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




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3 stars A little (wink) intro to this "Arena" album:

"Five years, that's all we've got We've got five years, what a surprise We've got five years, stuck on my eyes We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot Five years, that's all we've got?"

Five years is a bloody long time between two albums. Especially from a band who were rather productive in their early days?

There were apparently some problems to release this work as it was scheduled for release on November 2nd 2011 and was postponed to the 28th of this month. The only way to get it by now, it to witness an Arena concert and buy it on the spot. Not only will you only pay 15?, but you also will purchase the "Special Edition" which includes a DVD of the "making of" the album for this price.

I was lucky enough to witness the first concert of their tour in Verviers on November 4 and therefore I am able to review this work with some kind of anticipation. Actually it was a world première!

To tell you the truth, the DVD is not really awesome. You are brought in a series of interviews starting with Mick (which is the poorest part of it IMHHO). Comes then a close up to the vocal parts which is extremely short and the only one who speaks about it is ?Clive! There are very little words from the new front man indeed.

Some Clive words about the keys, a close up to John's guitar work ... I was kind of surprised to see a poster from the Clash during John Jowitt's interview (this is a superb connection between prog and some othe rmusical genre...wich I like both).

To cut a long story short, the DVD is not really worth as far as I am concerned.

Now, about the music?

I was rather thrilled to listen to this new "Arena" album after their very long hiatus. To top my expectations was rather complicated since their last studio album "Pepper's Ghosts" is my preferred one and reached the 5 stars ranking in my review.which is rarely considered as you might know.

This album is a concept one and covers the last hour of our planet and the first one which starts just after. Rather thin, but OK.

The gig was excellent because there were a mix of old / new songs. When you listen to this new release only (and I have been doing quite often during these last two weeks), I can't help: there are very few points of comparison with their previous releases.

The heavy side of their music is at times present, the melodic side as well ("What If") but I am deeply lacking their emotional angle. This album is a collection of good & crafted songs which starts to be really catchy towards the second part of the album.

The excellent "Trebuchet" holds each of the ingredient that an "Arena" fan can expected: power, melody & strength. As far as I am concerned, the best number is also the longest one: "Catching The Bullet" contains each of the aspect that we love from "Arena" (already depicted). John's guitar is just SUPERB (as he always ought to be).

I was glad to have witnessed their concert at the Spirit of 66 because it was excellent. I could also have a chat with John and Clive and I got my copy of this work signed.

The artwork is extraordinary but very dark and oppressive.

To summarize, don't expect any epic or grandeur here. This album is good. "Arena" never released weak albums as far as I am concerned, but I am a little disappointed with this release. Even if the last track ("The Tinder Box") is one of the best track.

Three stars.

Report this review (#571212)
Posted Saturday, November 19, 2011 | Review Permalink
3 stars This album rocks! That would follow since it's a rock album. But it is not a Neo Prog album though?

But it is a disappontment...

The addition of Manzi appears to have complemented the Arena brand. Whilst Sowden took (by his own admission) some time to accept the mantle thrown off by Carson and Wrightson and make the vocals his own, Manzi has brought a completely new dimension, heavy, gravely and accomplished. Reminiscent of another vocalist, but his name escapes me, similarities, perhaps, to John Payne of Asia??

Jowitt however needs no explanation as he's revered in most prog circles?

The five year hiatus has seen much change in the circumstances of all the individuals within Arena, so the change in soundscape and direction will come as probably no surprise; occasional elements of previous albums do surface but the overall effect is rockier, punchier and has far more pace.

But how does this fit with its predecessors? It doesn't! Think of the way that Asia went off the boil, this too falls into that category. All the musicianship is obviously superb ? it's just that it's no longer Arena anymore, natural progression aside this is still a step too far from what went before. And as for the tag 'Neo Prog' this certainly ain't! Hard Rock, AOR, or even 'cross over' would be more suitable.

I was eagerly waiting this arrival and I feel let down and disappointed.

So how do I score this? As a comparison to their previous work it falls well short, but as a stand alone album it fairs much better, though as I stated before it is hardly neo prog. So I fear with that the most I can give is a paltry 3 stars.

Report this review (#571859)
Posted Sunday, November 20, 2011 | Review Permalink
3 stars Oh dear.

Okay, as one of the biggest defenders of Arena, I have to say that my hands were sweaty with excitement at first. Okay, the trailer said:' Their best work yet!'. Uh-Oh. Something's ALWAYS wrong when a band claims that their latest work is the best (Metallica, Journey and Rush went through the same pattern). Then, the songs they chose to give us a listen were..uh..tacky? So I got suspicious...with reason apparently.

Tacky. That's about the only word that sums up well. Arena always flirted with the 80's, and 'till Pepper's Ghost, it was the good side of the decade. But this time, oh Lord no. No! NO! It's really under what this band can do. Looks like the heavyness is there to stay, and John Mitchell is carrying the whole album on his shoulders with, as usual, a talented mix of power chords and arpeggios. The vocals are done by Vincent from the Beauty and the Beast Tv Show, and well I might add...but I still do miss Rob; he sounded less pop. What's lacking then?

The things that I liked about Arena are kinda gone: blistering keyboard solos with a victorian style, varied atmospheres of songs (not just sad), and more inventives structures. Now, it's just the same song for 50 minutes, with the same boring keyboard textures, drumming exciting as a bathroom scale for a gift and the same Stratocaster sound over and over. Where's the instrumental prowness? Where's the colors? Where's the reflexion?

Oh man. I really wanted this to be grand. But alas. The songs are from another era, a bad one. Feels like Adult Oriented Rock (AOR), like a blend of REO SpeedWagon and Bruno Pelletier. Like a scrawny guy acting tough because he has a goaty, Arena is trying unsuccessfully to be edgy and black, instead we see through this and find cheesy hard rock taste, a bottle of Hair Spray and a Trixter T-Shirt. Good Lord what happened?!?

*Sigh* Well, cheer up. Looks like Metallica's also having a crappy year.

It's like a can opener with a pink ribbon around: okay but still disappointing.

Report this review (#571989)
Posted Sunday, November 20, 2011 | Review Permalink
3 stars I was really eager to hear Arena's new effort which was already postponed many times.Seeing the band live three times in three different countries, between the release of Pepper's Ghost and this one, I felt that both Sowden and Salmon are already an integral part of this amazing group of musicians and also funny and easy-going persons. When I heard about their departure, I was worried, especially about the vocal part, which was entrusted to Paul Manzi. From the first listnening, it was clear that he immediately became their prominent member, supposed to steal the show here. Manzi's omnipresence and his position high in the mix somehow impedes others from opportunity to shine. Technically, Manzi might be better than his predecessor, but to me, he lacks passion, emotionality, uniqueness and also kind of nonchalance and bitter humor Sowden had. Manzi is more stadium hard-rock oriented and less theatrical than signers Arena used to have (which in and my opinion suited to Arena better).

The music itself also moved rather to straightforward riff-driven hard-rock in vein of Deep Purple or Uriah Heep (their latter albums) or heavier AOR music. Sound of the album is theier most powerful to date, heavy and pompous with many hooks. I would definitely have enjoyed more instrumental passages. The songs are more straigthforward in their structure with litlle place for any showcase. Clive Nolan has few moments to shine especially (despite there are some killer solos), his keyboard work is oriented on atmospheric layers and is very dark. John Mitchell, one of my all-time favorite guitarists, does mostly his routine, excellent though, again full of heavy riffing, but somehow doesn't push himself forward to be adventurous, sounding the same most of the time. Mick Pointer's typical heavy rhytms are still there as a trademark and John Jowitt's back with his fretwork. His return made me expect a bit, that it can sound closer to The Visitor, but actually, the album is still much closer to Contagion direction.

