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Arena - The Visitor CD (album) cover

THE VISITOR

Arena

 

Neo-Prog

4.04 | 501 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Pnoom!
4 stars UNDER REVISION. TRUST THE RATING ONLY FOR NOW! 05/08/07

I must say, my experience with music, and the evolution of my musical tastes, has to be among the very weirdest. It all involves progressive rock in one form or another, but it's still, as I said, strange. I started out not liking music at all, until, one day, by completely random chance, I happened upon the Alan Parsons Project (classified here as prog related, though their closest link with prog is that Parsons was the engineer of Dark Side of the Moon. ever hear that name anywhere before?). Actually, it didn't happen quite like that. Shortly before I discovered the Alan Parsons Project, I found Tom Lehrer, a brilliant non-prog satirist that is, to this day, the only non-prog music I listen to. After discovering the Alan Parsons Project, I was led to Pink Floyd, who I initially found interesting but not nearly as good as my heroes (the Alan Parson Project). I was, at that point, an Alan Parsons Project completionist, and had nearly completed my Alan Parsons Project collection (and even started venturing into his post-project work). One day, Dark Side of the Moon just clicked. I had several hours to burn, and I spent them listening to Dark Side of the Moon four times in a row. I had a new favorite album. As I entered completionist mode for Pink Floyd (whose discography I actually did manage to complete), my interest in the Alan Parsons Project began to wane (and now I cannot bear to listen to them, even their proggy first three efforts). Pink Floyd was, for quite a while, the only band I would listen to. Through Echoes, however, I was turned onto the idea of epic songs, and from there I discovered Close to the Edge and 2112. Neither of them struck a chord, and I ignored them for a while. At some point along the line, I chanced upon the word progressive rock. Upon realizing that Pink Floyd fit under this designation (keep in mind that I was Obsessed with a capital O with Pink Floyd at the time), I knew I had to explore it further (to tell the truth, there are only so many times you can listen to Meddle and Wish You Were Here on repeat before they grow old). Through the magic of Wikipedia, I found Jethro Tull (Thick as a Brick became my favorite album for quite some time), King Crimson (their debut), Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (Tarkus), Genesis (Foxtrot and the Lamb), Yes (whose Close to the Edge I already owned, remember), Rush (same as Yes, but for 2112), Van Der Graaf Generator (Pawn Hearts), and Gentle Giant (Octopus).

And in this mess of discovering new and exciting bands, I discovered progarchives, a godsend of a site if there ever was one. From there, my tastes skyrocketed outwards as I discovered more of the bands I mentioned and plenty of new bands. I mostly stuck to the major bands of prog, nothing too adventurous, but this was a whole new world for me (a nod to all you Aladdin fans). I soon resolved to try every progressive rock sub-genre. Some succeeded in winning my favor, others didn't. Interestingly, both extreme ends of the spectrum, the "easy listening" of Neo and progressive electronic and the "hard listening" of Krautrock, Zeuhl, and RIO/avant prog were not to my taste. And then Tago Mago happened. My tastes started to hone in on music in the style of my new favorite album, leading me into Krautrock, Zeuhl, and RIO/avant prog. It became the main plus for music to challenge me, not to entertain me (though, at that time, the two were intertwined). Through Krautrock, I slowly got into progressive electronic (whose major artists: Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and Klaus Schulze, were all Krautrock artists at the start of their careers).

Have I lost you yet? No? Good. Because here's where this all gets relevant. I assumed, after my tastes clearly had expanded into the "hard listening" areas of progressive music, that neo-prog was a lost cause. How wrong I was. Instead, it seemed that my tolerance for constant challenge in music ran out, and that I needed some great melodious music to combat overexposure to the overt "out there" traits of albums such as Tago Mago. Neo prog supplied this. I'm still no expert in the genre, as I only own four albums in it (Script for a Jester's Tear, The Masquerade Overture, Dark Matter, and, of course, The Visitor, though I hope to get more soon), but I either already enjoy or am starting to enjoy each one of them. Dark Matter is my favorite, approaching but not quite reaching masterpiece status, and running right behind it is The Visitor by Arena. Though this may (and probably will) change as my knowledge of neo-prog deepens, The Visitor is currently my second favorite neo-prog album.

Even from the time I didn't like neo-prog, I still had one major issue from its detractors. While early IQ music, and probably some others, too, was obviously derivative of Genesis, the key works of the genre simply are not. Script For a Jester's Tear, The Visitor, Dark Matter, and The Masquerade Overture are all vastly different from anything Genesis ever did. What we call their music is not derivative, what we call it is influenced. If you want music derivative of Genesis, Yes, and the other famous seventies progressive rock bands, you need look no further than Spock's Beard, The Flower Kings, and their kin. The neo-prog bands, however, have created a sound that is entirely their own, and that does not owe its existence to anyone but themselves.

