Oh, my goodness me, yes!
I haven’t rocked out to an Arena album since the truly magnificent The Seventh Degree of Separation (2011). It’s not that The Unquiet Sky (2015) and Double Vision (2018) don’t have their moments, but The Theory of Molecular Inheritance towers head and shoulders above both of them in terms of the sheer consistency of the song writing, the incisive musical bite, the depth and even the delicacy of emotional engagement and the diverse breadth of the musical palette amply demonstrated from start to finish.
In case you can’t already tell, I’m a fan. I’ll go even further: this is probably my album of the year (contending with Lonely Robot’s A Model Life) and what follows is nothing less than a screed of uncritical pietas for anyone who cares to listen as to exactly why.
A word of warning for those of a delicate nature: stop reading now. This is unashamed, unabashed, fan-boy fawning masquerading as a ‘review’.
New vocalist Damian Wilson is a truly inspired addition and proves to be key in unlocking the full potential of the creative musical endeavour displayed on this album. Paul Manzi, despite appearing to have the voice to do Arena’s catalogue justice, never truly felt like being the front man they needed in order to do themselves justice. Wilson brings a much wider array of dramatic and striking dimensions to what Arena can do in terms of their song writing, unlocking new vocal ranges, endowing songs with an assured power and commanding authority on the one hand (Pure of Heart), yet also nuanced delicacy, bewilderment and even tenderness on the other (Under the Microscope).
More than this, Wilson permeates the music with a thoroughly distinctive presence. Here is a man who inhabits the music, embodies it, owns it, lives it and makes it uniquely his. In the process, he gives the rest of the band deeper expressive spaces to explore. His range creates an expansive ceiling which in turn enables Kylian Amos to finally emerge with spell-binding bass lines that hint of both masterful intricacy as well as remarkable simplicity. The bass work on Twenty One Grams is utterly bewitching, while his performance in The Equation provides a thundering, pulsating, throbbing rhythm which sparkles with energy and fire.
This new sense of musical authority finally enables John Mitchell to contribute what I truly consider to be his most ‘complete’ and comprehensive performance to date (and I include The Visitor in that assessment). Whilst the ending of opening track Time Capsule lays a marker for the kind of aching guitar solo we normally associate with him, nothing prepares you for the diversity of what follows: short, incisive solos one minute, menacing crunching power sequences the next, delicate rippling arpeggios or concise interventions after that. Under the Microscope is an eye-opening showcase of his influential artistry.
No less attention should be given to Mick Pointer’s animated, energising drumming which imbues the soundscape with intent, a sense of purpose and, again, much needed variety. Complex rhythms provide intimidating menace, triumphal confidence, whimsical mystery, sure-footed assurance and without fail set the context which structures and coordinates what the others are doing. This is a truly consummate and thoroughly mesmerising display.
And the keyboards. Wow. I have often wished Clive Nolan would just let loose and play from the heart. I am pleased to report that for once, he really doesn’t hold back here. The textures he provides across all tracks are breath-taking; There is vigour, blended with graininess, full of attack (The Equation); there are also sumptuous, expansive, interweaving layers which envelop, enfold and embrace. Yet there is also elegance, gentleness, even intimacy where required, caressing the lyrics and cajoling the momentum of each song.
The penultimate tracks take these various elements and begins to piece them together to reveal the mosaic in all its glory. Integration begins with soft piano intro, Damian’s vocal expressing uncertainty and longing. An overlaid floating melody then supplements the vocal and keys. The vocal evolves into vocals just as a jaunty, thrilling drum rhythm explodes, given extra emphasis by growling keys, punctuated staccato guitar chords, all the while building to the most glorious cascading crescendo and climax in clear echoes of The Seventh Degree of Separation.
Part of You is possibly the best track on the album, bringing all aspects reflected in the various songs together in perfect clarity and amplifies it in a feisty showcase of exactly what Arena can do when they take flight. A faux orchestrated opening and airy vocal, later overlaid with a light guitar progression, opens the door to the sheer theatre which awaits. The voice becomes increasingly intense until the entire ensemble kicks in with a glorious choral style harmony. The guitar pierces the vocal silences, the bass punctuates the drum kicks, the keys enfold around cascading drum sequences into a rowdy chorus which gets increasingly incisive pointed with each repeat.
The Theory of Molecular Inheritance is an imposing release, where a dark and smouldering sense of lyrical drama is perfectly conveyed in music which exudes a rich, dynamic plethora of ever-changing instrumental interactions and a thrilling creativity which continually propels the listener forward. For me, it is a most welcome and compelling celebration of Arena at their very, very best.
01. Time Capsule (5:30)
02. The Equation (The Science of Magic) (6:28)
03. Twenty-One Grams (6:34)
04. Confession (2:20)
05. The Heiligenstadt Legacy (5:42)
06. Field of Sinners (6:27)
07. Pure of Heart (6:18)
08. Under the Microscope (6:51)
09. Integration (4:48)
10. Part of You (5:54)
11. Life Goes On (5:11)
Total Time – 62:03
Kylan Amos – Bass
John Mitchell – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Clive Nolan – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Mick Pointer – Drums
Damian Wilson – Vocals
Record Label: Verglas Music
Formats: Vinyl, CD, Deluxe Edition Ear Book, Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 21st October 2022