Last Au Revoir is undoubdely highlight of an album for me, catchy, atmoshperic piece combining especially talents of Mitchell, his amazing pop sensibility, and Nolan, which is apparent in odd instrumental part reminding Genesis's The Cinema Show. Wish that Mitchell was singing more, not just backing vocal. The opening pair The Great Escape and Rapture are also great, in typical Arena dark, heavily rolling, melodic pompous manner. I always thought Arena didn't have any weak or dull moments on albums, however, I can't say the same about the new effort. With the progress of an album I start to lose my interests, which is very unusal for Arena to me - I was used that albums had very consistent, interesting flow and gradation.

This is probably Arena's weakest effort (I'd say slightly weaker than 'Pride'), but considering my opinion that all other previous albums are from excellent to masterpieces, it doesn't mean it is bad at all. It can attract many new fans, also those, who actually didn't enjoy Arena too much. Musicianship is still great and music itself is quite accessible in dark colors. Personally I have mixed feeling about the direction the band went, I miss the spirit they brought with their development during Sowden's years. I was expecting something more after 6-year pause.

Report this review (#572808)
Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars 7/10

Over the years Arena has built a considerable reputation in the circles thanks to neo-prog albums like The Visitor and Contagion. Being my favorite band of neo-prog alongside Pendragon I was really curious to hear your new album, despite the mixed reviews it has received. After it has been six years since his last release and some changes have occurred - Ian Salmon replaces John Jowitt on bass and Paul Manzi is now the lead singer in place of Rob Snowden.

The Seventh Degree of Separation is another concept album of the band, but as Contagion we have a somewhat obscure history - something about life after death, separation of body and soul, whatever. Courtesy of the ever enigmatic Clive Nolan. Unfortunately Nolan seems to be in the background on this album, and the guitar is the dominant component of Mitchell, but the virtuosity of their riffs and really please me.

The album is very concise, featuring 13 songs in just over 50 minutes. This probably displease the fans because the music is much less complex, except for the mini-epic Catching the Bullet. I really the fault of the album is the lack of flow of the music - it really sounds like mainstream parts, which is no problem, but the lack of interaction between them makes the experience of the listener a little difficult.

But apart from that the songs are really nice to hear - try listening to them as regular songs, and avoid making comparisons with the Arena of the past, if not lower rankings will rain! My favorite songs are Close Your Eyes and What If, which actually were the first songs I heard (in Youtube videos...).

Between 3 and 4 stars, I would reserve the highest classification. But I can say I dislike it so much as Contagion and Pepper's Ghost.

Report this review (#572890)
Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars It is a real masterpiece indeed!

I have been reading all the reviews about The Seventh Degree of Separation, and I started to become curious about hearing they re new album, which is what I have done since a week ago when I bought it in they re website.

My first impression was the vocal changes. I rather prefer Rob Sowden voice, but Manzi is also a great replacement. His voice is darker in another kind of way.

Ok, I understand that most of all the fans are a little bit disappointed with this new work, but we must consider that The Seventh Degree is a step ahead in the bands career. Yes, you read it right! AHEAD! And why is that, you might ask? Right, forget the prog influences (at least the most common of them). Just consider this as a new fresh beginning and stop to make comparisons with they re latest albums. This is rock at they re best and I am glad that the band had gained courage to follow this musical direction. We dont need to hear the same after the same. That s why I loved The Pepper s Ghost so much and is for me, they re best work before the The Seventh Degree of Separation.

There is a great musicianship between all members elements, what causes and create a great ambiance. We can really make our mind travel with so much beautiful music!

The album comes completed with a great artwork. It s dark, sometimes aggressive. They have chosen the artist wisely.

So, to finish my short review, please take a chance to this fantastic album. It s different from the previous ones, but thats why it makes it worthwhile to listen it!

Report this review (#575714)
Posted Saturday, November 26, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars A new cd from Arena, that´s great news. I heard a couple of songs live in Verviers. The gig was amazing I like the new singer he has a great voice. After the show I bought the new cd....and since that day I listen to it. After the first 5or 8 times i had some favourite songs I always had to listen. Later I listen to the whole album again and again. In the beginning I did´t know is this good or average album. Now I can say It is a really great album! Sure there are some totally different songs on this album but that is good I don´t want to hear every time the same sound... For me Arena is back and hope they make a new album very soon...(like PAllas ;-)) My favourites are Catching the Bullit and the Tinderbox but the "singel" What if I like so much....There is´t a bad song on this album.

5 stars for the Album because there is´t a bad song a this album. The average on the album is very very high...

Report this review (#576175)
Posted Sunday, November 27, 2011 | Review Permalink
2 stars I honestly cannot believe that anyone would consider this a masterpiece! This is probably the most disappointing album I've heard this year (and i thought Opeth's Heritage could not be topped in that category).

Truthfully, Arena has set the bar high with their 4 previous releases, so my disappointment may in part come from high expectations. What is it about "the seventh degree of separation" that causes my disappointment?

As you all know Arena has a new singer: Paul Manzi. Is this guy a bad singer? No not at all. In fact I saw them live about a month ago, and I was thoroughly impressed with his singing. The problem however is that in my opinion the music is now tailored to the vocals, instead of the other way around, which used to be the case. Because of this, the ingenuity of the instumental parts has all but disappeared. As a result, this is not really a progressive album anymore, more like a solid hard rock album. As stated before this is a rather dull sounding album, and after a few listens only song 3-5 would sort of stick. The rest of the songs just gave me a "meh" feeling.

Here's to hoping this is an incidental miss.

Report this review (#582329)
Posted Monday, December 5, 2011 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars It's been six year's since we last had an album from Arena, the excellent Pepper's Ghost. After such a hiatus it needed to be a good one and although band members have been active in their other bands (Pendragon, Frost, It Bites etc) Arena as a band could have been in danger of missing out on the current prog resurgence. Fortunately The Seventh Degree Of Separation is a winner though likely to divide the fan base on opinion.

They have a new singer to replace the departed Rob Sowden who left after not being impressed by the direction of the new material. His replacement is Paul Manzi and whilst not so much in the prog singer mould, if there's such a thing, he turn's out to be the best vocalist the band have ever had. More of a traditional rock vocalist not a million miles away from Bernie Shaw of Uriah Heep. Another new recruit is excellent bassist John Jowitt who should need little introduction to anyone who's been listening to prog for a few years or more.

Onto the music - and this is where fans are likely to be divided. Firstly The Seventh Degree Of Separation is a concept album about someone dying covering their last hour of life and the first hour of death. All very prog so far but musically we find Arena in much more accessible and commercial territory. While it's recognisably Arena, particularly on the darker sounding moments such as Rapture and Trebuchet where Clive Nolan's lush keyboard work stamps their melancholy mark with his trademark sweeping chords, the music often has an almost AOR feel. Check out What If? for the perfect example. Fortunately whilst this may have some fans reeling in horror there's no denying the quality of the tunes here. Of some disappointment is the fact that there's less instrumental work and when it comes it's very welcome such as on the excellent Catching The Bullet, incidentally one of the album highlights. Fans of John Mitchell's heavier guitar work are well catered for though as he features strongly throughout but a few more of his searing solo's would have been appreciated.

As good as it is this is not Arena's greatest album and unlikely to be thought as such by any existing fans. Nevertheless with a vocalist of the calibre of Manzi they have the potential to transcend boundaries and appeal to music lovers outside the prog genre, particularly with their more accessible edge. Whether this can happen so far down the road in their career is unlikely but the possibility remains. Personally I'd love to see them come back in a couple of years with an album along the lines of Immortal? which would be fantastic to hear with a vocalist of the calibre of Manzi. For now though I'm thoroughly enjoying this one.

Report this review (#587939)
Posted Wednesday, December 14, 2011 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#618376)
Posted Tuesday, January 24, 2012 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Arena are a band that I have had some interest in over the years and I have heard their so called best albums "Pepper's Ghost" and "Contagion" but "The Seventh Degree of Separation" is a very different approach to their music. It feels heavier and more distorted in places, the medieval nuances are gone and the new vocalist Paul Manzi is a lot more lower in the register, perhaps more angry sounding, and it is rather a commercial AOR sound overall.

