I think the status of Arena in the world of neo-progressive rock is tremendous since they are the only real successors of Marillion during the Fish-era. After more than five years of unexpected silence they're back in business performing with the new and fourth vocalist Paul Manzi, good old Clive Nolan (keyboards, backing vocals), John Mitchell (guitar, backing vocals), the return of John Jowitt (bass) and last but not least Mick Pointer (drums). Just as on the previous albums The Visitor (1998) and Contagion (2003) the new album The Seventh Degree Of Separation contains a central theme. It deals with the final hour of our lives and the first one after we've died.
The spoken words of Paul Manzi at the beginning of The Great Escape immediately convinced me that Arena is back on the right track. Manzi sings powerful and clearly in tune and - oh yes - he's so much better than his predecessor Rob Sowden. This song contains heavy riffs, a powerful change of tempo at the end and an easy chorus to sing along with. Rapture is one of the seven four-minute songs reminding me of the highly-acclaimed album The Visitor. It's rather dark with some brilliant guitar playing by John Mitchell. One Last Au Revoir is an up-tempo rock song. While listening I can easily imagine people in the audience jumping in front of the stage during live shows. The duel between Mitchell's guitar and Clive's synths gives this song just that little extra. It's obvious that Arena have found new energy with newcomer Manzi and the return of Jowitt.
The Ghost Walks has again some dark lyrics spoken by Manzi as if he finds himself in deep sorrow and trouble. However, even more impressive is the combination of pounding drums, persistent guitar play, dramatically arranged synths and the sound of church bells. It's in the vein of Elea, a three-minute classic piece from The Visitor. On Thief Of Souls Paul Manzi shows his vocal abilities once more. It's a difficult song to sing, but he's doing it with so much power and elegance! Close Your Eyes is a bit experimental, but still a great track. In this song the narrator leaves the earth and enters the cosmos. Echoes Of The Fall and Bed Of Nails are both strong pieces with lots of typical neo-prog elements like strong melodious guitar parts and powerful singing. What If is an easy and simpler song to sing along with. It contains a fine guitar solo and lyrics that are easy to understand.
The power and the force of Trebuchet make me shiver all over. It feels like riding a roller-coaster without any protection at all. The evaluation of the protagonist's life is told in Burning Down: 'all signs are gone now of my innocence, my birth, this place is the story of my life... and it's burning down.' No optimistic lyrics, I guess. The longest song and also the best one on the album is Catching The Bullet. It has a lot of variation and well-considered musical ideas. Just think about a shorter and compacter version of Solomon from Songs From The Lions Cage (1995) or Sirens from Pride (1996). The final song The Tinder Box is the emotional highlight with the words: I am free now...
The special edition includes a fifty-minute bonus-DVD which shows the making of this album. It includes interviews, funny stories and pictures taken from the recording sessions. It's made with that typical British humour. The band members of Arena are getting older and greyer, but they still play like young gods. Therefore, rating this album wasn't that difficult, since it is a brilliant concept album and my personal favourite for the number one position of this year's list. Yet, I have one question. Would you please play the entire album in one set on your next tour? Welcome back Arena!
***** Cor Smeets (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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