Album Reviews

Issue 2015-034

Arena - The Unquiet Sky - Round Table Review

Arena - The Unquiet Sky
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Verglas Music
Catalogue #: VGCD037
Year of Release: 2015
Time: 54:32
Info: Arena
Samples: Arena on Youtube
Track List:
The Demon Strikes (5:37), How Did it Come to This? (4:30), The Bishop of Lufford (4:24), Oblivious to the Night (2:48), No Chance Encounter (4:30), Markings on a Parchment (2:20), The Unquiet Sky (5:29), What Happened Before (4:55), Time Runs Out (4:39), Returning the Curse ( 3:48), Unexpected Dawn (3:52), Traveller Beware (7:40)
Ignacio Bernaola's Review
I can not start this review otherwise than saying The Unquiet Sky is a great album.

In my opinion, Arena are one of the most underrated bands of the current progressive rock scene. This year, the band celebrate their 20th anniversary and few current bands can boast of maintaining such a high level in all their albums while retaining essence and style. It´s true that some music listeners require evolution and changes in their music they listen to but I believe it´s not necessary. Arena do very well what they do, creating a unique style within the neo prog, and they know how to evolve maintaining that dark sound they´re known for. One could speak of lineup changes over the years but would be mere anecdotes or shades since the essence of Arena is maintained, despite of their members.

In The Unquiet Sky we find all the elements that distinguish Clive Nolan and his band and, as he explains, it´s done deliberately, since in this record, memories of all his previous works are heard. It all sounds familiar and that, far from being a criticism, is good news for all fans of the band.

The album begins with The Demon Strikes and from this moment you know what awaits you. Great guitars, classic rhythm of the band and keyboards by Nolan creating the atmosphere and environment that will follow throughout the disc. How Did it Come to This? is presented as the first ballad of the album, with great vocal work by Manzi accompanied by an endless solo by Mitchell on a beautiful background piano and arrangements, creating one of the most emotional songs on the album. The Bishop of Lufford accelerates toward a more rock rhythm, theatrical facet of Manzi appears and surprises us with a great ending. No Chance Encounter takes darkness and the hardest sounds by mixing different rhythms as only Arena know how to do. As if it were a pause, the instrumental Markings on a Parchment is a short essay that gives way to The Unquiet Sky, a wonderful theme with leisurely pace, perfect vocal performance, a great chorus and guitars by John Mitchell appears facing the masterful work of Nolan on keyboards. A song capable of attract new fans by itself.

Of course all songs are within the well-known Arena style. In Returning the Curse the best typical neo prog keyboards again return. The last and longest song on the album represents every one of the aspects that make Arena such a special band - theatrics, changes of pace, perfect execution of each instrument, powerful melodies and everything inside the environment that the master Nolan knows how to create again and again.

This album is the second with Paul Manzi on vocals, perhaps the most notable change since Rob Sowden had managed to adapt his theatrical character to the sound of the band. His leaving was a pity, to me. In any case, if Seventh Degrees of Separation was the first step in The Unquiet Sky, we can see Paul Manzi fully integrated in the band and influencing the sound while preserving the spirit of Arena.

In short, this album brings us everything that is good in Arena's sound. They've done it again. I hope this album may help those who don't know Arena very well discover one of the greatest bands of the current progressive scene. If this review was for fans of the group only, it could have simply been summed up in one word: Arena! It would be the perfect definition.
Raimond Fischbach's Review
Arena are one of the few neo prog bands I can really enjoy, because they're not as noodly as the genre's mainstream. Besides usual neo prog trademarks, Clive Nolan always takes a good dose of elements from other genres and sprinkles them over their albums. Also the way they put a little dose of pathos into their music is something I do enjoy. After Contagion I was afraid that he would discontinue the dramatic moment, because that was gone on that album.

Luckily, Contagion was just not a concept album, but a collection of songs, as far as I can tell. With The Unquiet Sky, Nolan again wrote another concept piece, based on a horror story he read. And he not only brings back the drama and the pathos, he even tops it big time! Only the intro of the album sounds like a score by Danny Elfman. When that one hit me at first, I instantly envisioned little puppet beings doing their every-day weird life things, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as T-800 coming upon their world. With the first song it becomes less intense, but it's still way more than we are used from the band. I really like that, because it adds quite power to a rather power-less genre. Apart from that, Arena do what they always do: serve all the neo prog trademarks plus adding some stylistic goodies from the outside to the mix, so listening to it always remains thrilling.

The recent line-up changes turn out well for the band's style. Paul Manzi never had a problem integrating himself to the band sound and to me it feels like there never has been another singer. It is a pity to see John Jowitt leave the band, but Kylan Amos does a really good job filling his shows. He has a different style but integrates very well and his playing is indeed delicate.

The production of the album is of such crisp and clear hear-through quality that it feels a bit strange to have those vintage keyboard sounds in it. It's like a print with two totally differing rasters. I mean, the modern sounds and the orchestration appear in a manner that you can imagine the string section is standing right there in your room. Now try and combine that with old string synthesizers, Moog sounds, and polished mellotron samples.

