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Arena - Pepper's Ghost CD (album) cover





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Easy Livin
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Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars A trick of the tales

I have recurring experiences with new Arena albums whereby, when I first hear them, I am slightly disappointed. This happened with both "Immortal?", and "Contagion", and indeed has happened again with "Pepper's Ghost". I have learned however, not to judge Arena albums by even the first half dozen listens, but to get to know the album well before forming an opinion. The two previous albums I mentioned have gone on to become firm favourites, ranking among the best albums in my collection. I have had "Pepper's ghost" for some weeks now, and sure enough each listen has been more pleasurable and rewarding than the last.

"Pepper's ghost", released to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the band, is Arena's sixth studio album. It is a collection of seven tales which combine elements from Marvel comics, The Twilight zone, Sherlock Holmes, etc. The excellent digipak packaging includes cartoon strips which Clive Nolan dreamed up, but which were actually drawn by David Wyatt. Each strip is designed to illustrate a song, although I must admit I experienced some difficulty in matching the lyrics to the cartoons (probably just me though!). Apparently, each of the band members is one of the comic book heroes (rising from the pages perhaps?). The title 'Pepper's Ghost' comes from an illusion created in Victorian England by Henry Pepper whereby he was able to project a "ghost" onto a the stage during theatre shows.

While not a concept album as such , the general themes of the album are perception, wrong interpretation and insanity.

Musically, the album is heavier than Arena's previous output, being closer to "Immortal?" than "The visitor" or "Contagion". The fact that the songs are presented separately, with longer track lengths also supports the comparison with "Immortal?". The heavier sound is in part due to the fact that Karl Groom of Threshold co-produced the album with Clive Nolan. While "Pepper's ghost" still sits well in the neo-prog sub-genre, it finds the band nearer the prog metal end of that spectrum than their more traditional location towards the symphonic prog end. Clive Nolan himself acknowledges that "Pepper's Ghost" represents "another change of direction for the band", but such changes tend to be subtle rather than radical.

The opening track, "Bedlam fair" is a typical first track for the band, being an upbeat, full on piece along the lines of "Witch Hunt" ("Contagion") or a faster version of "Chosen" (Immortal?"). It actually reminded me quite a bit of Uriah Heep's early work, with echoes of the Kerslake/Thain partnership in the powerful rhythm, and Nolan's keyboards giving more than a passing nod to the great Ken Hensley. The song would have suited the vocal style of late David Byron perfectly.

At almost 10 minutes, "The shattered room" is one of Arena's longest tracks. The opening section is reminiscent of "The butterfly man" from "Immortal?", but the speed and power pick up later, Clive Nolan slipping in some excellent old fashioned synthesiser work. The only track here I feel is poor is the rather lifeless "The Eyes Of Lara Moon", which is over repetitive, and lacks any real distinguishing features. "Purgatory Road" more than redresses the balance though, being a melodic and imaginative more typical Arena track.

The feature track is the closing "Opera Fanatica" which runs to around 13 minutes. It has one of those definitive Arena hooks, as Rob Sowden declares "The king is dead, so worship me". This refrain is interspersed throughout the track, at first slow and majestic, with each rendition becoming louder and more powerful as the track progresses. The main guitar theme sounds a bit like a faster version of that on "Crack in the ice" ("The visitor") with a metal basis added. The whole track is slightly reminiscent of "Moviedrome" ("Immortal?"), but at the same time unique.

While this is an excellent Arena album, when judged against the extraordinarily high standards they have set themselves with previous albums, it does fall slightly short. There is a bit too much in the way of vocals, and too little in the way of John Mitchell's excellent guitar work and Clive Nolan's superb keyboards. With each listen though, the appeal of the album increases markedly, the full magnificence of individual tracks gradually opening up, like a reluctant flower on a sunny day.

The lesson is clear for all here. Do not judge any Arena album on the first, or even tenth listen. In common with many great prog pieces, their music demands that you get to know it well, before coming to any conclusions.

Easy Livin | 4/5 |


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