Now that I've cleared up that little issue, I will finally get around to actually talking about the album in question, Arena's The Visitor. The obvious highlight of this album is the stellar guitar work. The solos are absolutely incredible every step of the way, and even when the guitar isn't soloing, it's still just as good and just as essential. Alongside this are the lyrics. While neo-prog lyrics generally aren't my favorite (I doubt I'll every truly understand why neo-prog bands feel the need to write obscure and impenetrable concept albums), I cannot deny that the lyricist here (Wrightson?) is very talented. This is most noticeable on tracks such as A Crack in the Ice and The Hanging Tree (which just happen to be my favorite two songs on the album). Also, one last thing before I discuss individual tracks; when I first rated this album, I tried to look at and analyze each song individually. What I now realize, however, is that the songs don't really stand up out of context of the album, and so songs like Pins and Needles, which I don't particularly like as a stand-alone song, sound perfectly fine and even good in context.

The album opens with A Crack in the Ice, one of the best two songs on the album. It begins with some ominous sounds before Mitchell blasts in with a killer guitar solo that really sets the tone for the album (it will end with a guitar solo, too). After two minutes, when the lyrics come in, we get to see just how good this song is. The lyrics are excellent, the melodies catchy and yet intelligent, and the chorus is even great (keep in mind that I generally hate choruses with all my heart). This is neo-prog near its very best (I say near because The Hanging Tree is much better). Pins and Needles is a rather mellower track with nice melodies, and, as I said, isn't anything special except in context. With Double Vision, however, things start to pick up significantly, opening with some great guitar work and nice lyrics. It's not perfect, but it works in context, much like Pins and Needles.

Elea is a very short, spacey track, opening with a minute of soft, mellow pleasantness before ending with another great guitar solo. Like the two songs before it, it really only stands up in context. What it does best is to introduce the next track, The Hanging Tree, which is up with Marillion and IQ's very best (Forgotten Sons for Marillion and anything off Dark Matter, except Red Dust Shadow, for IQ). The Hanging Tree features the greatest lyrics on the album, especially at the very beginning, though they never trail off in quality. The opening is acoustic and beautiful, in start contrast to the dark and somber lyrics, but this dichotomy work to perfection. The song builds perfectly, full of great melodies and guitar work, and it truly embodies the entire neo-prog subgenre of progressive rock. One thing I will note is that, for every neo-prog band I know, I have read reviews complaining about the vocals. I find no problem at all with any of the vocals (except for some of Nick Barrett's for Pendragon, but even then, he's a plenty good vocalist). Anyway, the vocals here are among the best on the album.. The ending of this song is emphatic and powerful, and this is a song that is truly amazing in every sense of the word.

A State of Grace is as good a follow-up to The Hanging Tree as anyone could hope, aggressive and with wonderful lyrics. It doesn't progress much, but fits perfectly in the context of the album. Blood Red Room is a soft track, much like Elea, but without the guitar solo. Instead, it features some spoken words that help to further the concept of the album (whatever that might be). Yet again, I have to say that, while it doesn't sound impressive, it works in the context of the album. In the Blink of an Eye is another highlight of the album, opening aggressively and featuring more great lyrics. It has great energy to go along with its great melodies. While it's not on the level of A Crack in the Ice or The Hanging Tree, it does keep up the quality of the album, and is a great song, only made better by the context of the album. (Don't Forget To) Breathe, apart from the appalling title, is actually a very good song, just below the level of In the Blink of an Eye. It has an industrial feel to it, and this, when combined with the melodies you expect from neo-prog, creates a very nice effect.

Serenity is another highlight of the album. It has a very Floydian guitar solo that starts it out, as the title would suggest, serenely, but still with energy and a life of its own, and then the song itself starts to build, causing it to stand out as one of the better tracks on the album. It is a guitar solo for all two minutes, but it's a great one. Tears in the Rain, which follows Serenity, is even better, and is the one track that comes closest to reaching A Crack in the Ice and The Hanging Tree (well, along with the title track). It's a soft song, keyboard dominated, and features what are, along with those of The Hanging Tree, the best lyrics on the album. There is a vintage symphonic sound here, and that impresses me, since it doesn't sound the least bit derivative. Like every other one on this album, the guitar solo is astounding, and it gives new life to this song that didn't really need it, but that used this energy to its own advantage. Enemy Without comes next, and is yet another great song. It features a great neo-prog instrumental bit that always grabs me, and the melodies are catchy and intelligent at the same time.

Running From Damascus opens energetically, building up to some excellent lyrics backed by nice singing, leading up to a reprise of the chorus from the opening song. If I could decipher the concept of the album, I'd guess that that it was starting to come around full circle. This song is great on its own, but it's even better as an intro to the closing title track. The Visitor is the only song on this album other than Tears in the Rain to stand up to The Hanging Tree and A Crack in the Ice. The soft opening and ensuing three minutes seem to take the album out with a whimper when, bang, in comes the greatest guitar solo on the album (giving meaning to the phrase "saving the best for last").

As I said, I'm still discovering neo-prog, but of what I know so far, this album is among the best. I strongly recommend this album as a possible intro to the genre (along with Dark Matter). If you don't like it, give it a short rest and come back to it, and maybe it will make more sense to you then. Allow your tastes to change some, or do whatever you need to do to get into an album. This is, as Easy Livin said, "a visitor every home should have." Highly recommended.

Pnoom! | 4/5 |

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