Arena - The Visitor (1998)

2018 marks the 20th anniversary of DPRP publishing album reviews. To celebrate, we have asked several former reviewers and some of the long-standing reviewers to take a look back at the album of one of their own reviews and write an article for in the Archives Of Prog section (now part of the Features section).

Also former team member Mattias Norén helped for the occasion by coming up with the image for this series at the top. Take a look at his website ProgArt Media.

Episode 11 has former reviewer Jan Jaap de Haan revisiting erm, Arena's The Visitor, which he covered in our Counting Out Time series in the weeks that led to the year 2000.

Jan Jaap even took the time to actually call Clive Nolan to talk with him about that album, the forthcoming tour that is a celebration of the 20th anniversary of said album, and of course the subject could not be steered away from Arena's latest album, Double Vision as well.

The Visitor – Looking back on 20 years

When I'm calling Clive Nolan, it's snowing outside his studio in Virginia Water, the village alongside the Virginia Water lake, which inspired the lyrics to A Crack In The Ice, the opener to Arena's most succesful album to date: The Visitor. The album won Best Album Of The Year on DPRP in 1998, as well as Best Artwork (by Hugh Syme), and Best Song for The Hanging Tree. DPRP's reviewer, Ed Sander, claimed the album was "another masterpiece in prog history".

For this re-visitation of the album, I put on the original promotional copy I got back in early 1998. From the powerful pattern of the opening song, based around the instantly recognisable riff, written by John Jowitt, the album flows into the tingling atmosphere of Pins And Needles. "Coincidentally, I am working on Pins And Needles as we speak, thinking 'where on earth have those sounds gone?'.", Arena's main composer Clive Nolan explains.

"We're preparing for the 20th anniversary tour and I am trying to recreate the sounds. I have a completely different set-up right now. I used to have nine keyboards on stage, but now I am down to just two, which are much more powerful. But I have to find the right sounds again." Which is a good excuse to listen to the album again. "Normally, you don't listen to your own music a lot, unless you need to prepare something for a tour. I haven't listened to it as a whole probably since it came out. Now that we're playing the album in its entirety, there's an occasion to hear it again."

Clive Nolan. Photo by Eric de Bruijn, used by kind permission.

What do you think of it after 20 years?

Clive Nolan: I was actually suprised how good it was. I was pleasantly suprised: "oh, crickey, remember that track, we haven't played that one!".

What's your main memory of the recording process?

It was hard. It was the hardest one. I was in the studio for about six months, which is longer than any of the albums we made since or before. That is what pretty much put me off working in a studio. I prefer to be in my own keyboard room, because I couldn't stand being in the studio anymore. It went on for a very long time. We sort of intended it to be that way, because we decided to experiment a bit more in the studio, but that proves to be quite an expensive way of doing things. Although in this particular case I might have benefitted the album.

Technical problems were many: what happened was, that at the time we were using ADATs as the recording format, we could now afford 24-channel recordings thanks tot he budget of ADAT. The trouble is, those things were awful: we actually had 3 ADATs in use, 3 ADATs being fixed, and 3 ADATs standing by: we had 9 machines just to be able to do the album. And they were constantly taken apart and fixed. And as a result we lost a lot of tracks and we then had to rebuild them. Probably the bass needed a certain amount of redoing. These machines probably weren't built for the intense use we needed.

You will be re-releasing around this time; what are the main reasons for re-releasing it?

The main reason was the fact that it's the 20th anniversary, we had this idea quite a long time ago. To go out, tour the whole Visitor concept again. And at that time, we thought we loved to bring it out on vinyl, when that started to grown again. It kind of remained on the back-burner, until Mick (Pointer, ed.) gave it a big push and negotiated the use of the artwork again to get the whole thing off the ground.

Did you change anything?

It's a remaster, so there's obvious tweeking and EQ-ing, but fundamentally the album is the same. We've been looking at some of the cross-fades, to see wether there were differences, but nothing that would have improved the album. We kept the album fairly pure.

Do you think the album has matured well?