It begins well enough with the Neo metal opener 'The Great Escape' and then gets quite aggressive on 'Rapture' where the riffs are doomier and the lyrics angry with the f bomb thrown in once. 'One Last Au Revoir' has a quick tempo percussion beat and some excellent melodic rock. It is almost like Journey or Boston, quite a commercial sound. Nowhere near as progressive as the past Arena catalogue by any means. The melodies are pleasant though and the musicianship is excellent. John Mitchell 's lead break sounds like traditional metal. The chorus is rather repetitive and it fades.

Next is 'The Ghost Walks' with gloomy low buzzing synth, John Jowitt's bass, and low key vocals over a wonderful lead guitar. The violining guitar is nice, and there are some ominous effects. This is more proggy and Clive Nolan's keyboards add an ambience. The drumming of Mick Pointer is steady.

'Thief Of Souls' begins with piano phrases and melodic vocals; "cry for them, Sometimes death is not fair, mourn for them". There is a concept amidst all these lyrics somewhere but I am not into it. The music is good though, it seems to be getting better as the album progresses. 'Close Your Eyes' is a very commercial top 10 hit, it sounds like it anyway. Just melody on melody and power ballad retro throwback. Followed by darker more enigmatic music with 'Echoes Of The Fall' with great lyrics; "the tick and the tock of the cosmic clock", and finishes with "you can never guess and now its far too late to confess."

A very slow ballad beat is heard on 'Bed Of Nails' but it is not Alice Cooper's classic. It is okay as far as melody goes and has an infectious chorus. 'What If?' is a gentle emotive ballad with finger picking clean guitar intro. Manzi's vocals are very good once again. He nails these ballads that is for sure and the simple time sig is complemented by a stirring lead break. But I am still waiting for something resembling prog.

'Trebuchet' continues the AOR sound, a faster tempo and very melodic sing along chorus. An interesting metal riff, and rhyming phrases; "naked and alone, am I the only one, fading from the world, is this where I begun."

'Burning Down' starts with a low droning and then Manzi's balladic vocals come in; "I can see the falling cinders making ghosts upon the ground." I like the riff that follows reminding me of a Sky Architect riff I heard today. It is a better sound for Arena. Cool lyrics resonate with me; "This place is the story of my life and I see it burning down". I like the break before the next chorus. Actually this is the best track on the album so far undoubtedly. Even the riff is proggy and that keyboard break is terrific. The atmosphere is really eerie; "all signs are gone now of my previous existence, all signs are gone now of my relevant significance, all signs are gone now of my innocence, my childhood, my birth." Excellent!

'Catching The Bullet' keeps things moving with a steady crawling tempo and sustained key pads. The drums are great on this. Manzi's voice comes in and augments the majestic feel; "Standing perhaps at the end of the bed or floating through your dreams, its true I wil be long departed before you decipher what it means." There is a strong soundscape generated with keyboard runs and metal guitar distortion, bass and drums maintaining a steady cadence. The protagonist is about to depart; "this is me signing off." A lengthy and scorching lead break and keyboard chimes over proggy time sigs are signifying more progressive territory, but we are at the end of the album so it's a bit late. However, this is definitely a stellar track and well worth a listen.

'The Tinder Box' closes it down with piano, a ballad tone, Manzi sounding emotional; "I saw the little people working there, in the echoes and the chambers of my mind, and I saw the lantern man as it stood so stil,l and the child knew this gentle soul, his kindess, the light went on and he was gone, but the meaning, the meaning still remained, like the fading away of a sweet familiar taste, like the cleansing of the cool summer rain." the track builds with majestic lourishes and an absolutely brilliant lead guitar throughout the song from Mitchell. "We're a spark from the Tinder Box" is the harmony that is repeated leading to the finale. It even states it is "The End".

Overall, this is a pleasant sounding soft metal commercial album, not very Neo and not very prog, but it is okay as a diversion from intricate time sigs and creativity because Arena are not in that league with this release.

Report this review (#618751)
Posted Wednesday, January 25, 2012 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
5 stars A great degree of inspiration

It astonishes me to think that it is some six years since we last had a new album from Arena, 2005's "Pepper's ghost" still seeming like a new album. Since that time, vocalist Rob Sowden and bass player Ian Salmon have left the line up, to be replaced by Paul Manzi and the great John Jowitt respectively. Despite these changes, it still takes considerable effort on the part of all concerned to come together in the studio, such are the demands on their time from the various other projects the band members participate in.

In the months leading up to the release of "Seventh degree of separation", Clive Nolan teased us with talk of this album being "darker" than anything which had gone before, and the sleeve image certainly has a menacing quality.

I have learned over the years not to judge an Arena album after a couple of listens. It takes time for each release to reveal itself, initial impressions inevitably proving misguided as familiarity replaces novelty. Albums such as "Contagion" and "The visitor" still continue to offer new and exciting dimensions whenever they are played, even after all these years.

So it is with "Seventh degree of separation". Here we have an album whose structure has more in common with the aforementioned albums than with others such as "Immortal" or "Pepper's ghost". The tracks here are generally shorter but designed to flow together to create a greater whole. This perhaps makes it logical that it is a concept album, the basic theme being set in the last hours of life and the first hours of the afterlife.

Manzi's arrival is nothing if not dramatic, his unaccompanied introductory call of "Can anybody hear me" clearly having live performance in mind. The song, "The great escape", is similar in style to "Immortal's" opener "Chosen", the heavy guitar riffs driving a song which features a fine vocal performance by Manzi's. "Rapture" is really a continuation of "The great escape" as it retains a similar style and pace (plus the "..hear me" reference), but is even more bitter, including a superfluous wee sweary.

"One Last Au Revoir" has the feel of "The visitor", the up-beat, positive vibes allowing John Mitchell to add some of his delicious flowing lead guitar runs. It contrasts completely with the troubling doom of "The Ghost Walks", perhaps the heaviest track ever recorded by Arena. Even here though, Mitchell and Clive Nolan combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric wall of sound. "Thief Of Souls" is one of the album's more straightforward songs, as is the brief "Close your eyes", either of which might at one time been potential singles.

"Echoes Of The Fall" is something of an out and out rocker, with a bit of a (dare I say) Queen feel. Nothing wrong with that in my book, indeed the song oozes enthusiasm and excitement. "Bed of nails" is reminiscent of "Ascension" from "Contagion", the song featuring similar majestic vocals against a regal backdrop. On "What If?", Paul Manzi displays a different dimension to his voice, the quasi-rock ballad sound of the song suiting his style well. This is probably the most melodic of the songs on the album, and therefore the most instantly accessible.

"Trebuchet" opens with the trademark Arena sound as the main character moves from life to death. The music though is anything but downbeat, Nolan's epic keyboards and Mitchell's soaring guitar being driven by the powerful rhythm section. "Burning Down" is one of those typically Arena tracks which misleads those who jump in too quickly into thinking they know it after one or two listens. There are subtle musical cross-references afoot here, as there are in many Arena songs.

"Catching The Bullet" is the longest track (or section) on the album, but that is of little relevance really. The track has a decidedly progressive arrangement, with John Mitchell displaying various aspects of his prowess on guitar, while Clive Nolan creates a superbly symphonic bed of keyboard sounds. We close with "The Tinder Box", a song with echoes of "Friday's dream", the song which closed the "Immortal" album. The song brings everything together, lyrically and melodically, setting up a magnificent conclusion to this captivating album.

In short, a magnificent album from a fine band. The line up changes have proved inspirational in music terms, the result being an album which flows superbly while offering a diversity of moods and styles. To those who were quick to judge upon the album's release, I can only suggest that you revisit the album, get to know it, and discover the magic of Arena once more. This is one of the band's best ever albums.

