Arena - Pepper's Ghost

Year of Release: 2005
Label: Verglas
Catalog Number: VGCD 028
Format: CD
Total Time: 52:32:00

Hard to believe that it has been ten years since Arena released their debut Songs From The Lion's Cage; sometimes it seems it should have been longer ago than that, given the line up changes the band has had - vocalists, bassists, and guitarists, that is. From day one it has been Mick Pointer on drums and percussion and Clive Nolan on keyboards. Arena have managed to keep a fairly consistent sound despite those changes, and that's probably due to Nolan, who writes all the lyrics and most of the music, with Pointer often as co-writer (though guitarist John Mitchell is also a sometimes co-writer, too). Thus, there is a definable Arena sound. A sound that owed a lot to Fish-era Marillion (if a little heavier) - aside from the fact that Pointer was once Marillion's drummer. Though the Marillion aspects were heard less and less after that first album, they have returned with Pepper's Ghost and that is apparent with the first notes of "Bedlam Fayre," though Nolan's keyboard flair is often quite different from Mark Kelly's, a fuller, more classical sound, here with a slightly gothic feel.

Arena always was heavier in sound, though not quite progressive metal, as they fell and fall somewhere between "neo-prog" (notice the quotes, please) and progressive metal... often called heavy prog. So, that said, you will not find Pepper's Ghost a huge departure from Arena albums past. Epic arrangements, booming sound, dramatic vocals, choruses designed to rattle around in your head long after the CD has ended - it's all here. Song after song has something appealing about it. While I don't think it is overall Arena's best album (personally, I think it's The Visitor), it is still a very strong album. But, it's also very much a typical Arena album. You will not be surprised by anything if you've been listening to them over the past decade. And I'll say any band could do worse than have very strong album be called "not their best." Let's say, it's not one you'll regret buying or playing. I think Arena have found a niche and will play to that niche... and what a dynamic, epic, big, and gorgeously produced niche it is. And, this niche is right up my alley, so I'm pretty well pleased with this CD.

My favorite aspects are Sowden's vocals, Nolan's keys, and Mitchell's lead guitar work, letting loose with phrases that are sharp and direct, but he also can play subtle (as in the opening to "Smoke & Mirrors"). Ian Salmon's bass work is solid and throbbing and with Pointer's drumming, provides the heavy bottom end to Arena's sound. As is characteristic of Arena's music - and progressive rock of the same style - we are treated to great and drastic dynamic shifts in sound, as I said. A quiet, subdued, atmospheric section could suddenly explode into ... epic showers of bold colors and sound ("The Shattered Room," and "The Eyes Of Lara Moon" for example). The most understated pieces are "The Eyes of Lara Moon" and "Tantalus," both of which include shimmering guitar work from Mitchell, "Lara Moon" also featuring acoustic guitar. And, true to Arena form, "Tantalus" doesn't abandon becoming pounding rocker, if only for a passage or two. What, you say? "Understated" and "Explosions of bold colours"? How "Lara Moon" be both. Well... that is Arena, that is the dynamics of these shifts. And they flow so effortlessly; there're no sudden or jarring changes, the come about organically.

By the way, I don't think there's any correlation between "Lara Moon" and the Faye Dunaway film The Eyes Of Laura Mars... beyond a play on the title. And despite my joking in the news section prior to this album's release, the title has nothing to do with the 70s Angie Dickinson character in Police Woman ... don't worry, if the reference is lost on you... Moving on...

You have gotta love the cascading guitar solo that opens "Purgatory Road" - I do; very nice work from Mitchell here in a piece that is a rollicking rocker, heavy as hell with a pulse pounding rhythm... which is saying something with band, who often have pulse pounding rhythms. And since there's always been something operatic about Arena - well, come on, why else call yourself Arena if you aren't going for that bigger than life sound? I mean, you have to play to the nosebleed seats after all. Thus, it should be no surprise that "Opera Fanatica" really lays on the epicness. After male and female operatic voices vocalizing - they aren't singing words - we get a wash of keys, thundering drums and bass (in fact, I really dig Salmon's bass lines that begin this piece, quick runs descending the scale), and screaming guitar. The male operatic voice that accompanies the "chorus" the first few times is actually very eerie sounding... but does put this squarely in the setting and feeling Arena wish to evoke.

And before I leave with some final thoughts, I'll mention the packaging. The lyrics are printed in a booklet that also contains an illustrated story, following the Knights of the London Fog, including backgrounders on each of the Knights... who all look suspiciously like the members of Arena. No, it's not a coincidence, I know that. So... while Pepper's Ghost isn't really a concept album per se, as the songs don't follow a narrative thread (unlike The Visitor, for instance), there is a commonality between the songs, as all are about the darker aspects of life...

And my final thoughts - if you love Arena, you'll love this CD. As I said, it's not their overall best, but it's only a matter of degrees. It's still going to make my top list for 2005, I'm sure. Arena have held nothing back, playing with vigorous energy and enthusiasm... and do it all so very well.

Also released by InsideOut (SPV 087-40712)

Bedlam Fayre (6:08) / Smoke And Mirrors (4:42) / The Shattered Room (9:45) / The Eyes Of Lara Moon (4:30) / Tantalus (6:51) / Purgatory Road (7:25) / Opera Fanatica (13:06)

Clive Nolan - keyboards
Mick Pointer - drums
Rob Sowden - vocals
John Mitchell - guitars
Ian Salmon - bass

Songs From The Lion's Cage (1995)
Pride (1996)
The Edits (1996, OOP)
Welcome To The Stage (1997)
The Cry (EP, 1997)
The Visitor (1998)
The Visitor - Revisited (1999) (Dutch fan club only release, OOP)
Immortal? (2000)
Unlocking The Cage - 1995-2000 (2001) (Dutch fan club only release, OOP)
Breakfast In Biarritz (2001)
Contagion (2003)
Radiance (2003) (fan club only release)
Live & Life (2004) (box set)
Pepper's Ghost (2005)
Ten Years On (2006)
The Seventh Degree Of Separation (2011)
Live 2011/12 Tour (2012)
Arena XX (2016)
Contagion Max (reissue of Contagion) (2014)
The Unquiet Sky (2015)
The Visitor - 20th Anniversary Remastered Edition (2018)
Double Vision (2018)

Caught In The Act (DVD) (2003)
Smoke And Mirrors (DVD) (2006)
Rapture (DVD) (2013)
Arena XX (DVD) (2016)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: July 25th 2005
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 2022
Language: english


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