2018 sees Arena return with their ninth studio album, as well as a tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their excellent The Visitor. Arena are now three albums into their comeback with singer Paul Manzi, and it’s fair to say that their return has been pretty good thus far. Personally, I loved The Seventh Degree of Separation and enjoyed the M.R. James-inspired The Unquiet Sky, even if it wasn’t quite the equal of its predecessor.
The new album’s title name checks the song Double Vision from The Visitor; this is no coincidence as the album’s epic-length closer, The Legend of Elijah Shade, is a follow-up, of sorts. By contrast, the first half of the album is made up of shorter tracks. Overall, it is structurally very similar to Immortal? and Pepper’s Ghost and so comparisons between them are inevitable. Such comparisons are, I think, warranted, as the album’s style shares much in common with Arena’s earlier works, Immortal? in particular.
The album begins with Zhivago Wolf. A rumbling drum and guitar intro are soon accompanied by Clive Nolan’s keyboards and a lyric about paranoia. There are shades of The Butterfly Man to this and the chorus is instantly memorable. An excellent opener and one of the album’s best tracks.
Zhivago Wolf is followed by what is, in my opinion, the album’s finest cut, The Mirror Lies. Along with Poisoned, this was the only other track from the new album to be played at their recent London gig. I wish I had the chance to listen to the studio recording beforehand as I’m not sure that all the nuances of the song came through properly in its live rendition. Lyrically, the song is a second-person accusative to a populist politician and it has a magnificently melodic vocal throughout. The verse and bridge are accompanied by John Mitchell’s delicate guitar before leading into the soaring chorus. This has already become one of my all-time favourite Arena tracks.
Scars is filled with haunting melodies, surprising chord changes and complex time signatures. There’s a great chorus in here and some fine interplay between Mitchell and Nolan which gives a clear nod to A Crack In The Ice. There’s definitely something of the style of The Visitor to this track and even though it is not as immediate as the album’s openers, it is excellent nonetheless.
Paradise of Thieves continues with the complex time signatures before leading into the vocals. The verse/chorus parts of the song have a much more conventional structure than the instrumental sections and that provides a nice contrast to them. It’s a memorable chorus, though a bit repetitive and, overall, not the album’s strongest track.
Red Eyes, like Scars, is not as immediate to the listener as the album’s opening songs but it rewards repeated plays. When the track bursts into life, it is to the sound of an organ accompanied by the guitar working through one of the track’s chorus melodies. It is worth noting that the album has quite a dark tone overall and the sinister lyrics of Red Eyes, combined with the heavy instrumentation, fuel this.
The last of the album’s shorter efforts is its ballad, Poisoned, a track that would sit comfortably on a late ‘80s mainstream rock album. I was reminded of Richie Sambora’s Stranger In This Town when I heard it. To describe Poisoned in this way might put some people off until one remembers how well the similar Friday’s Dream suited Immortal? This is a great song, and a good counterbalance to the heavier tone in the aforementioned Scars and Red Eyes.
And so, to the album’s epic. Fans hoping that references in this review to Immortal? might lead to comparisons between The Legend of Elijah Shade and Moviedrome are going to be disappointed. It is a great track, even if it inevitably flags at times during its twenty-two and a half minute duration, but stylistically it has more pomp and theatre to it than the epic from Immortal? How much the listener likes this track may well depend on how much they like Nolan’s musicals. This track has a style very reminiscent of Nolan and Oliver Wakeman’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (a brilliant album, incidentally, for those who haven’t heard it). This is classic Nolan: a hint of the Gothic; delicate piano flourishes and melodies in the songs softer parts; soaring choruses, keys and guitars in the heavier sections.
Overall, the album’s heavier tone is balanced with some infectious melodies. This is classic and unmistakable Arena; indeed, it feels like a return to the style and sound that made the band what it was almost twenty years ago. I must admit that on first listen the album didn’t impress me greatly, with Scars, Red Eyes and The Legend of Elijah Shade all needing repeated listens to fully appreciate everything that is going on. This is a very welcome addition to Arena’s impressive catalogue and I hope that the next tour sees more of it feature in the set.
01. Zhivago Wolf (4:48)
02. The Mirror Lies (6:58)
03. Scars (5:17)
04. Paradise of Thieves (5:10)
05. Red Eyes (6:41)
06. Poisoned (4:28)
07. The Legend of Elijah Shade (22:39)
Total Time – 47:01
Paul Manzi – Lead Vocals
Clive Nolan – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
John Mitchell – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Kylan Amos – Bass
Mick Pointer – Drums
Record Label: Verglas
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 25th May 2018