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Marsupilami - Arena CD (album) cover




Eclectic Prog

4.02 | 86 ratings

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4 stars Into the Arena!!

An amazing and complex album that was in line or even ahead of where the competition was at the time it was made in 1970. As you likely know this is a concept album about the Roman culture that was produced by Camel's Peter Bardens who also plays some percussion. Musically and lyrically it is heavy, dark (mostly), and quite adventurous. More than anything though this is a near perfect example of early English progressive rock (though recorded in the Netherlands.)

"Prelude to the Arena" (subtitled "the undertones of violence in a drifting generation") starts quite violently with Sabbath style dramatic chords and the theatrical exclamations of Fred Hasson, whose vocals are adequate for this material but sit just on the edge of being annoying at times. This leads to alternating calm and rock sections with organ, guitar, flute. Bass and some furious drumming are pretty stellar throughout the jamming. Quite a nice opener. "Peace of Rome" ("they manufactured death to keep the peace") starts with a back and forth between vocalizations and flute. Then there is a section of sung spoken narrations about the Roman concepts with lovely flutes and another fluent rock section with organ. "The Arena" ("the fighting, the killing, the mother of fornication") begins with more dramatic narration over Hammond blasts and then some extended organ over subdued drumming, bass, and female background vocals. The flutes come in and the sound is quite eerie and a bit exotic. In the middle there is a great section of piano, flute and whispered female vocal, the calm before the chaos to follow. Starting at 9:20 is a section that sounds quite Camel-ish, one wonders if Barden's picked up some subconscious influence here although most of Marsupilami is much more brash than Camel. The latter half of this song features some truly fine prog rock moments, great guitar work, mellotron, vocals, and overall memorable textures.

Side 2 begins with "Time Shadows" ("lay low the past, the future brings hope"). This one starts very weird with echoed vocal and organ, then acoustic and flute join and then harmonica and vocal. Soon a brisk bass and jazzy drum beat grabs the weirdness and pulls it along, then some piano joins in. If this sounds like a mess, well it kind of is a musical car wreck and yet is quite fulfilling. About half way through we get the saxophone and electric guitar trading licks with an urgent flute and rhythm section behind. The last minute gets pretty crazy with the sax and guitar laying down some very heavy rock. "Spring" is a great closer and another good hippie rock moment. After yet another insanely dramatic beginning the track suddenly jumps into the most delightfully melodic passage of flute, piano, and gentle Camel like rhythm. That stops and we move into a vocal weirdness section with cathartic wailing to edgy strings and keys. Then a short e guitar solo-the lead guitar work is good enough though by no means jaw dropping. But with everything else going on around it doesn't need to be. The sound here again is VERY busy and ambitious, and somewhat difficult. This will be just too bizarre for some to enjoy, but others will feast on the eccentricity of the album. After several minutes of strangeness it slips back to the Camel-like melody to provide a pleasing and memorable ending.

"Arena" is an album that puzzled me at first but I'm glad I stuck with it, I now find it to be a challenging and always entertaining listen. To give a bit more info on the overall sound I quote just a short section from the GEPR: "There is also a strong folk feel in the vocal melodies and some of the music. The organ work gives a bit of a early '70s psych feel. Arena is a concept album but the songs on both albums run in the 7-9 minute range. Perhaps not essential but generally pretty nice if you like melodic prog with folk touches and a bit of an early feel. I especially like the heavy keyboards and busy drumming. Their overall sound is somewhat typical of the period - full of late sixties influences - but unique enough to be worthwhile. They occasionally sound like In Search of Space era Hawkwind but with more emphasis on vocals and keyboards. The instrumental proficiency and variety will keep the average prog-head interested." [part in quotes from GEPR]

It's certainly true that parts of this sound dated but that isn't necessarily the same thing as "not aging well." If you don't mind theatrics I'd say this has aged quite well, the strange complexities of the composition and arrangements make it as interesting to me as some of today's ultra complex prog. The Japanese remaster is not a gatefold unfortunately but it does offer some decent sound quality considering how old this is. 4 solid stars for a great early prog album and recommended to anyone intrigued by what they're read.

Finnforest | 4/5 |


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