Report this review (#733675)
Posted Friday, April 20, 2012 | Review Permalink
2 stars I am an Arena Fan Boy! I became hooked with their first two albums with its early 80s Neo-Prog style sound and during their further development into a more harder, almost metal sounding style I followed faithfully. Their highlight for me remains Contagion. During a live performance I even once had tears in my eyes (something which never happened with any other band I saw live). Now listening to Seventh Degree of Separation I feel tears again. But they are different. This album just leaves me utterly bored to tears! Even as a very forgiving fan I cannot find much good with this Arena output.

The tracks all sound kind of bland. A bored vocalist (unfortunately the brilliant Rob Swoden was replaced) sings without much passion, the keyboards have lost their balls and the guitar is playing along much uninspired (Clive Nolan and John Mitchell can do so much better!). Bass and Drums do their solid work but also leave no big impression.

The album all in all does leave me rather unsatisfied. It's like something is missing. No Arena trademarks to be found here. It's not even the fact that this is not a very proggy record (I love John Payne era Asia!), but rather the lack of any memorable song (Contagion), the lack of drama and passion (the first two albums & Pepper´s Ghoast) and the total lack of atmosphere (The Visitor).

Seventh Degree of Separation: the Arena album one can easily skip! Two star max!

Report this review (#734648)
Posted Saturday, April 21, 2012 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars The first spin of this album came to me in the form of 320 MP3 file with a very good sound quality. But unfortunately I was not impressed at all with this album as the opening vocal line by the new vocalist sounded awkward to me. I did not then pay enough attention to this album until I got the CD. The album comes in a 3-leafed digibook with a 28 pages counting pullout booklet, packed with original artwork. Mine is special edition with a bonus DVD of 50 minutes, featuring 'the making of' the new album, in which the five members give the viewers an insight into the process they went through when composing the music. It was a long wait, approximately 6 years from their previous album. It's basically shorter than what IQ took to release new album. Of course I expected something better than their previous album.

Well, with the CD version at my hands I was then feeling obliged to spin again the album. Surprisingly, I did enjoy the second spin and then I kept playing the album many times. Oh man ... this album is really a grower for me as the more I listen to it the more I like it. And then I kept asking question: why didn't I like it at first spin as the music is basically not so complex and it's typical Arena albums after all? Was it because of the MP3 format? I don't think so as there have been so many albums that I got the digital file first before I then got the CD and I had no issue at all. By the way, at the end of the day I always rip my CD into digital file format for convenience. Having pondered myself with that question I finally conclude that this album is a real grower for me. I started with disliking and then grew into liking it and finally now I'm loving it. I'm really happy that Arena is back in its form with consistent music direction.

Let's have a look in detail ....

Am I still here? Am I hidden from your sight?

Oh my God ....! I really love the powerful vocal line by Paul Manzi opening the album in "The Great Escape" (4:38). Quality-wise, I am impressed with his clean voice and it's better than his predecessor Rob Sowden. "The Seventh Degree Of Separation" is a concept album about the journey from the last hour of life into the first hour of death. WOW! It's a subject that really fits with me as I always wonder how I would end my life. Of course I always pray to God that at the end of the day I would want to die as a good moslem. The lyrical verse of this opening track visualizing how would it like one hour before death. Paul really dare to start this wonderful track with acapela followed with symphonic rock style that flows in medium tempo like typical neo prog music. There are many good riffs mixed softly, showing the vocal power of Paul.

The second track "Rapture" (4:22) starts with an ambient nuance followed nicely with simple but catchy riffs continued with nice vocal "I always wondered how my destiny would go" .... oh... I really love this simple shot. Style-wise this track is basically a riff-based prog rocker with great variation of percussion work combined with excellent drumming in the middle of the song especially during the lyrical verse "Don't tell me - what you think i should believe". It's really a great variation and it helps accentuate the music.

"One Last Au Revoir" (4:34) sounds poppy at first listen of the album. But later I think this can serve as a nice bridge to the next track. Melody-wise, it's a very good one especially when the style changes in some segments after the continuous music. There are nice guitar shots here and there during the entire song - and most interestingly in the interlude part where it has a stunning performance combined beautifully with keyboard work. Mitchell and Nolan collaborate really really well here as always with previous albums.

The next track "The Ghost Walks" (3:19) reminds me to Steve Hackett's "Defector". I don't think Arena does it intentionally as it does not really sound the same - only the nuances are similar especially through the combined work of guitar (in Hackettian style) and keyboard with similar beats, drumming-wise. Of course the two are not the same, only similar. When the vocal enters the music, the two are different.

"Thief Of Souls" (3:52) starts with soft piano work followed with vocal line and howling guitar work at background, mixed softly. As the title implies this is now the time when the soul moves away, lyrically. It flows nicely to "Close Your Eyes" (3:25) which opens with guitar work followed with vocal line. It really reminds me to the style shown in Arena's masterpiece work "The Visitor". This track serves as a break as it's different compared to other tracks.

Musically, "Echoes Of The Fall" (2:26) serves as an important bridge as this short track has a relatively fast tempo with some rocking segments where guitar riffs play significant role combined nicely with Pointer's drumwork. "Bed Of Nails" (4:39) continues with slower tempo maintaining the overall tone of the storyline. I like the interlude part that actually does not demonstrate any long solo work but the nice guitar work during transition pieces. It then slows down with guitar fills that remarks the start of next track "What If?" (4;35). This one actually quite boring at the intro part. Again, Mitchell's guitar work is stunning right here.

The rhythm guitar work in Burning Down is great!

"Trebuchet" (3:39) moves up the tempo through its dynamic beats featuring a combined work of keyboard as well as guitar. Even though this song sounds just flat to me but the guitar work as well as vocal are really nice. Most importantly this track serves beautifully as a transition piece to the next wonderful "Burning Down" (4:29) track. I do enjoy this track because of its rhythm guitar work is really top-notch. Actually I am about to get bored with the music but as this track enters I come to the situation where I am energized with how this song flows. Well, not only rhythm guitar work after Manzi shouts "Burning down ..."! WOW ....!! I really love this part. This is one of the reason why I can stay with this album as I know that I will reach this wonderful eleventh track. This track really stirs my emotion especially that guitar rhythm plus beautifully crafted keyboard (Hammond?) solo. I bet you love this track as it's really great!

Having been satisfied with "Burning Down" I actually do not really care with how it would look like after this track, i.e the remaining two tracks: "Catching The Bullet" (7:42) and "The Tinder Box" (4:16). These last two tracks conclude the concept album nicely and I enjoy how these two are really placed here at the final chapters.

Four or five stars?

One chief reason why I have deferred very long not writing a review of this album is because of this one single question: four or five stars? have to admit that this album cannot surpass the materpiece work "The Visitor" the band has ever made. Comparatively, I can say straight to the point that this seventh album is much better than their sixth "Pepper's Ghost". So, for sure I can give four stars for the Seventh. And then, is it good enough with four stars? I do not think so, because the storyline is really good. Yes, musically this album is much simpler and much straighter than The Visitor but then I ponder myself with this intriguing question: does prog really require to be complex? Nope! So .... finally I give this album with 4.5 plus stars that rounds up to be five. If I do not consider the lyrical verses, just looking at the music perse, I might have given four stars rating. But this one deserves a five star rating. JRENG! Keep on proggin' ...!!!

