Round Table Review
Arena - Double Vision
Geoff Feakes's Review
Clive Nolan is a musician with a solid work ethic and when he’s not on keyboard duties with Pendragon, he is heavily involved in his own projects including solo albums, musical theatre, Shadowland and Arena. Double Vision is the latter's ninth studio album in a career spanning 23 years. Like many such bands, time has left its mark on Arena with the current lineup comprising Nolan (keyboards, backing vocals), Paul Manzi (vocals), John Mitchell (guitars, backing vocals), Kylan Amos (bass) and Mick Pointer (drums).
Zhivago Wolf opens the album with a cinematic orchestral flourish swiftly brushed outside by a bruising metallic riff, a frantic synth line and Manzi’s commanding vocal. The prevailing mood is dark and heavy which continues with The Mirror Lies boasting a monumental riff that both Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore would be proud of. It's also vaguely reminiscent of the gothic organ phrase from The Phantom Of The Opera so perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber is the influence. Either way, its tempered with some rather nifty acoustic guitar picking and piano.
Scars borders on power ballad territory with Mitchell’s infectious guitar theme occupying the mid section, bookended by Manzi’s anthemic chorus and Nolan’s grandiose keyboard backdrop. Powerful stuff and probably my favourite song on the album. Paradise Of Thieves and Red Eyes on the other hand are perhaps the least inspired, both bringing to mind 80s style crossover prog / AOR with big relentless riffs, even bigger choruses and more than a hint of Asia.
Fittingly, the penultimate Poisoned serves as a mellow, ballad-like respite before the grand finale. Manzi’s performance is suitably soulful in a Paul Rodgers vein, complemented by Mitchell’s tasteful acoustic guitar.
If there are strong theatrical elements to the preceding songs then The Legend Of Elijah Shade (or at least parts of it) could have been lifted from one of Nolan’s musicals. Lines like “You were wrong, you misjudged me” sung in the first person are the stuff of plot-driven, musical theatre. At nearly 23 minutes it's also Arena’s most ambitious piece to date. That said, it sounds like a medley of songs (I counted six in all plus two instrumental sections) rather than a self-contained piece. It certainly has its moments however, ranging from the romantic ballad “I Am Here” to high drama where words like “Now” are emphasised to melodramatic effect (as Genesis discovered 47 years ago). The highlight for me however is the instrumental sequence beginning with a guitar and synth duet around the 14 minute mark that sounds like Dream Theater in full flight followed by a ‘church’ organ solo that harks back to the 70s when no Yes or Rick Wakeman epic would be complete without a burst of celestial organ.
So far, Double Vision seems to have divided Arena fans between those who hanker for the neo-prog days of old and those who welcome the more commercially driven, modernist approach. Although it's not all entirely to my liking (there are few moments of subtlety for example), the songwriting is certainly of a high standard and instantly accessible. The aforementioned The Legend Of Elijah Shade alone for example contains enough material for an entire album. And as you would expect given the pedigree of the musicians involved, the performances are first rate. I recommend you venture over to the band’s website and judge for yourself.
Guille Palladino's Review
After a three-year hiatus and one year and a half of preparation and composing, the new album of giant UK neo-proggers Arena finally came to light this May. Double Vision came again as the consolidation of the band with a stable line-up after the inclusion of Kylan Amos as the new bass player since the previous album The Unquiet Sky.
Overall we can see the band in a very good shape and doing an excellent job. One of the most relevant things during the band’s history is that every album they made has its own personality, despite the musical influence they had working on at the moment. And this new release is plenty full of no-ordinary songs, in which we can identify influences from previous albums such as The Visitor, Contagion and even Pepper’s Ghost. This album is dense and is filled with darker and melancholic arrangements, which makes it a little bit tough at the first listening but after this it becomes a more enchanting album with each new play.
The main roles in this album are played by John Mitchell and Clive Nolan, who demonstrate their skills at the time the tracks are played by. Mitchell’s guitar style feels refreshed and improved at the same time and we have Clive Nolan trying to experiment with new sounds. Sometimes more spacy, more ambient or more evocating.
The other remarkable work was done by Paul Manzi, exploring a wider dynamic range with his voice and doing an outstanding job here. As I said in my previous reviews of this band he is the perfect singer for Arena. We have Kylan Amos doing a great job with interesting arrangements and style and feeling more comfortable. Finally, Mike Pointer’s work behind the drums remains the same as previous albums, I don’t know why he can’t finally come out of his comfort zone and try to do a more aggressive and less measured drum execution, perhaps this is what the band is needing to really improve themselves?
Zhivago Wolf has strong arrangements and ambient sounds in the background done by guitars and keyboards, a powerful but evocating song that opens this great album. The Mirror Lies is a semi-acoustic song that reminds me of Pepper’s Ghost's musical style, in which Mitchell and Nolan do a great job and which ends with a keyboard solo at the most spacy Pink Floydian way.
For me, Scars is the best song on this album, beautifully and powerfully played and with great arrangements done by Mitchell on the guitar, sharing the main role in this song with the choruses and singing done by Manzi.
Paradise of Thieves has a rough melody with great organs that changes to a softer way as the song plays. Red Eyes instantly reminded me of The Visitor, a song which starts with an ambient melody but suddenly explodes in an up tempo melody. Perhaps this is the only song in which we can notice a different style in the drumming. Of note is also the great keyboard solo that reminded me the style of Argentinian band Nexus.
Like the band did on in their previous two albums, there's an acoustic proggie song, here titled Poisoned. More influences from The Visitor and here Manzi takes all his liberty to sing at ease.
