Songs From the Lions Cage (1995, 58.26) ***/TTOut of the Wilderness
Crying for Help I
Valley of the Kings
Crying for Help II
Crying for Help III
Crying for Help IV
Pride (1996, 55.27) ***/TTWelcome to the Cage...
Crying for Help V
Empire of a Thousand Days
Crying for Help VI
Crying for Help VII
Crying for Help VIII
The Visitor (1998, 61.45) ***/TT½
|A Crack in the Ice
Pins and Needles
The Hanging Tree
A State of Grace
Blood Red Room
In the Blink of an Eye
|(Don't Forget to) Breathe
Tears in the Rain
Running From Damascus
Immortal? (2000, 55.20) ***/TTTChosen
Waiting for the Flood
The Butterfly Man
Ghost in the Firewall
Climbing the Net
Arena are a neo-prog supergroup, if there can be such a thing in such a relatively small scene. Mick Pointer, Marillion's original drummer was persuaded to emerge from retirement by the lunatics at Silhobbit 'fanzine', a thoroughly scurrilous but excellent and extremely funny read, with several entirely non-sequentially numbered issues appearing sporadically throughout the early '90s. Once Mick realised that there were people out there who actually wanted to hear him play again (why?), he teamed up with erstwhile Pendragon keyboardist Clive Nolan and an ever-changing cast of sidemen to play full-on prog, with all the pomp and circumstance you'd expect from such a venture. Their success in mainland Europe, particularly Germany, has been considerable, apparently rivalling that of Pendragon themselves.
I quite liked Songs From the Lions Cage (sic) when it came out, but I'm afraid to say that with hindsight, it sounds extremely formulaic and clichéd, particularly in the lyric department. I mean, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do". Oh, come ON! Even with quotes round it in the lyric booklet that's never going to win prizes for originality... The whole 'Biblical' theme of the album grates a little, too, although thankfully there doesn't seem to be any religious agenda going on. The four parts of Crying For Help are also quite unnecessary and have more than a whiff of 'filler' about them; without them the album would still have topped forty minutes. The rest of the songs (mostly of an obligatory lengthy, er, length) have more than a little of an 'updated early Marillion' feel to them; heavier guitar and digital keyboards, but the same approach to songwriting, complete with irritating 'Fishisms' on the vocal front.
I actually approached reviewing this album with an open mind (what, you mean I don't always?), but on hearing it again for the first time in a while, I'm pretty disappointed, sad to say. Although Clive Nolan apparently has no hand in writing Pendragon's material, the same 'prog by numbers' feel infuses this record; suffice to say, you don't feel that they're doing it for the sheer joy of making music. Oh yeah - Mellotron: Nolan borrowed (then) Pallas keyboard man Mike Stobbie's machine for the recording and actually uses it a passable amount on the album, particularly on closer Solomon; mostly choirs, but a touch of strings here and there. Not bad use, but again, no prizes for originality.
The following year, they followed up with Pride, which is basically more of the same, right down to another four Crying For Helps, surrounded by five 'regular' tracks. Opener Welcome To The Cage... is pretty rough, being typical neo-prog fare, but the rest of the album compares favourably to their debut. Make of that what you will... Although there's no specific mention of Mellotrons, given another 'special thanks' to Mike Stobbie, I suspect the same machine was used again. About the best use is the unaccompanied string chords on Empire Of A Thousand Days and Sirens, with the bulk of the rest being choirs, somewhat buried in the mix.
Now, in what looks from where I'm standing to be an incredibly cynical move, the eight Crying For Helps, some re-recorded, were subsequently compiled with two extra tracks as The Cry (**), although I don't hear any Mellotron (as you can see, there's none on the originals). In fact, I have to say that there appears to be a good deal of cynicism surrounding the band's entire modus operandi, with members being hired and fired on a regular basis and are all the songs really written by 'Pointer/Nolan'? I feel we should be told.
The Visitor was Arena's first concept piece 'proper', although I'm not quite sure what the concept actually is; the lyrics are the same old clichéd rubbish, so although I know there's meant to be a story here, I'll be fucked if I can tell you anything about it. No change on the music front, either, unless it's a slight (and unwelcome) shift towards AOR on the odd track. Round about this point, Nolan bought IQ's Martin Orford's old M400, which was apparently in a rather parlous state by this time; there's a 'special thanks' to 'Martin Smith and John S. Bradley at Streetly Electronics for restoring the Mellotron', so at least we know it's real. The Mellotron on most of the marked tracks is (again) well-buried in the mix, although the choir and especially, strings on Enemy Without and the title track are really quite upfront. An improvement, if only on the Mellotron front.
Immortal? is the best Arena album so far, although that isn't saying an awful, lot, to be honest. The first few tracks all have their moments, with unexpected subtlety in places and it really wasn't going too badly until Climbing The Net, which is total Marillion-by-numbers and completely horrible. It doesn't recover, but then, it wasn't actually that good in the first place. Mucho Taurus pedals on the album, which is good and even more Mellotron, which is better. Strings on Chosen, a solo flute section at the end of Waiting For The Flood, more strings and choir spread across the first five tracks, although the album's 'epic', Moviedrome, seems to be all sampled choirs. Better, but not that much.
