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Arena

Pepper's Ghost

Review by Steve Alspach

First off, I gotta admit that I had a college flashback with the CD booklet. The comic strip artwork by David Wyatt and Tim Bisley depicts the five members of Arena as men on a mission, each with a "mysterious" past, to clean up Victorian England. "Pepper's Ghost" is written loosely on this concept, and if you like comic art, "Pepper's Ghost" is worth buying just for that.

If you like hard-hitting progressive rock with a good metallic punch as well, "Pepper's Ghost" is a cinch to pick up. I'll admit that Pepper's Ghost is my introduction to Arena's music, but I found their sound to be quite enjoyable. There's a Spector-like "wall of sound" with Clive Nolan's keyboards and John Mitchell's guitars, but vocalist Rob Sowden has the pipes to carry the songs, and Ian Salmon and Mick Pointer supply the rhythm to carry it all out.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Bedlam Fayre
The lyrics sum up the story of the comic book, and the song bounces between a rather hyper 5/4 and an interlude that has Sowden's distorted vocals. All in all it's a very powerful start to the album.
Smoke and Mirrors
Some tasty guitar work starts "Smoke and Mirrors" before the band kicks in the progression. Mitchell gets to shred a few frets on his solo. There is some tricky work here with the band trading off 3's, 4's, and 5's throughout.
The Shattered Room
Mitchell's guitar sounds a bit like Steve Hackett's "violin guitar" on its introduction. There is a lengthy instrumental passage. After an ambient, Floyd-like section, Pointer kicks the band into double-time and the melody recalls Genesis at some points.
The Eyes of Lara Moon:
Fairly short (at 4.31) and not-so-sweet, Arena trades off acoustic guitar rhythms with more power-chord passages before it's inevitable big blast ending. This is a good example of exploring dynamics in a rather short song.
Tantalas
This is reminiscent of some of Dream Theater's lesser-pyrotechnic efforts. The piece starts out with a 6/8 pattern with Nolan's keyboards accompanying Sowden before Mitchell, Pointer, and bassist Ian Salmon jump in about a third of the way in. "Tantalas" then builds itself around the 6/8 verses and a 5/4 guitar pattern.
Prugatory Road
Mitchell gets off a fuzz-drenched, eastern-style guitar solo before a strong, anthemic keyboard pattern (which sounds so familiar! I'll probably think of it fifteen minutes after my esteemed editor publishes this review) brings in the rest of the band. The instrumental section shows what latter-day Genesis would have sounded like if they had gotten a little more oomph and less cerebral in their music. The band returns to the chorus but at the same double-time that they barreled through the instrumental passage.
Opera Fanatica
The only cut on the CD whose music was written entirely by Clive Nolan (the others were written with Mitchell and Pointer), what starts off sounding like a Queensrychian speed metal excursion soon tames itself down. At one point it is little more then Clive Nolan's keyboards, dramatic with a tinge of church organ, accompanying Sowden's vocals. But in the middle section Mitchell's shows some daft flat-picking skills on an impressively fluent passage while exchanging solos with Nolan. The band trades off verses with this instrumental passage instrumental before ending on the opening theme, Mitchell's guitar cranking at sixteenth-note speed over the two-chord pattern Nolan lays out.

 
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