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Arena - Pepper's Ghost CD (album) cover





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4 stars 10 Years On: Arena's Pepper's Ghost

Modern neo-prog has always been an interesting scene to talk about within progressive rock. Long mocked as a 'poor man's symphonic', neo never really got all too much credit in the 80's, and for good reason. Marillion, they were good, but that was about it in terms of quality material from the new wave of bands. Even current favourites IQ and Pendragon were far from amazing in their original incarnations, really just playing weak Genesis knockoffs with a bit more synth and pop thrown in.

But despite hiding under the shadow of the absolutely incredible Fish-led Marillion for the first decade of their time, these bands, specifically the three that I call The Big Three of Modern Neo- Prog (IQ, Pendragon and Arena), somehow found their sound and compositional skill years after the genre's supposed 'heyday'. Today, if you were to ask anyone who the best bands making progressive rock today who have also been making it for 30 years, everyone would straight away jump to those three (or at least the first two, for reasons I'll get to soon). None of the symphonic bands can cut it anymore. All of the 70's bands that are still around suck, yet somehow three bands that were formed in the 80's (ok technically Arena were 90's) are making the best music of their career now.

The 90's and early 2000's saw the Big Three capitalise on the missing Marillion to make some pretty standard neo-prog that was nearly up to the quality of Marillion at their peak. Pendragon put out The Window of Life and The Masquerade Overture, IQ put out Ever and Subterranea, and even though they were a bit late, Arena's The Visitor and Contagion could be included in the list of 'essential neo-prog albums', over a decade after the microgenre had dissolved. But this sound couldn't last. The most impressive thing about these three bands is that they could stay relevant while simultaneously keeping their defining sound. Each album shifting slightly towards the new normal, but never losing their compositional style. By the early 2000's, neo-prog was beginning to sound ridiculously campy, ridiculously 80's. Floaty synths and Fish-impressions in 7/8 weren't cool anymore, even in the ultra uncool areas of modern prog. What they needed was a new sound, and although in 2015 we look at IQ and Pendragon as being the forerunners of old men understanding how to be relevant, the sound of modern neo-prog was actually an Arena invention, here, on Pepper's Ghost.

The point of this long winded historical introduction is that despite the fact that IQ and Pendragon took this sound and used it to put out albums that were consistently impressing fans, it was actually Arena who played it first. Pendragon jumped on the bandwagon with Pure, and IQ only half did with Frequency (although fully did with The Road of Bones), but it was Arena's Pepper's Ghost that first proved to the world that neo-prog could not only exist in the 21st century, but sound good. And although Arena's new material would pale in comparison to that which IQ and Pendragon put out afterwards, this album's importance is undeniable.

This was certainly the best time in Arena's career to shift their sound. Contagion, and its two additional EPs, Contagious and Contagium, were undeniably the band's best work, finally making their melodic style of neo-prog work on more than just a few tracks, creating 23 songs of which there was hardly a dud. 'Go out on top', they say, and this was certainly the best time to take a risk. Although Pepper's Ghost is hardly a big sonic change - the guitars are a touch meatier, the snare is absolutely deliciously punchy and the synths less corny, it demonstrated clearly how well neo-prog could be adapted into the 21st century, using 21st century production. Symphonic prog's organ worship never sounded truly natural amongst modern sounds, but give the guitars and drums some more oomph and the synths a dark texture and neo-prog suddenly sounds the best it's ever been.

Unfortunately, despite Pepper's Ghost being the flagship for this new way of making neo-prog, the songs themselves aren't anywhere near as influential or as fresh. The closing epic 'Opera Fanatica' is the only real time when Arena add new parts to their composition, as opposed to dressing their old style with a new coat. The song's 3-minute overture is played with punchy, almost metal distorted guitars and drums, and even the main body of the song has an energy to the instruments that neo-prog has simply never had.

But aside from that, and a couple of other choice moments, these are still standard Arena songs, at a slightly lower level than the ones from Contagion and its EPs. Arena possess the same quality melody-finding abilities as any good neo-prog band, but without anything new in their songwriting arsenal, these songs do drift into cliche a fair bit. All of them have strong melodies and riffs and ideas but they are presented in the same old way with the same old cliches, and the new, punchier production being the only thing stopping this from being a second-rate IQ ripoff or a weaker version of Contagion.

In the end, Pepper's Ghost is a landmark album for neo-progressive rock, but in itself is only decent. Like any Arena album there are some great moments, but nothing that really makes you sit up and pay attention. And even then, the new sounds aren't enough to make this a truly impressive album sonically - this is still miles away from the ridiculously dark synths on The Road of Bones. For Arena, it would be six more years and a new vocalist until the follow up to Pepper's Ghost, and by that time both IQ and Pendragon would have picked up the hint and adopted the same heavier undertones that are on this album, but to a much stronger degree, and with much better songwriting. Credit where credit is due for Arena pushing there first, but quite frankly, this was done better 10 years later with The Road of Bones and Men Who Climb Mountains.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 4/5 |


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