Like a fine wine! (Laughs) That's probably more for other people to judge, but I think it held itself well over time. There's basically some good songs on there, the concept still holds, as well as the general vibe of the album. I got no problem with it. Production-wise, technology has moved on and there's quite some things that we could improve in some ways, but it's a thing of its time. And that's how albums should be. I am happy with it.

Have you considered to recreate the album for a 5.1 version?

No. To be honest: I am not sure if we've got the tapes anymore. Because they were ADAT tapes, they were more and more damaged as we were pounding through this. I remember finishing the mix and it was a sigh of relief that we managed to get the whole thing together long enough to get that finished. We do have the DAT tapes, which hold some different mixes of things, different versions of Crack In The Ice, or so. But the one that we've chosen is the best one and we don't have the multi-tracks. They are probably gone, maybe parts of it are gathering dust somewhere. Since we were working with ADAT, many keyboards would be missing as well, because they were on MIDI. Even if we find something, all those tracks would need a rebuild job, and I just don't think it's necessary.

What's your favorite moment on the album?

I might have an idea, when given a bit more time, I don't know. Right at the moment, I really like Tears In The Rain, just because I've been working on it for piano and voice. It probably kind of passes people by, but I think it's a nice song, it works on its own.

Does it has any weaker spots?

It probably does (laughs), but I am not the best person to tell. To be honest, I think as a package the album works really well, so at the moment I would say "no, not particularly". If I was writing this album again, I would probably do a few things slightly differently, but I think it's good as it is.

Was the writing a group effort? I think album has one of the biggest writing teams.

The way Arena works is that anybody would put forward little bits of material and then from the best bits, I start to put songs together. That's the process we tend to use. In that, there was just me and Mick for the first two albums, and we opened it up for ideas from John and John, so that made four. After that, with Immortal?, Jowitt had left, it might have gone down to three. So yeah, for quite a while it was.

But this album (Double Vision, ed.) is made up of material from everybody. Paul Manzi had some good ideas and I've used a few of those, so he's contributed material that's on the album.

What do you expect from the new live version?

I would like to think that we can do a reasonably faithful recreation of what we did twenty years ago on tour. I don't think it's gonna sound massively different. The point is to recreate what we did.

Does Paul Manzi play guitar this time? Because there are lot of double guitar layers on the album.

I am not sure how we will tackle all that. It is of course a concept album, which really suits the idea of a frontman. The moment he has a guitar, it's harder to be that frontman. My instincts tell me he probably won't play guitar in The Visitor, although I am pretty sure he will play guitar in the gig.

It's the next thing on the list: getting the programming right. It will be an interesting show in general. Paul will put his own spin on things like the theatrics, he will not necessarily do what Paul Wrightson did 20 years ago. Although you will see things like the Vampire and the Priest. They will probably re-appear, in their own particular way.

As for props and all, I really don't know. We haven't got that far. There will be on or two things and we're using video screens, for new video footage as well, so that will be different. We had static back-drops last time. That might add a different flavour.

Do the backdrops still exist?

They're gone. I can't remember where, they might have rotted away or we gave them away as prices. They no longer exist. There will be a retro T-shirt, so if you want to re-experience The Visitor T-shirt, we are producing it!

Among Arena fans, The Visitor still is the most popular album, isn't it?

Yeah, I think so. It's either that one or Contagion that I am hearing.

Is it as popular as well inside the band?

No. We are aware that it was our most successful album. It was the best selling album, beyond the 40.000, which is quite good at our level. It got the most profile and it probably did the band the most good, so we are very aware of its value. But I think if you ask each member about their favourite album, that would not necessarily be The Visitor. I suspect that some in the band would say Contagion. For me, I am not 100% sure, I do have a soft spot for Pepper's Ghost. But it is the one that we value the most.

How is the new album coming together?

The album is sounding great, it's kind of a surprise one. It started off as something we felt we had to do, and now it turned into something quite interesting. We made it sort of retrospective, I wanted to make it look back over the albums a little bit and make references that way, but there's some new flavours in there as well.

