In today’s progressive rock market it seems the fastest growing sub genre is prog-metal, which for many of us is just a little too aggressive. There was a time when crunchy guitar and a solid kick drum was all I needed. Today I want more from my music. That being said there are times when in the right amounts the heavy approach seems to fill the bill, particularly when the other aspects of music I’ve come to appreciate are not forgotten. To fill that need is the new release from Arena, their fifth studio CD entitled Contagion.
Arena this time around consists of the same line-up as the band that gave us 2000’s Immortal. Consisting of Rob Snowden (vocals), John Mitchell (guitars), Clive Nolan (keyboards), Ian Salmon (bass) and Mick Pointer (drums). After so much time together it’s really unfair to call this a Clive Nolan project. Given so much writing and recording the group has clearly gelled into its own distinctive sound and style. And once again the style is larger-than-life, panoramic in scope with loads of anthemic choirs and rising crescendos. Everything we’ve come to expect from the band, but they continue to surprise us with their excellent song-writing ability.
As expected the music on Contagion is at times very heavy but it stays clear of being labeled prog-metal by virtue of the progressive arrangements. Unlike most bands in that other genre here the keyboards are very up-front and form as much of the sound of the group as the guitar, if not more. And more than that they’re a wide variety of keyboards from solo piano to mellotron washes. And while their compositional style has never been overly complex there are more than enough twists and turns to keep the interest level high.
But perhaps the two most important elements that set the work of Arena apart is their penchant for writing compositions based around strong melodies and wonderful harmonies. That and the great range of lead vocalist Rob Snowden. Best exemplified in tracks like “Skin Game”. His style is passionate, emotional and yet never over-the-top in a screaming fashion. There are many moments on the disc where’s he softly sings into the microphone like on “The Cry of Lanterns”.
The 16 tracks on Contagion are a mixture of mid-length epics interspersed by atmospheric transition tracks telling a dark futuristic tale. There are three instrumentals as well like the majestic “Riding the Tide”. It’s the instrumentals where Nolan’s keyboards tend to take center stage with hints of the classic Rick Wakeman style. The sounds are all very modern with only slight nods to the analog tones Wakeman is famous for.
All in all, Arena’s Contagion is a very worthy follow-up to Immortal that develops the band’s style even more. So if you like your prog with lots of guitar edge but still retaining more than a smattering of the other progressive rock stylistic elements like plenty of keyboards, soloing, melody, musicianship then Arena is the band for you.
(All Album Reviews by PROG Martial)
Genres: Neo-prog some tidbits of prog metal
Comparable to: Marillion, Dream Theater, IQ, Shadow Gallery
Better than: Pride, Immortal?
Not as good as: Just as good as The Visitor
Best songs: “Painted Man”, “Skin Game”, “Cutting the Cards”
Notes: Arena's 5th album, really refined their sound with the most accessible songs to date. As a whole the album is probably tied as their best along with The Visitor.