The only downside of the album is, that in the last four songs, the writing becomes weaker. It feels as if Nolan had a hard time finding the enthusiasm for a full album.

With this little decline in it, after a little dent with Contagion, The Unquiet Sky shows that the band are still on the rise and their creation still becomes better over time. If only John Mitchell would come out of his must-be-neo-prog mood and serve a more concise guitar tone. That would do his genius playing way more justice.
Peter Swanson's Review
In the year that Arena celebrate their 20th anniversary they released their eighth studio album entitled The Unquiet Sky. During these twenty years we've seen a lot of changes in the lineup. The latest change being the replacement of John Jowitt on bass by Kylan Amos. Singer Paul Manzi is also one of the newer members of the band but he has already made his debut on the album The 7th Degree Of Separation in 2011.

This new album is mainly the "baby" of Clive Nolan (keyboards) and Mick Pointer (drums) who finally had some time to record some new material. Both are very busy with their own side-projects. (Nolan with writing and performing rock musicals and Pointer with Marillion's Script project). The guitarist John Mitchell had to make time to play his parts for the new album because he was right in the middle of recording his own Lonely Robot album. So all very busy people, but with their 20th anniversary in 2015, a new album was the way to celebrate that, including an extensive tour along European venues.

In an interview, Pointer said that they are to perform live 3 or 4 songs from the new album and tracks from all the other seven albums as well. Something to look forward to when you're a huge fan, I guess!

The 7th Degree of Separation received some mixed comments from our reviewers and didn't even get a recommendation by DPRP. Having listened to this new album I expect it will score slightly better!

The Demon Strikes opens this album with a blast. Very bombastic, almost prog metal and reminiscent of some of Clive Nolan's Shadowland tracks. The powerful voice of Manzi, who sings with his usual drama and pathos, fits perfectly. In the ballad How Did it Come to This, he shows he's also capable of singing in a more modest style. In general we can say this is a real Arena album full of diversity with perhaps John Mitchell being less present than on other albums and Nolan more in the center of attention. But enough to enjoy for lovers of great guitar parts. The tracks are all quite short with exception of the final track of almost 8 minutes - this also was the case on their 2011 album. The album sounds brilliant again and gets better every time you listen to it.

For me, this album is a step up in comparison to its predecessor. Not as good as my favourite albums The Visitor and Contagion, but a must-buy for every Arena fan and other proggers!
Guillermo Palladino's Review
Through many years and many lineup changes, Arena stayed as one of the most important acts of what many call the new wave of British progressive rock. After their previous release The Seventh Degree of Separation in 2011, these Brits strike again with The Unquiet Sky. Another lineup change with John Jowitt departing and an enthusiastic Kylan Amos coming in, a bass player with previous experience as a session musician and as a member of the Caamora Theatre Company. I was surprised by the fact that Amos is the man behind all the artwork for this album, inspired by other fellow colleagues like Mattias Norén and Hugh Syme. A graphic designer myself, I like his work but I think it needs improvement on some details of the photographic and typographic handling and digital retouching. Anyway, let's go back to what really concern to us - the music!

The band has been evolving their musical style ever since their first album in 1995. If you compare Songs from the Lion's Cage with the latest album, you'll see the enormous difference between the almost pure neo progressive style and the darker and hard rock influenced progressive rock. This has enriched their music and made it less predictable. The band almost abandoned the long tracks and their musical structure became simplee but remained with strong arrangements to prevent the album becoming flat and boring.

The Unquiet Sky is the second album with Paul Manzi on vocals. Changing singers is a major lineup change. A new album will show us if that change was the right one. The Unquiet Sky demonstrates that Manzi was the right choice to be Arena's singer. In my humble opinion, this is the best singer the band have ever had in their whole career, and that includes John Wrightson. According to Clive Nolan, The Unquiet Sky is a concept album based on a short horror history by M. R. James called Casting the Runes and its 1957 film version called Night of the Demon. I especially admire the orchestral arrangements and the darker atmosphere the album develops. It also have elements from previous releases like The Visitor, Immortal? and Pepper's Ghost.

Compared with The Seventh Degree of Separation, this album has more highlights. The opening track The Demon Strikes reminds me of Moviedrome and it starts with a wonderful orchestral arrangement, reflecting the work done by Nolan on the musicals he produced. How Did it Come to This? is my favorite song of this album, some kind of soft prog song beautifully composed. Markings on a Parchments is an evocative instrumental which introduces to the awesome The Unquiet Sky.

What Happened Before transported me to Immortal? era, with wonderful piano, keyboards and guitar arrangements. Time Runs Out and Returning the Curse the perfect mixture between Hard Rock with Progressive influence and keyboards solos and atmospheres, excellent tracks! Traveller Beware is the perfect final track for this album, not so darker, not too epic but stronger and showing us the band totally assembled.

This is an album that topped all my expectations. It took some time to discover how rich is it is, musically speaking, but totally recommended!
Ignacio Bernaola: 9 out of 10
Raimond Fischbach: 7.5 out of 10
Peter Swanson: 8 out of 10
Guillermo Palladino: 9 out of 10
Album Reviews