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Arena - Pepper's Ghost CD (album) cover

PEPPER'S GHOST

Arena

 

Neo-Prog

3.63 | 417 ratings

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Tristan Mulders
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Arena - Pepper's Ghost

"Pepper's Ghost" is the follow-up to Arena's 2003 release "Contagion," which I regarded as a great album.

The first thing I noticed about this release was the cool BOOKLET in which it came. The version I have is the Limited Edition, which comes in a digibook, think of the typical Inside-Out ones, with comics (!) printed next to the lyrics. Weird thing, though, is that I have never seen a not-limited edition. This features as a guideline for the album. Each short comic (one per song) features a sort of super hero, whom is visualised as a specific band member per song.

Looking at the music I have to admit that it is less interesting than Arena's previous studio release, mainly because the songs included here are leaning towards typical neo-prog stereotypes.

Album opener Beldam Fare start in the same vein as opening track Witch Hunt did on their 'Contagion' album. Hereby I mean that the track starts with samples talking people on a market square, before the band begins to play and the album really starts. Remarkable is that there's a whole section included in the song that features vocals that are sung using a vocoder. This song definitely is not an instant Arena classic, but it surely is enjoyable. This song and the next one are both in the same vein as most of the songs on Arena's "Contagion" album.

So what does come next? The semi-ballad Smoke and Mirrors. The song starts with very relaxed guitar playing, before the band starts to rock. Rob Sowden's vocals are at their best here. What I love most about his singing is the way he sings the very last line. simply stunning. He did that little thingy quite often on the "Contagion" album, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I liked that album so much. Now where would neo prog be without the guitar and keyboard solos? Just to make sure that Arena won't be forgotten there is one thrown in for each of those instruments about into the song. If you take a look at the album's title than this song is also the song that connects with the title the most, because it has to do with creating the illusion of making people disappear during performances by illusionists. this phenomenon was explained more thoroughly on the website of Inside-Out Records around the time of release.

Coming up next is the first epic track on the album and also the first one that breaks away from the type of songs that were so typical for the Contagion album. Eerie sounding keyboards present the introduction to The shattered Room. The introduction lasts an average 1.15 minutes which is quite long regarding the tracks length at 9.46 minutes.

Okay, Mick Pointer is not the best drummer I've come across, but his use of double bass drums gives Arena a quality that makes them sometimes borderline progressive metal. John Mitchell's guitar playing on some of the songs is also close to that genre, the second half of The shattered Room features constant metal guitar riffs. The guitar playing on the first verse in the song, after the introduction of course, reminds me of MARILLION's Steve Rothery.

About five minutes in, the song features a very weird ambient part, which is reminiscent of some of the interlude songs that PORCUPINE TREE used to do back in their "Signify"-era. This part works as a built-up for John Mitchell to start a manic riff backing up a great keyboard solo by Clive Nolan. Most of the time I'm not a fan of Nolan's way of playing the keyboards, because he tends to be a bit omnipresent in Arena's music. or actually on anything he plays on, but he keeps to himself quite often on this album, something I personally can really enjoy. He is using his keyboards more to back-up the other band members and to create a certain atmosphere, than to show-off.

Track number four, The Eyes of Lara Moon starts of pretty mellow, which is more or less the complete opposite of the way the previous song ended. The chorus in this song is not sung, but played. The verses are the mellow parts, but the chorus is an up-tempo instrumental part with nice guitar playing by Mr. Mitchell and some good keyboards by Mr. Nolan. About halfway through the song changes moods and from this point on the guitar is always playing some mean riffs. Overall this song is my least favourite on this album, mainly because it is the least interesting and most repetitive. There's a constant repetition of the lyrics and the instrumentation is not quite that original..

What follows is on of my favourite tracks by Arena: Tantalus. The song starts with Sowden singing in his usual way, being accompanied by Clive Nolan on piano. The further this progresses we encounter some warm synthesizer waves accompanying the piano and vocals. This works as a good introduction to the heavy part that follows. Typical for Arena is that most guitar parts are 'doubled,' hereby I mean that when Mitchell is soloing there's another riff playing along on the background. Most of the time this is a fairly aggressive riff. The ending of the song is the heaviest part of the whole album. The fact that the song ends with quite a long fade-out is for once a good thing, although the fade-out features a great guitar solo. Because the next song Purgatory Road starts with a very quiet introduction with some very aggressive though lonely guitar solo and I think that if the band decided to not end the previous track with a fade-out this would spoil the mood for the introduction of the next track.

This song is also the second song to feature vocals sang through a vocoder device. This song has some similarities of IQ in especially the guitar playing. Of course there's, yet again, a spot for Mitchell and Nolan to show that they can play a decent solo on their instrument. This is also the first song in which I tend to notice the bass guitar, especially near the ending of the song where Salmon has a small 'solo' segment in the mix.

The ending song on the album is also the longest (13 minutes!) track on the album. The epic piece Opera Fanatica starts of with very atmospheric keyboards accompanying a male and a female opera vocalist. This is by far my favourite introduction to any neo-prog song! This intro lasts for about one minute, before the band decides to yet again go metal. I like this change of direction. I know quite a few Arena albums, but none of them have this many heavy segments included. If they continue this way, I'll surely continue to follow and support them. The song has a very dramatic touch to it and although it is pretty heavy it really represents a operatic piece of art. There are several interlude parts in the song, which feature a guitar vs. keyboard duel which is the most operatic, leaving the introduction out of the picture, part of the whole song. Pointer's drumming on these parts is distinctive metal drumming. I do not know what artists are icons for the band members, but it surely seems they love heavy music. The first few times that the chorus is sang, the same opera vocalists that were noticeable in the intro are added to the mix. This gives the song just that little extra to lift it above the majority of neo-prog songs.

While listening to the album again, I couldn't help but reread the comics in the booklet and they are very well drawn out. I hope that the unlimited edition of the album does feature these comics because they're an integral part of the album.

Tristan Mulders | 4/5 |

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