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





3.47 | 346 ratings

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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!)

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |


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