling... Falling down again!').
A State Of Grace can be seen as a plain complaint against the hypocrisy of the church, which cares more for itself than its believers ('Don't look for comfort in this house of mine'). This may be an additional reason why the leading character has cast his faith aside. 'Think before you throw yourself/Upon tables and the merchants' refers to the episode in which Jesus clears the Temple of Jerusalem. The temple has become a place of trade and finance and Jesus fights this: 'In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and other sitting at tables exchange money. So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the temple area [...]; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables he said, 'Get these out of here! How you turn my Father's house into a market!' [John 2, verses 14-16].
In The Blink Of An Eye can be considered a continuation of the leading character's inward conflict. This lyric seems to alternate between God's and the protagonist's perspective: God brings salvation ('the freedom you needed so much') and asks whether the protagonist keeps turning away from Him ('Do you close your eyes on me'), but tie protagonist is still full of questions: 'Why should all the wise survive/when nothing is what it may seem?/Why do all the living die/When only the dying remain?'. According to Christianity, those who die, find salvation in heaven.
In (Don't Forget To) Breathe the devil also appears on the scene. He tries to tempt the leading character to choose for evil; 'Bolt the door, put out the light' (shut yourself off from God) and 'Don't forget to breathe' (to die means salvation [memento mori], the devil appears to say 'enjoy life' [carpe diem]).
In Tears In the Rain, the protagonist's disappointment that already appeared in A Crack In The Ice returns. This lyric might even stem from Jesus' perspective: he sacrificed himself in order to redeem humanity from its sins ('I stood before the world and gave you my soul').
The leading character's conversion's becoming stronger and stronger in Enemy Without ('Something on the edge of my mind/Getting stronger in me/Growing stronger in me all the time'). He reflects upon how he cast his faith aside ('Faith the attic/Tied up with string) and although he once believed in Him ('I made a promise - my soul laid bare' and 'This solemn oath I swore to you') - how he ignored God ('Any place I could ignore'), because he was disappointed in Him ('The falling of this hero'). Now he returns to God and opposes himself to everyone who condemns him because of that and doesn't believe in God ('You cannot judge me' and 'You hide behind these faithless words').
The definitive conversion occurs in Running From Damascus. This track can be seen as a summary of the whole inward struggle. The protagonist literally sees the light ('There's a light behind the veil'). Then his anger returns (the return of the 'I defy...' theme of A Crack In The Ice), which then permanently gives way to devotion to God ('Rising, rising/I can feel your hands upon me/I can feel your arms around me').
The Visitor, then, serves as an epilogue. The leading character is still filled with questions, but a good religion should teach you to ask the right questions, instead of giving all the answers. The protagonist wonders whether he has really met God ('Are these the faces of the Visitor?'). The Bible contains many episodes about persons who meet God and only realise this afterwards. Then the conclusion follows that you're never alone when believe in God ('You're never alone/Take it from me'). The song The Visitor (God) ends with the melody of The Hanging Tree (Jesus), which could represent the unity of God (the Father) and Jesus (the son)...
Of course, this only represents a possible explanation for the lyrics. The interesting thing about this concept-album is the many ways of interpreting it. The (religious) interpretation explained above is just one of them. It simply shows the depth of this classic album, which has a lot more to offer than 'just' great music.
Written by Jan-Jaap de Haan and Erik Beers.
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