Peace on earth and mercy mild - GW

Report this review (#852184)
Posted Wednesday, November 7, 2012 | Review Permalink
Tarcisio Moura
2 stars After a 6 year hiatus comes Arena´s new work. I tried very hard to give this CD a fair review. I didn´t want to rush my opinion over it, which I almost did on Pepper´s Ghost, their previous album. But, alas, to no avail. This work does not seduce me like any other Arena did in the past. Don´t get me wrong, it´s not bad. It´s well done, performed and produced. And I was quite hopeful, since I heard bassist extraordinaire John Jowitt was back to the fold. New vocalist Paul Manzi is good and his voice is not very different from that of former singer Rob Sowden

But something has changed: too much vocals, too few guitar solos (and, believe it or not, no keyboards solos at all!), no instrumental tracks and most of the songs are too much alike. In other words: not much to do with their previous works and style. It almost seems like guitarist John Mitchell took over as a leader and Clive Nolan is just happy to follow along filling the few spots left by the ever present distorted guitar riffing. Of course there are good moments (like Close Your Eyes), but nothing that stands out too much. Overall the feeling left is that of a big lack of inspiration hit the band hard.

After repeated spins over the year my opinion hasn´t change much: The Seventh Degree Of Separation is good, but definitely inferior to anything those guys have released before. I like to hear it when I put it on the CD player, but it doesn´t make me feel like other Arena material used to (i.e., to push the repeat button). So don´t be fooled by the two stars rating. I guess it actually deserves three, but I decided to give it a little less to counterbalance the misleading reviews that rate it as a masterpiece (something I really don´t understand, specially because I´m a big fan of Arena). I really hope next time they´ll come up with more convincing material and performances.

Report this review (#990764)
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 | Review Permalink
3 stars This is at the same time a significant departure from Arena's style yet it retains the essential ingredients of their sound that make them Arena - pompous, forceful rock with highest quality ingredients throughout - from words to vocals and individual instruments (well, maybe except for the drums). It's not the first time they change - they went from enjoyable, yet derivative genesis-pink floyd amalgam to metallic neo-prog, doing 3 albums of each. A harbinger of what's to come now?

Its true that little here remains of prog - it's mostly vocal-driven hard rock with backing synths, a la the 80s, but with a modern production touch. But it's good hard rock, with screaming guitar licks (like in Rapture) and catchy melodies. Yet it's baffling that it took them 7 years to come with this, even with band members doing other projects. 2003's Contagion also had short songs as part of a concept cycle, but they were filled with little details, which left impression of a well-crafted album. Here it seems they are not really trying, as if they did an album just for the sake of maintaining Arena brand - more popular than all other projects.

To sum up, if you put all Arena's songs into iPod and hit random, the better half of these songs (the defiant Rapture, lush melodic hard rock of One last au revoir, trademark Arena's bittersweet and mysterious slow burners Close your eyes and What if, and Catching the bullet, the only complex number here) would be a welcome periodic diversification from older, headier numbers. But this album in its entirety is a hard listen, because many songs tend to blend (also because the constant dramatic voice is mixed in a way that tends to overpower things) and have little else to leave a lasting impression but a catchy chorus and a few memorable riffs.

Report this review (#1015547)
Posted Saturday, August 10, 2013 | Review Permalink
Tom Ozric
4 stars I've spent lots of time with this album. All I can say is that despite all the negative assessments, this album is definitely a slow-grower. My first few listens to this album were under-whelming. I certainly could hear the talent involved, yet, I could not understand why this arrangement would be considered 'top-class' within the Neo-Prog genre, as many have claimed Arena to be... All I can say is that throughout all the songs presented here is that : yes, they are catchy, almost commercial sounding to be honest, and there are some cheesy elements involved - like repetitive choruses and riffs and an almost throwback-to-the-80's sound. The band do take a certain 'metal' approach to this offering, it is quite heavy and I have to admit that guitarist John Mitchell does steal the show, whether it be crunching metal-chords or ripping solos. I have been familiar with Arena's Neo-Prog for years, yet I was never really 'sold' on them.

Immediately noticeable is that Clive Nolan's keyboards aren't as 'widdly-widdly' as one has expected - if you want this style, just spin some Pendragon .......he constructs a certain symphonic wall of sound that permeates the entire album, it's always there, it forms an amazing atmosphere, and is quite inspired. Pointer's drumming is all one would expect from a neo-Prog band, clever and, at times, intricate, but not virtuosic, nor does it really need to be. I have to say that John Jowitt's talents on bass are put to good use (leaving IQ, for whatever reason....) he really doesn't hold himself back, his amazing bass lines run throughout the album, rumbling busily or holding stead-fast to what the song requires. New singer Paul Manzi recalls those 'big hair' Metal vocalists from the 80's. He has a strong voice, he knows about structure and complexity, and he sings with a strong passion. I am brief as I'm sure my submission will be timed out (as sometimes happens). However, there's so many superb moments amongst the 'mainstream cheese' attributed to this album. Not so much tech-instrumental display (but it's present in certain pieces), this thing is a 'vision', and it doesn't necessarily take complex times sigs (though these are present) and glistening synth solos - (again, we'll go for a Pendragon album for that, shall we ??) to serve its purpose. This pretty intense and occasionally impressive album has given me much dilemma, is it an excellent 4, or just a good 3 ??? My conclusion is that it's a 3.5 star effort pushed up to a 4, because it just 'works'...... Top tracks - One Last Au Revoir, Trebuchet and the near 8 min Catching The Bullet, of which the last half is an instrumental stretch which all Proggers wish to this is the Arena styling that deserves attention. May I also mention that the imagery found on the inner sleeves is astounding, morbid, fascinating, disturbing, yet incredibly captivating, further adding to this 'last hour of life/first hour of death' concept.... .......oh yeah, for full effect, this one is best heard at a high volume........

Report this review (#1241367)
Posted Sunday, August 10, 2014 | Review Permalink
3 stars The UK band Arena needs no introduction, although I'm not sure if this is exactly a typical Arean album. Although the band is generally known for its heavy brand of neo prog, The Seventh Degree of Separation goes even a bit darker. I wouldn't call it a metal album exactly, but it comes very close. The first thing that jumped out on this strange little album was the scary album cover that somehow kind of fits the mood of the album. Overall, the album had some gargantuanly awesome parts, a few let down tracks, and some stuff that was, well, different?in a good way. The opening track to the album really hooked me with its mega- creepy mood and awesome vocals. I also really enjoyed the rhythmic talking over the slowly marching chord changes of "Ghost Walks;" not quite rapping, but something close, but well done (not like when it happens in Dream Theater). "Thief of Souls" is another track that leapt out because of the great vocals that straddle the line between neo prog and power metal with a sort of Iron Maiden sensibility. To sum it up, really great vocal melodies drive this album in a very strong direction. There is a deep sense of narrative, sorrow and tragedy in the way the singer presents the words through melody and expression. His theatrics are just right and it's paced perfectly to where you feel like he's actually speaking to you as the intended listener; "Catching the Bullet" is exemplary of this kind of feel. The Seventh Degree of Separation shows a very logical progression in the evolution of Arena's music and I believe it won't disappoint their fans.
Report this review (#1287510)
Posted Saturday, October 4, 2014 | Review Permalink
4 stars Arena-The Seventh Degree of Separation

'The Seventh Degree of Separation' is the seventh studio album by progressive rock/hard rock band Arena.

After Arena's well received 2005 rock opera 'Pepper's Ghost', it wasn't until six years later when Arena would release their next album. Upon it's release, many people were disappointed with the outcome of this album. Many complained that it was too bland and comparable to commercial hard rock, yet I find this not to be the case.

The vocalist has changed on this album, featuring vocalist Paul Manzi instead of Rob Sowden. They have very similar voices, so it doesn't change the feel of the music very much. I just felt like I had to point out this line-up change, even though it doesn't effect the music much.

