Arena - Contagion

Year of Release: 2003
Label: Verglas
Catalog Number: VGCD023
Format: CD
Total Time: 58:48:00

Arena's album The Visitor was the album which got me back into prog, so I've always had time for them, and although the heavier change of direction in the follow-up Immortal took me a bit of getting used to, Clive Nolan's influence was still reassuringly present. However, Contagion is a whole new proposition with the band breaking away from the usual prog clichés and going for their heaviest production yet.

Interestingly, for a band dogged by endless personnel changes over the years, this is the second album in a row to be recorded by the same line-up, and the stability and continuity seems to have given the guys confidence to try out new sounds and formats. Whereas the songs on Immortal tended to be lengthy and repetitive in places, Contagion's tracks rarely break the five minute barrier and come across much more succinctly; you're barely getting into the track and then it's over, leaving you wanting to hear it again.

I gather Contagion is meant to be a concept album, although the lyrics are vague and ambiguous, and I'm still not sure what the story is all about beyond Clive Nolan's comment on redemption for a past act. But having sixteen shorter tracks certainly helps the album to flow and brings a sense of balance and completeness by the closing chords of the last track.

The main development with this album, though, is in the overall sound, in which the instruments are less defined and form much more of a dense wall of sound, not unlike that adopted by Pain of Salvation (albeit with less of a thrashy crunch!). Individual band members don't stand out as much as on previous albums, and there is more of a sense of the band producing the music as a collective entity rather than each member getting their allotted solo spot. The production is good, but I found on several occasions that I had to turn the bass down, as some of the lower-end chords on the synths tended to distort the rest of the instruments - but perhaps when I've played it on a good hi-fi the sounds will balance out.

On the first listen it seemed that the guitar was increasingly dominating the sound via heavy riffs and imaginative atmospheric effect, with less of the melodic solos that were prominent on the previous albums. "Skin Game" wouldn't sound out of place on King Crimson's Red album, and the opening "Witch Hunt" bludgeons the listener into submission as soon as Mick Pointer hits the snare drum.

However, repeated playing reveals that the familiar Arena sounds are present, but much more subtly placed in the mix. "Painted Man" adopts the stop-start guitar riffs and mellotron backdrop that characterised "Empire Of A Thousand Days" to great effect, while "Salamander" has that widescreen sound and Clive Nolan's trademark swirling keyboard solos. The closing track "Ascension" is very similar in feel to The Visitor, with its grand theme fading out to silence.

But it's the tracks that sound less familiar that are the ones that have impressed me. "City Of Lanterns" paints interesting images with the keys and synths creating sounds and themes not dissimilar to the main desert theme in the movie Dune. "Tsunami" has a suitably apocalyptic melody accompanying its end-of-the-world lyrics, and there's some interesting bass guitar underpinning the song. Apparently the band encouraged Ian Salmon to try playing a Rickenbacker, and pushed him for more volume, which might explain the vibration around the house when this track is on! Meanwhile, "Cutting The Cards" opens with acoustic guitar being played with a passion that I hadn't previously associated with Arena's music.

But perhaps the striking aspect of Contagion, for me at least, is Rob Sowden's singing. He seems to have come on leaps and bounds since his first album, displaying a confidence and range that gives the songs warmth and passion. The subject matter of the lyrics can be very cold and distant, and there have been stories in the past about Nolan 'coaching' the vocalist, but with this album Sowden comes of age and makes the songs his own. While he might have appeared to be the hired hand on Immortal, here I find his contribution indispensable to the sound and feel of the album, and it will be interesting to see how he carries off his performance live.

Since I started this review I have played Contagion several times and am now very comfortable with it. Like myself, I suspect the less committed fans will find the change in musical direction challenging, but it's a move the band needed to make if they are to continue to evolve and avoid plodding out the same riffs and keyboard runs until they become a prog-caricature. The lyrics to one of the songs refer to a brave new world, and in retrospect this would have made a suitable subtitle for the album, as the band have produced a collection of songs that eschew the cosiness and familiarity of previous releases in favour of something new and exciting.

Witch Hunt / An Angel Falls / Painted Man / This Way / Madness Lies (instr.) / Spectre At The Feast / Never Ending Night / Skin Game / Salamander / On The Box (instr.) / Tsunami / Bitter Harvest / The City Of Lanterns / Riding The Tide (instr.) / Mea Culpa / Cutting The Cards / Ascension

Rob Sowden - vocals
John Mitchell - guitar and backing vocals
Clive Nolan - keyboards and backing vocals
Ian Salmon - bass
Mick Pointer - drums

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: February 11th 2003
Reviewer: John Stout

Artist website:
Hits: 1038
Language: english


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