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Arena - The Seventh Degree of Separation CD (album) cover





3.47 | 346 ratings

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3 stars It's been a six year wait for Arena's follow up to Pepper's Ghost, and this was one of my most anticipated albums of 2011. It is another concept album, describing the last moments on God's Earth of the subject, and his passing over into the other side, although it should be pointed out that it did not need an imaginative mind to figure this one out. Subtle it most certainly is not.

It also features yet another new vocalist in Paul Manzi (don't place bets on how long this one will last!), and the excellent bassist John Jowitt, recently departed from IQ.

It opens with The Great Escape, a massive slab of theatrical pomp. Our hero thinks he can escape the inevitable, and, as with much of this work, lyrically it is hardly very subtle, but it certainly sets the scene for much of what follows, namely an album purposefully looking to a more mass rock market appeal, rather than us sad old neo fans. It has a wall of sound, with Nolan & Mitchell working together particularly well, and Pointer & Jowitt combining to keep the riffs chugging along at a fair old pace.

Rapture (Explicit) has, gasp, swear words in it, hence, I suppose, the "explicit" tag. It is pure, glitzy, American pomp radio rock, albeit very well performed. It is, however, very much throwaway, with rather standard riffs.

One Last Au Revoir is far better, with a nice symphonic introduction, before the track moves along into a very commercial, and very good, rock track, with some nice keyboard riffs thrown in with a lovely, crisp, John Mitchell guitar solo.

The Ghost Walks also interests. It is a very nice, heavy, doom-laden track with an apocalyptic guitar lead that Mitchell carries off with some aplomb. In fact, his work on this track reminds me strongly of some of Hackett's finest work, and when the entire band join in, it is as close to classic Arena that is heard thus far in proceedings, with some lovely soundscapes backing the main riff.

A lovely piano at the close leads us into Thief Of Souls, an operatic track at its heart and clearly borrowing more than a little from Nolan's side project, before it morphs into a more standard rocker mid-point. The closing section is pure radio rock, but, again, very well performed.

Close Your Eyes continues this vein, and, indeed, expands it, with Manzi giving us a glimpse of a fantastic melodic voice amongst the otherwise operatic goings on. This track screams out to be played on FM radio, and fans of that type of thing will love it, and passages remind me strongly of a harder commercial, later period, Genesis. In fact, the whole mood of the track is quite out of keeping with the subject matter, where our hero is supposedly nearing his last breath moment!

Echoes of the Fall can be described as an intermission track lasting 2:26 minutes with a good, chugging, riff, but is far too stereotypical to be anything special.

Bed Of Nails is another very "standard", "heavy" rock track. Again, it's very well performed, especially with Nolan's lovely synth at the fore, but by this time you really are wishing for something a little more imaginative. You can't, though, take anything away from Mitchell. another lovely solo shows him to be at the top of his game.

What If? Well, this is, of course, the "What if I had done things differently", and "I should have" passage of the story. Full of regrets, very nicely sung, and utterly unimaginative in terms of the narrative. It is VERY commercial, and you really do need to check at this stage just who it is you are listening to. A contender for the Billboard Top Ten in days of yore, methinks.

Trebuchet is, as the name suggests, a veritable siege engine, with our hero banging at the door of death into the afterlife. Swirling keys, pounding drums, and doomy bass/guitars, together with suitably operatic vocals, paint another not altogether subtle track. However, the musicianship here is never anything less than supreme, and it does have that characteristic sense of Arena theatre.

Burning Down, and I'm starting to flag a bit here. It is, again, a track made purely for FM radio, and is as forgettable as most you hear on that medium. Also, can't Nolan be just a little bit more imaginative with the lyrics describing the passing over, something which is, after all, the supreme moment of our lives? Things do improve when he gives us (an altogether too brief) solo, but this album needed far more of that. After all, we have waited six years.

Catching The Bullet is the longest track on the album at 7:42. Our hero is going! Cue sympathetic & downbeat keys/riffs to start, before we go again with the toe tapping, anthemic, pace. It is actually very good, and Mitchell again shines at the end. Midway through, there is a lovely intermission with delicately thoughtful keys. As said before, though, this lasts nowhere nearly long enough. When they appear, we have Arena back, with passages that remind you strongly of classics such as The Visitor.

It all comes to an end with The Tinder Box, which, I believe, borrows a lot from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name. It is a lovely track, marvellously well played, with an incredible guitar lead, and avoids the formulaic stuff which went before in much of the album. The "The End" bit at the close is also a nice touch.

So, what to make of this? Well, I must emphasise that I have nothing whatsoever against commercial rock, as my reviews prove. When this album is on form, it is very good, and it is never anything less than well played, as you would expect from this group of seasoned pros.

However, this is Arena, one of the best of the modern neo-prog bands, and, to be honest, I expected a lot more. Manzi sings perfectly adequately enough, but I can see why Sowden got so cheesed off with the direction the band were taking. It is, essentially, a commercial rock album, with a concept. Nothing wrong with that at all....except.... except.... you expect a little more from them.

It is not a bad album at all. Quite the opposite. Three stars, which I rate this, is a good album. It is, though, nowhere near the quality or imagination of classics such as The Visitor or Contagion, and ultimately that is a slight disappointment.

lazland | 3/5 |


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