This album is definitely hard rock-based, instead of the more progressive metal-leaning previous album, but that doesn't make this a weak album. Like usual, Arena gives us a powerful opener with 'The Great Escape' which shows Manzi's powerful vocals very strongly right at the start. The heavy booming guitar comes in at the perfect moment after the words 'Can Anybody Hear Me?'. 'The Ghost Walks' is another standout track, with a marching beat and a menacing atmosphere. 'Echoes of the Fall' may be only two-and-a-half minutes, but what a two-and-a-half minutes they are. This song is the heaviest song on the album, and is a metal song. The powerful fast riffing and catchy lyrics make this an instant classic for me. 'Burning Down' has a Dream Theater-like sound, so this will be of interest to fans of that band. The closing song 'The Tinder Box' is probably my favorite along with 'Echoes of the Fall'. 'The Tinder Box' is everything a closing song should be, a slow melodic beginning with great piano, a powerful steady build-up, and an epic finale.

The concept of the album is about the birth and death of the world, so it does have an overall darker tone; however, a lot of the songs and lyrics feel very empowering. Songs like 'Close Your Eyes' and 'The Tinder Box' are both songs that I feel are very empowering.

Overall, it is certainly no flawless album, there are a few forgettable tracks here and there. The very powerful songs make up for that though, and it remains my favorite Arena album. I recommend it to any fan of hard rock with some progressive qualities.

Hope you found this review helpful.

(Originally written for on October 19th 2014.)

Report this review (#1294186)
Posted Sunday, October 19, 2014 | Review Permalink
5 stars What a great album this is, it took me a few spins to apreciate it as much as it deserves to be apreciated. At first I just liked it because it was easy to get into and just listen and enjoy it. But after a few years of heavy rotating I still listen to it very regularly, and that has a reason. It's a very great record, it's intriging, melodic, almost popular even. Together with The Visitor and Contagion the Seventh Degree of Separation is my favourite album by Arena, and maybe it's even their best.

The best part of the album is that with each listening a little more of the beauty is revealed, like good wine it ages well over time.

The best songs are in no particular order: 1. The Great Escape (4:38) 2. Rapture (4:22) 3. One Last Au Revoir (4:34) 4. The Ghost Walks (3:19) 5. Thief Of Souls (3:52) 6. Close Your Eyes (3:25) 7. Echoes Of The Fall (2:26) 8. Bed Of Nails (4:39) 9. What If? (4;35) 10. Trebuchet (3:39) 11. Burning Down (4:29) 12. Catching The Bullet (7:42) 13. The Tinder Box (4:16) Listen in this order and completely for the best experience, oh and don't forget to put it on replay for the more listenings you get the better it gets, and of course play it loud, your neighbours deserve to hear some good music to.

Report this review (#1299006)
Posted Friday, October 31, 2014 | Review Permalink
3 stars Arena - The Seventh Degree of Seperation (2011)

On this album by Arena, a major band of the neo-progressive rock genre, we get to hear quite a lot change going on. Vocalist Rob Sowden has left the group, which I myself though was a pitty. New singer Paul Manzi has a powerful modern prog voice, much less abstract and 'somewhere out there' then Sowden's. Another major change is the style of the material, which consists of shorts songs with relatively little progressive rock dynamics and originality. A third is the modern progressive metal sound with the heavy guitars of Mitchell put on the foreground and the keyboards of progressive rock veteran Clive Nolan quite timid in the mix. The effect is a less recognizable sound for Arena, which has grown a lot towards bands like Kamelot.

Former vocalist Rob Sowden often found ways to elevate songs to a degree that I thought of albums like 'Contagion' as significantly better then that of the competition in the field. Perhaps he just hit the spot for me personally. Now singer Paul Manzi sings lines that a clearly from Arena, yet distinctively more overproduced and less in the moment of the music. Most refrains are made up of vocal notes tightly bound to the rhythm and harmony and with little fantasy or liveliness. Moreover, almost every chorus has that dubbed poppy progressive metal vocal sound, which easily becomes a bore. In the couplet themes Paul Manzi proves to be more lively and slightly aggressive, which works for me.

The short songs don't seem to be out of place in the beginning of the album, but after a while the simple tight melodies on heavy, but simple chords start to become quite uninteresting. The songs are just a bit too much like the the one before it. Exceptions are mystical 'The Ghost Walks' and the up-tempo 'Echoes of the Fall'. Most songs have some great symphonic instrumental themes, but because the lack of advanced songwriting nothing falls in its right place. Even the better tracks like before mentioned 'The Ghost Walks' would have fitted better within a multi-part progressive rock track. To make things even worse, the only longer track of the album 'Catching the Bullet' fails to impress because of apparent lack of innovation or some original hook (like for instance Opera Fanatica had).

It must however be said that the band has made a good impression on the heavy metal community, getting for instance a 90/100 from Dutch metal magazine 'Aardschok' and 87/100 from online metal magazine ''. The band has most certainly not lost any of its professional sound and musicianship. So perhaps we can conclude Arena has made an effort to win new audiences in the booming progressive and symphonic metal genre.

Conclusion. This album shows the band going into a more straightforward symphonic metal direction, which I find significantly less interesting. Three stars. Still highly recommended to fans of the progressive metal genre.

Report this review (#1324923)
Posted Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars The seventh album in their almost twenty year history, Neo-progger's Arena's `The Seventh Degree of Separation' from 2011 has proven to be a rather controversial and divisive album in their discography. While the British band have frequently offered a heavier take on the Neo sub-genre, this album presents a collection of shorter, more compact heavy AOR pieces, with fewer extended instrumental passages than found on their previous discs. While that is initially quite underwhelming and a disappointment, the trick here is to pay attention to the strong song-writing, catchy choruses and tightly reigned in but nicely implemented instrumental flourishes. Arena has offered plenty of stronger works in their career, but the idea that this is a dud of an album is completely false! Besides, any band that boasts Pendragon keyboard supremo Clive Nolan, John Mitchell of It Bites/Kino, John Jowitt of Jadis/I.Q and ex-Marillion drummer Mick Pointer will certainly deliver the goods. New vocalist Paul Manzi replaces Rod Sowden from the three previous Arena studio discs, and he makes a confident and memorable debut on this dark concept album about passing over to the other side.

There's so much confidence instantly on display throughout opener `The Great Escape', as Manzi sings unaccompanied before the band erupts into bombastic crunching heaviness. Instantly the sleek gutsy sound that will dominate this album is present, with plenty of bombast and heightened drama. Despite Nolan seemingly being quite low-key throughout the disc, he's constantly offering very subtle and classy contributions, and his gothic choir synths as the rest of the band flex their metal muscle in the up-tempo riffing finale is addictive! `Rapture' is all snarling riffs over cooled synths with a chest-beating chorus, and foot-taping driving up-tempo rocker `One Last Au Revoir' boasts an impossibly catchy chorus with an infectious and joyous classic Neo guitar and synth solo burst in the middle. `The Ghost Walks' is a chilly spoken word passage over spectral synth choirs, `Thief of Souls' moves back and forth between ghostly piano passages and brooding harder blasts (cool thicker bass from Jowitt leaping out in these spots too), and `Close Your Eyes' is an introspective AOR pop/rocker with a soaring vocal.

`Echoes of the Fall' is a frantic heavy-metal interlude with skittering electronic loops and pulsing bass, then the whole band bring immense power to `Bed of Nails', with plenty of sophistication from the chiming guitars, classical organ and a booming grand chorus. The reflective `What If' delivers another of the strongest chorus, sung with great conviction by Manzi over flowing symphonic synths from Clive, and John Mitchell's guitar solo following the vocal melody before taking flight in the final seconds is simply lovely. `Trebuchet' is a stream-of-consciousness outburst. Then, all in four and a half minutes, the gothic `Burning Down', another album highlight, works in ebbing electronics, a darkly crooned vocal and spiraling organ married to heavy riffing with not one, but two equally memorable choruses! `All signs are gone now of my tedious insistence' is a very bleak lyric in this piece. `Catching The Bullet' is the proggiest and longest piece here at almost eight minutes. The extended time allows for plenty of drama and tension to this mix of an emotional AOR chorus, overwhelming organ, cascading piano, Pointer's rolling drum fills, grumbling bass and a victorious guitar solo finale during the only extended instrumental passage of the album in the second half. The album closes on the somber yet hopeful power ballad `The Tinder Box'.