Finally, the epic song that I can’t believe it has to be at all. The Legend Of Elijah Shade, which I think of more as a suite rather than an epic song, is 22 minutes divided in several great musical sections. This song has a huge influence of Pepper’s Ghost in it. We can hear many drastic changes in the melodies and arrangements and a wide variety of sounds and effects mostly in the keyboards. If you were expecting some kind of song like Solomon, well, you will be disappointed. However, this song was a great and huge way to finish this great album.
In conclusion, Arena has evolved into another way of great neo-progressive rock and combine it with many other musical influences. The band of the early days and pure neo-prog sound has been left far behind to make way for what they are now, a band with its own personality and style offering a great album, which I can only recommended highly.
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
This is the latest album from Arena but actually the first of theirs I’ve actually heard so I come to this completely open and unbiased to offer a reflection on what I hear and what I make of it all.
Zhivago Wolf opens in a pretty ferocious manner with a monstrous riff from John Mitchell (of It Bites and Kino), pounding drums from Mick Pointer (ex Marillion), the swirling keyboards of Clive Nolan, and the fine voice of Paul Manzi. This is a strident and surging opener shows that Arena have fire in their bellies and have something to say
Next track The Mirror lies is another fine sounding piece with a vast symphonic sound to it, alongside some very meaty guitar riffs and more soaring vocals from Manzi. There is also great subtlety and style on these songs and the more you listen the more you actually hear. How well written they are and how memorable they are too. I’m certainly impressed by this so far as this is one class album that deserves to be heard by the masses.
I plead my ignorance of this band's past but that is a situation I will correct urgently. One is struck by the drive of the band. Great guitar work from John Mitchell and strong keyboard support from Clive Nolan make Scars a winner. Paradise Of Thieves hinges on a very solid riff from John Mitchell and fine organ from Clive Nolan. A shuffle-type riff and rhythm are driving the song forward, with another plaintive vocal singing and an epic guitar solo from john Mitchell. This is another rollicking tune from the boys, with some impressively urgent drums from Mick Pointer before the chorus is ushered back in once again.
Something mellower in the opening of Red Eyes, with softer keyboards only until another fiery riff barrage. Paul Manzi's voice is growing on me as I hear more of his work. The use of dynamics on this album is very impressive and with its punchy musicianship this will probably feature in my top ten albums of the year. Yes, it is that impressive. I wasted many years not hearing this band, that’s for sure. This album has convinced me of what I’ve been missing out on.
The shorter Poisoned opens with arpeggio chords and a strong vocal from Paul Manzi. This sounds not unlike a Thunder song with its strong melodic sensibilities and vocal line of "I am not a hostage, there is hope in every breath". Very stirring stuff indeed with a very good, simple yet effective acoustic guitar solo to round the song out nicely. This would make a good single, such is its melodiousness and effectiveness.
Final song is the epic long song, that in this instance harks back to an earlier Arena album, The Visitor, expanding some of the themes of that album and answering some of the questions that album raised/raises. As I’ve not heard that album I don’t really know what those themes were or are but even so this is an impressive slice of neo prog. There is a theme of being without sin and casting stones and how life is never black and white.
Great keyboards throughout this by Clive Nolan and the usual excellent guitar work from John Mitchell. Good use of defined passages and recurring themes. This is a good long song with a lot going on throughout its 22 minutes plus running time.
There are no wasted minutes or noodling and its seven parts make for a most convincing epic prog song to conclude this very impressive album.
Fans of neo prog bands like IQ, Ark, Jadis or Pendragon will find much here to enjoy in one of 2018’s better releases. Highly recommended indeed.
Patrick McAfee's Review
There was a time where the announcement of a new Arena album would have made me enthusiastic. I was on board since their first album, Songs From The Lion's Cage and in my opinion, The Visitor (1999) is one of the best recordings of that decade. From that point though, their output seemed more inconsistent and a bit overly melodramatic at times. Also, to my ears, the band became less proggy and moved into more of a hard rock direction. In recent interviews though, keyboardist/songwriter Clive Nolan created some intrigue for me by stating that Double Vision was closer in style to their earlier releases. My interest was piqued further by word of a twenty-two minute epic, The Legend Of Elijah Shade.
So, all things considered, how does this new album measure up? Well, first of all, Nolan's comments were not hyperbole. The prog component is definitely increased this time and the theatrical elements seem more on par with earlier recordings. The hard rock sound of later releases is there, but even that ingredient seems more complex. In addition, I was reminded me of how good the songwriting in this band can be. Nolan's compositions can be a bit too Andrew Lloyd Webber like for my tastes, but the levels of that style on this release are ideal. Tracks such as The Mirror Lies, Paradise Of Thieves and The Legend Of Elijah Shade are progressive, but also contain infectous choruses and accessible melodies.
Being that Elijah Shade represents Arena's first long-form epic since Moviedrome in 2000, it seems logical that the song would garner the most curiosity. I am happy to say that it proves itself worth the wait. Working as a complete piece of music, it also contains some of the finest singular moments of the band's career. Of particular fun are the segments where guitarist John Mitchell and Clive Nolan flex their musical muscles. This showcasing of their talents always feels like an essential element of the song and never just an excuse to show how well or fast that they can play.
Double Vision is a consistantly enjoyable listen from start to finish and is easily my favorite Arena album since The Visitor. For those familiar with the band's previous work, their signature sound and style is there in abundance. However, the overall quality of the songs takes this release to the upper tier of their discography. It's been a while, but suffice to say that I am again enthusiastic about an album release by Arena.