Issue 2011-055: Arena - The Seventh Degree Of Separation - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Great Escape (4:38), Rapture (4:22), One Last Au Revoir (4:34), The Ghost Walks (3:18), Thief Of Souls (3:52), Close Your Eyes (3:25), Echoes Of The Fall (2:26), Bed Of Nails (4:39), What If? (4:35), Trebuchet (3:39), Burning Down (4:29), Catching The Bullet (7:42), The Tinder Box (4:16)
Brendan Bowen's Review
The Arena fan base has come to expect a theatrical style that oozes with drama and new album The Seventh Degree Of Separation (TSDOS) delivers a surprising degree of familiarity despite an extended break and significant personnel changes (new singer and the return of Jon Jowitt on bass).
I have taken this opportunity to delve into the back catalogue and listen to the old favourites back to back and I was a bit surprised. At first listen to TSDOS I formed an early opinion that it didn’t quite stack up against Contagion, Immortal?, The Visitor, or Pepper’s Ghost. Then I listened to it again after going through the list and I found myself rethinking this album and the direction of the band from the ground up.
Arena has been a band that uses large sweeping strokes to paint an audible canvas. These strokes consist of thick layers of slow moving lyrics sung as if every word was part of a repeating high platitude and the music layered beneath it in a creeping crescendo that built up in a variety of ways to make a dramatic impact. This style made the songs very memorable and easy to digest and the use of prog-laced solos to space it all out made for some good ear candy.
Now, six years and a few side projects later, Clive Nolan and company put out an Arena album that is heavier, more active, has less emphasis on token prog “requirements”, and is more intricate and complex. The Caamora project “She” was an amazing piece of musical genius and most certainly was a springboard for the updates to the Arena sound. Now the audible canvas is coloured with exacting detail while retaining the heart and soul of the band.
A primary difference for this album is the change in vocals. The familiar sound of Rob Sowden is gone and Paul Manzi has filled his shoes. Rob’s voice has been a superb part of the Arena experience and Paul has proven an ideal replacement - especially in light of the higher activity level of this album. After a few listens, I really cannot imagine anyone but Paul belting out this material.
The sound quality is very good. The separation is clear and the instruments are well balanced. The production is full and spatial and well worth enjoying with accurate speakers or earphones that can fully reproduce this sound. This album is dynamic and entertaining. The whole package is done with a professional tone and high standards.
Aside from the great production, a great highlight is the 5 string bass played by John Jowitt, back from IQ. When you are attentive to this album, it yields many subtle surprises in this detailed and rich soundscape. The music writing is shared among the band with Nolan as the primary driver and it shows itself with every instrument making its own statement.
The album art is poignant to the storyline and a striking visual. And, like the image, the music is very detail oriented and elaborate. Lyrically this storyline doesn’t carry the same poetic flair as albums of the past. The subject matter is interesting and weighty but the impact isn’t as sharp this go around.
The action takes a little breather during the mid to late mid part of the album, but other than that every song is strong and stands out on its own even though the songs are all part of a concept.
Clive Nolan can really build and convey an emotion and cast a mood with his keyboards. The final product is impressive and highly entertaining. I have played this album through over and over and keep hearing new elements I missed before. This album has surpassed my expectations and should appeal to Arena fans as well as expand the base.
Erik Laan's Review
Finally, a new Arena album: The Seventh Degree Of Separation sees the light this month. It took the British neo-proggers six years after their excellent Pepper’s Ghost (2005) to get everyone into the studio again. The big question was if their seventh CD would live up to the expectations of their fan base, which seemed rather constant and continued showing up at gigs in spite of the lack of new material.
Arena presents itself as a band playing music styles ranging from symphonic to hard rock. On this album, the hard rock part has become more prominent at the expense of the progressive and symphonic ones. Songs are simpler and shorter (three to four minutes), have a darker flavour, guitars sound heavier and the new vocalist Paul Manzi sings with a vibrato which is characteristic of hard rock front men. The mixing, done by Karl Groom (Threshold), probably had to do with this overall heavier “feel” of the album as well.
Manzi, who succeeded Rob Sowden in 2010, was already presented to the public in several live concerts, in which he left a positive impression of his abilities. Manzi is Arena’s fourth vocalist since their first album in 1994 and considering his technical skills, power and range he is definitely the best one so far. I do have to get used to his preference for drama and pathos though.
Some have called The Seventh Degree Of Separation a concept album, but if this would mean that there would be variations on musical themes making a composite unity of the entire album, (which Arena did so well on their third album The Visitor), it is not. The lyrics of the album do have a central theme, namely “death”, more specifically, they describe the last hour before and first hour after the moment of dying.