Because of the title, Double Vision, it seems as a follow-up to The Visitor?

Yes, obviously you got the reference to The Visitor, but it's not a follow-up as such. There's one song on there, the epic, which is very much part of The Visitor universe, if you like, and - by intention - was to answer questions that people often ask about The Visitor. So there is that one, 22-minute song that does deal with that directly, there are answers and references in there to the album.

At the time, there were some people, including myself, who dug into the more religious nature of the lyrics. What did you think of that, at the time? And how much was true to that?

I thought it was fascinating; it was very interesting to see what people made of what was going on. Half the battle with concepts like that is to provide more questions than answers, so it gives people something to think about. And with all of these kind of stories there's bound to be some kind of religious analogies. It wasn't overly intentional to start with, but as a general rule of thumb, I use references of a religious nature in lyrics. A kind of death-and-resurrection thing would have been there. I thought of it as a more secular story at the time, as the basic idea. This is explored a little more in this new story of The Legend of Elijah Shades so the analysts can get to work on that one! There are, I hope, some fairly clear and some more obscure references and answers to The Visitor in that song. It's an epic song, a long song, so plenty of material in there!

Is it your longest song?

I think so. It's longer than Moviedrome. I haven't written an epic for a long time. It was the one song I wrote before Christmas, the rest of it came after. I thought, "I'd better see what I can come up with" and this idea developed itself really. I had a few musical ideas, and they seemed to work together and the song kept growing. It seemed an interesting thing to do.

Clive Nolan. Photo by Miranda Bril, used by kind permission.

Meanwhile, hearing the album brings back memories and forgotten insights to me. From the aforementioned Pins And Needles, the instantly recognisable Nolan-esque keyboard widdle starts Double Vision. I always liked this song, especially for the interesting rhythm-pattern, mainly in 5/4. I truly believe it shows the skills and unique approach of drummer Mick Pointer, the other founding member still present in the line-up.

The atmospheric Floydian-sounds of Elea, an early John Mitchell composition, leads us into the 10-minute epic highlight of the album, hadn't it been for the fact that The Hanging Tree is a separate song.

I realize that over the years I have grown used to the live version of these songs. But Simon Hanhart deserves a credit here for production: the richness of the sound, beautiful in many textures and layers surprises me after so many live versions: I hear 'new' things!

Just as I had "forgotten" about the instrumental interlude called Blood Red Room. Blink Of An Eye hasn't been in a live set since the original tour and as a result this song is often overlooked, not because it had bad elements (to the contrary), but may because it lacks focus and floats around the one or two musical themes too many.

The heart of the album has become a string of live favourites over the years, with songs like A State Of Grace and (Don't Forget To) Breathe and even Enemy Without, which get the crowds singing and jumping. Sometimes I prefer the live version over what I am hearing on the album. This is the case with (Don't Forget To) Breathe, which I have witnessed live with any singer over the years, but suffers a bit in dynamics form a fade-out on the album.

Tears In The Rain, however presents itself only in acoustic sets by either Arena or Clive Nolan solo gigs. The album version combines a fragile acoustic start with a grand electric finale, which is great.

Running From Damascus is a transitional song, almost a reprise to Crack In The Ice and leading into Mick Pointer's favourite song of the album: The Visitor, which repeats the Hanging Tree solo in great style before fading out into the opening bass-line of the album.

Clocking in around 62 minutes the album flows really well and sounds great. To me, this is where Arena reached 'next level' in terms of sound, focus and tightness. The Visitor still means a lot to me personally; it was released in the month we got our first house and from there we send out hundreds of copies out over the world on behalf of the fan club. It was an important phase in our lives and I hold the album dear to my heart. I am looking forward seeing and hearing it live soon.

Written by Jan-Jaap de Haan

Read Jan-Jaap de Haan's article in the Counting Out Time series he wrote with Erik Beers in 1998

Read Ed Sander's original 1998 review of The Visitor here!

Read Dirk van den Hout's 1999 review of the Fan Club CD The Visitor - Revisited here!