In 2003 the famous British neo-prog band Arena recorded Contagion, their second concept album after the critically acclaimed record The Visitor (1998). At the time it was released as a single disc containing almost one hour of amazing prog rock made by Clive Nolan (keyboards, backing vocals), Mick Pointer (drums), Rob Sowden (lead vocals), John Mitchell (guitars, backing vocals) and Ian Salmon (bass). However, these musicians recorded more music for this concept album, but Clive Nolan felt that nobody was really interested in listening to ninety minutes of music spread over two discs. So the band decided to put the additionally recorded material on two EPs called Contagious and Contagium, both released in 2003 as well. Just as Contagion, these two EPs contain wonderful music.
After these three releases most fans wished that someday these discs would be available in just one package with all tracks in the correct order as was initially intended. It was named Contagion Max, but never realized. The project was shelved due to time constraints and other commitments. I guess many believed − including some band members − that this project would never be realized. However, early 2014 Arena fans and other devotees of neo-prog could finally lay their hands on a hard copy of Contagion Max. Thanks to the persistence of many fans asking for the Max version they kept this wish alive.
Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of Contagion in 2013, a pre-order campaign was launched among the Arena fan community to fund the production of the extended edition. The Max version has been released as a limited edition of a thousand copies and it can only be bought exclusively at the Verglas Store and during Arena gigs. This release comes in a digipack containing two discs including the regular album complemented with all the missing tracks that were released on the EPs. These tracks were placed in the correct order in the concept. The definitive 'master track list' follows the chapters of the story punctually and for that reason the track list differs from the original version. Furthermore it holds a 28-page booklet including all the lyrics as well as a short story by Nolan and additional new artwork.
The original album runs in my blood, so to speak, and I love to play it from time to time. Unfortunately the EPs that came along never really got my attention and that's a pity since these EPs certainly contain great stuff. When I played the Contagion Max for the first time it felt strange to hear new tracks in between my old favourites. However, after playing it several times I got used to the new track list and soon I realized that ten years ago Arena recorded amazing albums that make my heart beat faster! Yes, this truly has become a beautiful piece of art ten years after its initial release! I wonder why they didn't have the guts to release it as a double CD back then!
Most lovers of our beloved musical genre know how the songs on Contagion sound, so there's no need to review these songs in detail but by doing so, I should skip some remarkable tracks that certainly need some attention. For example the three instrumentals This Way Madness Lies, On The Box and Riding The Tide . The first piece starts as a kind of bass solo by Ian Salmon. The subsequent guitar solo is one of the longest ever performed by Mitchell. Nolan wanted it to sound like Steve Hackett with long and sustained tones. On the second instrumental the Hammond organ has a leading role, while Riding The Tide is a real roller coaster on which Nolan excels on the keyboards playing some amazing synth solos. The changes in keyboard sounds and in the dynamics between the sections work out great. And what about Pointer's drum sound on Skin Game? It sounds as if he was playing with Led Zeppelin ! On numerous songs Sowden proves to be a brilliant singer when he still fronted the band. Throughout the album he sings full-heartedly and with a lot of passion and emotion.
For those who only have the retail version and never heard the EPs, it's maybe wise to tell what you can expect from these missing tracks. Well, the first one is a left over from The Visitor sessions originally called Sacrifice. They now rearranged it and called it Vanishing Act. It's a great instrumental piece based on a sequencer beat with a fine guitar solo played by John Mitchell. Next is The Hour Glass, a sort of prog rock ballad marvellously sung by Rob Sowden. Ian Salmon's bass has a leading role here and lifts the song to a higher level. I Spy contains some nice music influenced by folk. On The Edge Of Despair starts with the theme of This Way Madness Lies and then changes into a kind of acoustic ballad. The strong instrumental piece Contagious begins with sirens and themes from the Contagion album. Again Mitchell shines on this piece by playing an excellent electric guitar solo. March Of Time is more up-tempo with great solos by Mitchell and Nolan. The last 'new' track Confrontation is another fine instrumental piece and again with a fantastic guitar solo by Mitchell.
While listening to this new version of Contagion, I realized that everything sounds even better than on the original one. The music sounds very dynamic and the instruments blow out of your speakers. Especially the keyboard choirs have been mixed much more to the fore. So I have to compliment Clive Nolan and John Mitchell for making time in their busy schedules to realize Contagion Max, a superb sounding album!
In my opinion this limited edition of Contagion Max is a true masterpiece, just like other concept albums such as The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Genesis, 1974), The Wall (Pink Floyd, 1979) and Subterranea (IQ, 1997). In 2003 the original album got a rating of four stars plus (****+) but the additional tracks of Contagious and Contagium and the improved sound now result in the maximum score of five stars. What these musicians achieved only deserves a big compliment! Or as the band stated on Tsunami: 'there's nowhere to hide now, there's nowhere to run.' Get this amazing album from their website before it's sold out. You certainly won't regret it!
***** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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