The emphasis on heavy stuff works best on Burning Down, which was on Arena’s gig track list in their Gig in the Netherlands last year. But on the whole, I really wonder if the change of course really reflects what Arena does best. I guess the more progressive oriented fans would miss the instrumental excursions which Arena was so capable of writing and playing. So, don’t expect a lot of Minimoog solo’s by keyboardist Clive Nolan.
The major progressive exception in this respect is Catching The Bullet, a seven minute track with a guitar oriented grand finale in which guitar virtuoso John Mitchell is at his best. Every time I hear this track, for me there is no escape, my arm just automatically reaches for the volume knob: harder!! But just as I start thinking “now we are talking”, the solo stops. This is the song I was waiting for and I would have liked to find a lot more of them.
All right then, I should mention another good track with a (very proggy) 7/8 rhythm clearly inspired by Genesis’ Cinema Show and a with a strong melody; One Last Au Revoir. A shame though that this song is faded out (which is not very proggy).
The Seventh Degree Of Separation is available in a luxurious digipack giving that little extra to convince fans to really buy the CD. If you like horror movies, you should definitely have a look at the artwork to which a lot of attention was given and on which “death” plays a prominent role. The choice for a thrifty black and white colour scheme for the cover is a little puzzling though. The accompanying DVD will probably be interesting only for die hard fans or perhaps fellow musicians, as it shows not much more than the individual Arena members in their studios presenting technical stuff and the way they work.
The Seventh Degree Of Separation is a solid album with a couple of catchy tracks. It should be praised that Arena doesn’t stick to old formulas and continues to open new doors. Time will tell if this works out well for the fans. Personally, I don’t think this CD will make me forget its predecessor and it’s definitely not in the same league as The Visitor. I just hope we don’t have to wait for another six years for a return.
Basil Francis' Review
Having not heard of Arena before being introduced to this album, I was unsure of what to expect from the British fivesome. With this, their seventh album, Arena give a decent go at trying to please both fans of prog and AOR at the same time, a veritable challenge if you ask me.
If you were to compare progressive music to food, with classic albums like Thick As A Brick being analagous to a banquet of divine delicacies, The Seventh Degree Of Separation would surely be a packet of crisps: enjoyable and comes in bitesize pieces, but ultimately just a tad unsatisfying.
Indeed, with just one track over 5 minutes, Arena have taken quite a risk as progressive fans are usually easier to lure with the promise of a few epic songs. However, I support Arena's decision, not only because the 4 minute format seems to work for them, but because I cannot stand when an artist tries to force a 20 minute song for this purpose! All of the songs feel concise and well thought out, rendering the album surprisingly smooth.
As I mentioned earlier, Arena try to please two sets of fans at once, proggers and non proggers. As a business plan, this makes sense on one level but ultimately it's a fruitless endeavour. If you want to really satisfy a prog fan, you have to blow their mind, rather than stay safe. After all, I've never eaten a mind-blowing pack of Pringles. In order to satisfy the proggers, Arena include some very familiar odd time signature workouts in a few of their songs, as well as implementing a neo-progressive sound. To satisfy non-proggers, none of the songs are particularly complex, and each song is quite catchy.
The band's sound is squarely rooted in neo-prog, with keyboards galore and clean instrumental noises. While neo-prog can and does sound great on occasion, this is one of the many instances where I feel like the whole genre sounds recycled. Every pack of Ready Salted tastes exactly the same, and this album suffers a similar fate. There's absolutely nothing fresh or original about this album, leaving it quite uninspiring.
You may have gathered by now that this is not an album that could ever reach into the upper echelons of prog rock history. This doesn't mean it isn't fun or characterful! The opening track The Great Escape begins with a lone vocal verse in lieu of Dancing With The Moonlit Knight, a stylish tribute to the band who have influenced over 90% of neo-proggers. Later, on Rapture, cover your children's ears as new singer Paul Manzi double-tracks the F-word during the chorus. My favourite track on the album must be The Ghost Walks, which has a very powerful instrumental outro, and reminds me yet again of Genesis. At nearly 8 minutes, the 'long' track Catching The Bullet features an extended instrumental section. Interestingly enough, the song sounds like its nearly over at 4 minutes, and you expect it to end around then anyway because that's what all the other songs on the album do. To summarise, the tracks on the album all sound very pleasant and listenable, but they don't deliver anything especially fulfilling.
I have to say, from a band with such a high reputation, I was expecting a lot more than a load of commercial rock tunes with just a progressive twist. It displeases me when bands don't try and create something that is truly original and unique, feeling that they can't or shouldn't. This packet-of-crisps album is enjoyable but rather unstimulating. This is the sort of album I'd recommend only in the absence of anything truly progressive. Pass me the Walkers will you?