Although listeners should probably investigate most of their other albums before this one, and the hard rock/AOR direction may be a little too straight-forward for some, `The Seventh Degree of Separation' is still very recognizable as Arena, and it mostly maintains a strong consistency throughout. It contains a handful of Arena classics, plenty of worthwhile compositions and just a couple of throwaway moments, but it's still a worthwhile album all the same, one that proves to be a real grower and holds a very distinctive identity in the Arena catalogue. Don't write it off on the first few plays, give it several spins and let it reveal it's strengths, and you'll be rewarded with a fine, inspired album from this terrific Neo band. If you do enjoy it, also look into the `Rapture' live DVD where frontman Manzi proves to be a very charismatic presence and the band gives the music from this album a slightly pumped up proggy toughness!

Three and a half stars, rounded up to four.

(This review is dedicated to Archives member Progbethyname, aka Nick, who's the biggest Arena fan I know!)

Report this review (#1347000)
Posted Saturday, January 17, 2015 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars After a long break of six years, Arena return with no Rob Snowden on vocals and a concept album yet again (Clive Nolan is responsible for all the lyrics), this time on what they call the 7th degree of separation (or rather connection?): that to the dead. This abstract theme is recurring in the album but don't expect continuous storytelling.

There is a significant change of structure compared to Pepper's Ghost with only one composition exceeding the 5-minute mark. Paul Manzi does a good job on vocals, albeit his range sounds narrower than that of his predecessor, but that fits the overall build of the album: verse-chorus-verse compositions with a strong rock character, very good melodies and solid rhythm section but little grandiose and theatrical twists and turns. AOR does come into play and does fit nicely to the new path Arena have decided on this album, with a rather strong commercial feel and without necessarily eroding the characteristic sound of Nolan/Mitchell, at least when compared to the band's post-2000 heavier releases.

''Trebuchet'' and (the long-ish) ''Catching the Bullet'' are perhaps the only tracks with a direct reference to the material on Pepper's Ghost and constitute, along with ''Burning Down'' and the very Marillion-esque closing ''The Tinder Box'', the more interesting compositions in the last part of the album. Furthermore, there are excellent vocal sections in ''Bed of Nails'' and ''Rapture''. The Threshold-prog-metal-type sound is quite dominant and even in songs where the commercial approach might go a bit too far (''One Last Au Revoir''), Arena manage to pull the ideas and melodies to maintain consistence, with no stand-out weak tracks.

A good album that flows freely; certainly not essential, but the potential is there for a return to their excellent moments. 3.5 stars.

Report this review (#1386011)
Posted Sunday, March 22, 2015 | Review Permalink
The Crow
2 stars After the departure of the best singer in Arena's history, Rob Sowden, along with the bassist John Salmon, Arena returned with a new line-up and some new ideas, starting a whole new era for the band.

But sadly, a great part of the magic of this band was sadly gone. The new singer Paul Manzi is a good one, but his heavy and high pitched style just don't fit in Arena. Rob Sowden is very missed here, but even other Arena singers were a better choice than Manzi in my opinion.

Nevertheless, the real problem in this album is the boring, predictable and average songwriting. In The Seventh Degree of Separation we can encounter a bunch of songs in a not very progressive dark-hard rock style where Manzi is the protagonist leaving little space to the great keyboards of Nolan (who is not prominent at all throughout the record) and the Mitchell's solos, being Catching the Bullet a fine exception.

The result is a less than average neo-prog record. Boring, repetitive, sometimes really insipid and not remarkable at all.

Best Tracks: The Great Escape, What if? (beautiful chorus) and Catching the Bullet (good progressive interlude)

Conclusion: Paul Manzi a good singer, but not a good choice for Arena. He lacks dramatic strength and true feeling in his singing. And this fact along with the mediocre songwriting, makes this album the weakest in Arena's discography in my opinion, Even under the not so loved Pride.

For this reason, I consider The Seventh Degree of Separation just for fans only and true neo-prog junkies. The rest can easily avoid this one, because does not offer anything really interesting.

My rating: **

Report this review (#2053888)
Posted Wednesday, November 7, 2018 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JRF/Canterbury, P Metal, Eclectic
4 stars With the loss of vocalist Rob Sowden, it's no wonder ARENA had to step back for a while and decide if the band should continue or not. After all, Sowden's distinct vocal flare is what made ARENA, well ARENA, right? Well not so fast there. After a presumably restful break with some soul searching for the next move that the band should embark upon if any at all, ARENA returned six long years after 2005's "Pepper's Ghost" with not only a new vocalist in the form of Paul Manzi who came out of nowhere but also found the unexpected return of bassist John Jowitt who had left the band after 1998's "The Visitor."

While the band never officially broke up and continued to tour, the new lineup was the perfect reset button and ARENA did the wise thing and didn't try to find a vocalist who would merely mimic the previous while pretending everything was just the way it was before. Au contraire. ARENA reinvented themselves for the seventh album aptly titled THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION which continued the ARENA tried and true tradition of cranking out an album's worth of nebulous concepts concerning life, death and the ethers that bridge the two all set up in emotive musical drama with instantly addictive hooks laced with progressive touches.

In fact, the changes had already begun on "Pepper's Ghost" as the band ramped up the heavier elements with harder guitar delivers, increased tempos with a more heavy rock edge than any of the album's that preceded. THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION simply picked up where that album left off stylistically speaking as if six years were just an illusory chunk of time. However, despite the attempt to just pick up where things left off, the notable differences in vocalists dictated that things were not the same and it sounds like every attempt was made to allow the music to adapt to Manzi's vocal abilities rather than the other way around.

Continuing the heavier aspects, ARENA opted to tamp down the more complex aspects of the progressive side of things which didn't sit well with many a fans and for many this was a clear decline and disappointment for one of the premiere neo-prog bands of the 90s. The tracks are more clear and concise with not a single one extending beyond the eight minute mark and most hovering around four. In a nutshell, THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION is much more a hard rock album than a progressive neo-prog album but that doesn't diminish the effectiveness of its rich tapestry of melodic weaving and excellent mastery of vocals, guitar oriented riffing and Clive Nolan's unworldly talent for casting the perfect atmospheric projections on his keys.

Conceptually, THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION tackles the subject of death by exploring Frigyes Karinthy's theory from which the album title gets its name only ARENA changed the original six to the number 7. Karinthy was a Hungarian author and postulated that all people are only six or fewer social connections away from each other. I guess he wasn't taking hermits into account but i digress. As with all ARENA albums, the thematic presence is loosely defined, nebulous to the core and is meant to fire up the imagination rather than cast an iron clad tale into literal form. Once again the music perfectly matches the imagery and despite the more accessible musical compositions works quite well in tandem.

While the obligatory bloated progressive elements are removed and replaced by a series of catchy pop hooks, the tracks whiz by fairly smoothly, all connecting for a nice album ride to the near hour completion. In some ways, Manzi reminds me of Geoff Tate of Queensryche in his vocal style only without the multi-octave range but his vocal phrasings and voice signature in general makes this connection. Likewise, the progressive metal of early Queensryche also seems to have at least made a marginal impact as some of the tracks have similar chord progression and atmospheres however these are subtle references and THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION stands up on its own two feet.

For finicky prog purists, this one will surely disappoint. It seems to purposely eschew any meandering sections that point to the perfect prog escapism but rather nurtures the melodic constructs into shorter and to the point rockers. But despite the decomplexifying touches, this is still prog rock through and through and there are healthy doses of time signature deviations, stellar atmospheric overcasts that glaze the Genesis inspired soaring guitar licks and emotive rock opera styled melodramatic effects. Just don't expect an album like "Contagion."