So; Arena's entire oeuvre: only for neo-proggers who like a bit of crunch to their guitars and don't mind the fact that there isn't a shred of originality anywhere to be heard on these albums. Some OK Mellotron, but nothing to write home about bar Immortal?
Although Nolan's mostly managed to use a real Mellotron in the studio, he (sensibly?) doesn't take it out live, so first (and decidedly premature) live album, Welcome to the Stage, features reasonably decent samples, source unknown. I don't know why bands feel they have to release live albums so early in their careers these days; once upon a time, they were summations of a career to date, often a decade in, not after two albums... If you know the studio versions of these tracks, you basically know the live ones, admittedly with some different musicians and that indefinable 'live' sound; fans only, in other words. Nolan's samples crop up on a couple of tracks, leaving several bereft of their studio Mellotron work. Why only two stars? After over an hour of this drivel, I lost the will to live, but channelled my suicidal urges into a low star rating instead.
In an effort to squeeze the last few pennies out of their eager fans' hands, the live album was followed by a three-track mini-album, Welcome Back! to the Stage, possibly containing encores, possibly merely mopping up a handful of unreleased live versions. I believe it was only ever meant to be a fan club disc (thus the large 'The Cage' on the cover), meaning one fan club member got bored enough with it to sell it the shop I bought it from. Cheaply. As with the parent album, nothing here is significantly different to its studio version and the only sampled Mellotron to be heard is on Empire Of A Thousand Days. To show how much care's been put into this release, two of the track timings on the rear are reversed; class act, chaps, class act...
1999's The Visitor (Revisited) is yet another cash-in effort, half acoustic versions of Visitor tracks, which unforgivingly illuminate their lack of content, half live and demo material, which is every bit as bad as you'd expect. A pointless rip-off for all but the most committed fan. The choirs on a couple of live tracks don't even sound like samples, but the brief string part on the Enemy Without demo does, which might earn this half a star, were it relevant. Which it isn't. 2001's live (again) Breakfast in Biarritz is marginally better, but only marginally, the band feeling the need to repeat clunkers such as The Hanging Tree and The Butterfly Man. Nolan's choir sounds, once again, don't even sound Mellotronic, although the strings on Crack In The Ice and Friday's Dream just about pass muster.
Contagion is something of a backwards step for Arena, being more like their earlier work; the usual bombastic, pretentious, by-numbers nonsense we've come to expect. Thinking about it, I suppose a great many prog fans think that's what prog IS, having been completely seduced by the 'Marillion model' of style over substance, ignoring the genre's rich history. What can you do? Like so many things in this life, you can only tell people your version of the truth... This appears to be the first album where Nolan switched to samples, although I could be wrong... Strings and choir on some early tracks, but most of the album's choir parts are clearly modern samples and I'm not so sure about the strings.
Their Contagious and Contagium EPs bookended Contagion (d'you see a pattern emerging here?), sounding like outtakes from said effort, although credit to the band for making this material available to their hordes of slavering, mainly continental European fans. In all honesty, there's little here for aficionados of non-neo prog to get all frothed up about; it's the same old same old, mixing pompousness with a lack of any especially discernable talent in true Marillion style, just heavier. And does vocalist of the day Rob Sowden actually sing, "Singing along with 'One For The Vine'" at one point on Contagium? We need to be told.
Despite Nolan's M400 ownership, the 'Mellotron' here sound overwhelmingly like samples to my ears; the choirs are mostly in the background and quite possibly not Mellotron sounds at all (particularly on Contagium), while the upfront strings on Contagious' title track have exactly the same (slow) attack on every chord and just sound far too, y'know, smooth for comfort. All very odd, all things considered; maybe it was in for repairs during the recording? So how real is the Mellotron on Contagion, then? Anyway, don't go out of your way for either of these EPs, particularly with regard to their respective closing tracks, nasty remixes of pieces from Contagion both. Incidentally, are the Rush references on Contagious deliberate? Not only is a track (admittedly from the album) entitled Witch Hunt, but the EP's exactly 21 minutes 12 seconds long. Doubtful, but I have to ask...
The best thing about Pepper's Ghost is the lavish hardbound CD booklet, with a cartoon-style running story of the album's 'plot', such as it is, with sympathetically-portrayed band members popping up here and there. The music is just the same old same old - I mean, why do they bother? It probably isn't noticeably worse than its five predecessors, but after sitting through several Arena albums in a fairly short space of time, it's 'Purgatory Road' indeed. I'm in pain. Anyway, the samplotron seems to be quite thin on the ground again here, with a brief string part on Bedlam Fayre and some opening choir chords on Opera Fanatica, with real opera singers warbling over the top and I'm not even certain about that last one.
It seems that Arena's Mellotron use is confined to the studio; in fact, the only vintage 'board Nolan's ever been seen to use onstage (and then barely) is a MiniMoog, so tracking down otherwise undocumented live recordings strikes me as one of the bigger wastes of time in which I could indulge myself. Given that I don't even particularly like the band, I don't think I'll bother, if it's all the same to you.