Arena are one of the stalwarts of the neo-prog movement, with Double Vision being their ninth studio album. Although they feature band members from other well-known acts, they plainly work hard at creating something different. After hearing about this release, I wondered how they would fare with the sheer number of other quality acts in this genre now. Could they still cut the English mustard?
PLAY NICELY BOYS
With the key band members being John Mitchell (It Bites, Kino, Lonely Robot), Clive Nolan (Pendragon) and Mick Pointer (Marillion), Arena unsurprisingly focus their efforts on delivering a dose of what I would call quintessentially English neo-progressive rock. Sustained guitar tones, sweeping keyboards, gentle lyrics and extended solo sections are all present and correct. Double Vision does introduce some heavier sounds and darker tones throughout. These are welcome and helps cut through the sometimes syrupy nature of this genre.
Things start off well, the heavy riffs and retro keys driving “Zhivago Wolf” along nicely. A little bit of metal guitar mixed in here and there gives it a grunt that’s welcome, though overall the experience is one of extreme cheese, even for this listener. As the album moves through the next few tracks, the sonic palette is similar. Riff driven intros, sweeping epic keyboards and verse breakdowns all feature in “The Mirror Lies” and “Paradise of Thieves”. The latter is probably the first actual stand-out track, feeling similar to something from Fates Warning with its off-kilter time signatures and tight riffing.
At this midpoint in the album, I actually started to lose interest. I’d heard a lot of these things done before, and better. Things were nice, but weren’t offering anything above what I would class as the ‘usual fare’. The band do try and change things up; “Scars” features a nice extended middle section with some world-class guitar playing saving it from the slightly dull low-key intro. “Red Eyes” initially sounds like another filler track, but the ambient Ayreon-like middle section is pretty cool. The harmonised guitar/synth melodies also pack a punch. “Poisoned” is the last short track on the album and is an acoustic number featuring some really great vocals. It’s pretty catchy and reminds me a lot of Kepler Ten, which is a compliment.
The seventh and final track is the 22-minute epic “The Legend of Elijah Shade”. This is where we hear what Arena can really offer. Dark ambient soundscapes give way to the theatrical vocals of Paul Manzi, supported by epic strings. The main melodies are singable, with the vocal harmonies giving a rich, symphonic sound. The first four minutes acts an a overture of sorts to the rest of the song, delivering pomp and power to set the scene. The band then take it down a notch, before heading off to almost Dream Theater style riffing and powerful vocals to hammer home the story of Elijah Shade.
The story continues down a darker path lyrically, the music eventually following suit. Stabbing riffs and a flurry of virtuosic solos from both Nolan and Mitchell are a highlight here. A church organ appears from out of nowhere (what is a prog-a-thon epic without a church organ, eh?) and then it finishes up with a combination of cheesy spoken word, lush keys and multilayered pomp before fading out. Fading out? An anticlimax if ever there was one. Over the course of 20-odd minutes, the stand-out moments are too brief to make this a truly great. It’s too disjointed.
NICE, BUT NO CIGAR
I’m a huge fan of albums as a format and exclusively listen to albums in full. Double Vision, however, was one I struggled to make it through without getting bored or turning it off. Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with it. Each song is played, recorded and sounds nice, but that was about it. There seemed to be a lack of spark from the band. With luminaries such as Mitchell and Nolan, I gave this album a bloody good chance, and was really looking forward to it being released. To be honest, without the heritage, I’d have probably have moved on to something else a lot quicker.
Unusually for most bands, the shorter song format doesn’t seem to do Arena justice. The band exude pomp and virtuosity and, in my opinion, should double down on that. The shorter tracks don’t quite manage the melodic quality of bands like Kepler Ten or Lonely Robot and feel stunted. Also I’m pretty immune to cheese, but I just found the whole thing a step too far. The exception here is “The Legend of Elijah Shade” which marries the ridiculous pomp of the band with an epic tale of life and death in a format that is nearly half an hour long. This is where they shine and show off what they are made of, cheese be damned. However, even that piece lacks consistency.
To be honest, I was left confused by the end of this. I am the target market for any neo-prog band. If that’s the case, then Double Vision has missed its mark.
Notable Tracks: “Paradise of Thieves”; “The Legend of Elijah Shade”
FFO: Marillion, Kino, Kepler 10, Lonely Robot, Ayreon, I.Q., Spock’s Beard, Enchant