What's clearly missing is any sort of standout performances by Nolan as the keyboards have taken a back seat to the more ramped up guitar, bass and drum parts. Despite the new direction, i find THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION to be quite the addictive album based on the strong melodic hooks alone and the fact that they are augmented by a heavy rock bombast makes it all the stronger. I can totally understand why some fans jumped ship at this point but i find this new phase to be just as appealing as what came before but then again i crave change rather than relish complacency any day.

Report this review (#2152415)
Posted Tuesday, March 5, 2019 | Review Permalink
3 stars Review Nº 393

"The Seventh Degree Of Separation" is the seventh studio album of Arena and was released in 2011. After having wait 6 years for their new studio album, we all had high expectations about it. After "Pepper Ghost", fans became very curious to hear the new studio material from the band, really. This is another album with some changes on band's members. It's their first studio album to feature the presence of their new vocalist Paul Manzi, who replaced their previous vocalist Rob Sowden. It has also the returning of their bassist John Jowitt, who replaced their previous bassist Ian Salmon.

So, the line up on the album is Paul Manzi (vocals), John Mitchell (backing vocals and guitars), Clive Nolan (backing vocals and keyboards), John Jowitt (bass) and Mick Pointer (drums).

"The Seventh Degree Of Separation" is a conceptual album with a very strange and macabre subject. The concept is about the journey from the last hour of our life to the first hour of our death. With 13 tracks in total and a playing time of over 56 minutes of length, this is an album with a very impressive artwork. The album comes in a 3 leafed digital book with a 28 pages counting pullout booklet, packed with the original artwork. The special edition, which is mine, offers a bonus DVD of about 50 minutes featuring the making of the album, in which the five band's members give their personal point of view to the viewers, about the process they went through when composing the music of the album.

As happens with most of conceptual albums "The Seventh Degree Of Separation" is an album made of interwoven tracks and recurring themes. So, as usual on the most cases of conceptual pieces where the music and the lyrics flow throughout the album for the most part of it as if it were only a single theme, I'm going only to do a global review of it.

As we all know, Arena presents itself as a band playing different music styles ranging from symphonic to hard rock with a touch of metal style. On this album, the hard rock parts have become more prominent as the usual expenses of the symphonic progressive ones. Songs are also simpler and shorter than is usual, guitars sound heavier and the new vocalist Paul Manzi sings with a vibrato which is clearly a typical characteristic of hard rock and metal front men. By the other hand, the mixing of the album was done by Karl Groom of Threshold, what has happened with their previous sixth studio album "Pepper's Ghost", which probably had some influence with the overall heavier sound of the album, like happens with the new sound of Galahad. That is particularly evident, for me, on the eleventh track "Burning Down".

The first two songs "The Great Escape" and "Rapture" shows an album that has a lot of power. "One Last Au Revoir" is a nice song with good melodic guitar work of John Mitchell. "The Ghost Walks" is a slow song where you can hear some Steve Hackett's influences. "Thief Of Souls" and "Close Your Eyes" are two typical Arena's rock songs with some melodic vocal accents. The short track "Echoes Of The Fall" is an up tempo rock song. A more interesting track is the following song "Bed Of Nails" in where you can find more melody and a beautiful vocal line. It's full of synth strings and melodic guitar parts. The song has more diversity. This is something I usually miss in the more rock oriented songs. After this strong song it's time for the ballad "What If?". John Mitchell uses a guitar sound that reminds me sometimes the sound of Gary Chandler from their compatriots Jadis. This ballad has some beautiful vocal melodies and a nice melodic guitar solo. "Trebuchet" with his broad synth carpets and "Burning Down" are perhaps the two more typical Arena's rock songs on the album. The lengthiest song on the album is entitled "Catching The Bullet". In my humble point of view, it's the great highlight on the album, mainly because of the greater diversity on it. There is more room for instrumental interludes and it's, therefore, more interesting for the lovers of progressive rock. The album closes worthly with the track "The Tinder Box". The tension on the music of this song swells slowly towards a climax. Very nice really.

Conclusion: "The Seventh Degree Of Separation" is, without any doubt, a good and solid album with some catchy tracks. However, it doesn't sounds to me as a typical Arena's album. The replacement of Sowden by Manzi appears to me very strange because Manzi sings as a vocalist of a metal band. So, the final sound of the album is completely different that we were used to. By the other hand, the lengthy usual epic tracks of Arena are gone and has been replaced for short and conventional tracks, only slightly progressive, losing the album the usual magic of their music. Most of the songs on the album are more rock oriented. So, it lacks to the album the diversity and creativity that became really exciting for me. Thus, from a band with such high reputation and one of my favourite neo-prog bands, I expected more than a load of good rock tunes with just a progressive twist. I was maybe with too high expectations. In my point of view, "The Seventh Degree Of Separation" isn't clearly as good as all their previous albums, but it's a good consistent progressive rock album. All in all, I think the fans of Arena became enough pleased with it. But, I really think that the adventurous prog fan after six years of waiting for a new work from them, certainly expected a little bit more.

Prog is my Ferrari. Jem Godfrey (Frost*)

Report this review (#2482255)
Posted Friday, December 4, 2020 | Review Permalink
A Crimson Mellotron
3 stars 'The Seventh Degree of Separation' is Arena's seventh studio release, and first one with then-new vocalist Paul Manzi, another exquisite vocalist brought in to complement the epic music composed by one of the most exciting contemporary British prog rock bands. After a string of excellent releases in the early 2000s, with Rob Sowden handling the singing duties, and after a 6-year silence, 'The Seventh Degree of Separation' sees the band returning slightly to form and taking their best shot at starting out the new decade on a high note. And one could say that in a way they did manage to do it!

Technical and melodic, this album is simply a collection of very good songs composed by one of the most seasoned collectives out there, also seeing Arena go back a bit to the album presentation format of their heyday when their releases featured a huge number of shorter and more straightforward songs, as opposed to what we are usually used to when we talk about a prog rock band. It is really pleasant to see them applying their darker sounds and sometimes ominous tone to compositions that have strong heavy metal leanings with elements of symphonic rock, experimental rock or electronic rock. Among the highlights on here, one could not omit the mighty opener 'The Great Escape', the really heavy 'Rapture', or the more lush soundscapes of 'One Last Au Revoir'; 'Echoes of the Fall' and 'Burning Down' are also among the songs that sound the most convincing.

This is no 'Contagion', nor it is 'The Visitor' - it is a fine album by a great band, nothing too special, nothing too shabby. Just a display of power, capabilities, and will to continue to be creative.

Report this review (#2868954)
Posted Sunday, December 18, 2022 | Review Permalink
4 stars Paul Manzi makes an immediate splash as Arena's newly-minted lead singer on this album, opening as it does with a chilling unaccompanied vocal from him before the rest of the band comes crashing in on The Great Escape. It's a moment which sends chills up the spine and immediately makes him stand out, and whilst the musical accompaniment might be comparatively simple - it's fairly straight ahead neo-prog from the more melodic rock, less progressive side of the aisle, with some heavier sounds present - it does provide a compelling spotlight for Manzi's emotive, theatrical vocal style.

From Rapture onwards, a somewhat more varied sound creeps in, the band spreading their wings a touch more and bringing back more of their progressive influences now that Manzi has been given a big spotlight moment to introduce him. John Mitchell's guitar work keeps things heavy, Mick Pointer on drums is joined by John Jowitt on bass to reunite the rhythm section of Pride and The Visitor, and Clive Nolan's keyboard work takes in sound ranging from the 1980s heyday of neo-prog to more modern sounds which help keep things fresh. As is often the case with Arena, this isn't absolutely top-tier classic neo-prog stuff, but it's certainly an entertaining exercise in the genre and worth a listen unless you outright dislike the style.

Report this review (#3030946)
Posted Tuesday, March 19, 2024 | Review Permalink

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