Arena - Pepper's Ghost

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

Here is yet another band that's redefined itself. Like IQ's Dark Matter, Arena's Pepper's Ghost is nothing like their past work. This is neither good nor bad. There was nothing wrong with their previous material, however, this latest one is larger than life. If I had to pick one word to describe it, I'd settle on fantastic.

The album sounds a lot like Threshold's Subsurface. While both bands originally sounded nothing alike, they have seemingly come together like opposite ends of a magnet. Arena seems to have gotten heavier over time while Threshold has gotten lighter. It's as if they are each attracted to the purest of progressive metals. Like Threshold, this isn't exactly hardcore. It lies somewhere in the gray area between metal and rock. Whatever it is, I like it.

The album is a concept that consists of seven distinct tales separated into seven distinct tracks. Due to the breakdown and chronology of the tracks, it flows very well. The stories are hard to follow, but they're engrossing nonetheless. Get the liner notes and follow along if you want to learn more about it. If you are just in it for the music, believe me, you'll find many melodious passages that will please you.

The title is weird, but with a little history lesson, it makes a lot of sense. You'll also find that it even explains other trivia you may have encountered.

Back in the 1800's, there was a magician named Dr. John Henry Pepper. This magician had an act where he made an apparition appear out of thin air. Since he went by the name Dr. Pepper, this may very well explain the origins of the cola with the same name. In addition, he actually achieved the illusion with the use of, you're not going to believe this, smoke and mirrors. Dr. Pepper has been the source of many clich?s and much of today's pop culture, so his legendary routine is ripe for a concept album. As we have it, this is the basis behind Arena's Pepper's Ghost.

It is also important to point out the unbelievable artwork associated with this album. Rather than pose for the usual and always boring bio shots most bands use for their front cover, each musician has a cartoon likeness created for them instead. These five characters make up the Knights of the London Fog. The cover shows each one of them posing for a portrait. The booklet inside is alive with cells from a comic strip that's not too unlike a Frank Miller story. While Clive Nolan (not the actor who plays Dwight in Sin City; that would be Chris Nolan) and David Wyatt came up with the comic's storyline; Tim Bisley is the gifted artist who is responsible for its excellent graphics. In each freeze frame, he has colorfully captured the chronicles of each one of the band's alter-egos. This is definitely a collector's piece.

The lyrics, comic, and concept don't necessarily go hand in hand. The band chooses to formulate ideas that simply tie together loosely. They incorporate countless clever themes. Like Sin City, it all sticks to the same tone and it's successful in my mind. Not to mention, the diction and verbiage they select for their songs is simply superb. This is an ambitious album with a lot of heart and soul. The intrigue is not only imprinted in the brilliant graphics, but in the music as well.

Here is what you'll find peppered throughout this ghoulishly good album:

"Bedlam Fayre" - In the opener, the rock starts rolling. It's a real power-hungry powerhouse and it parades with remarkable pizzazz. It's like the lights at night down at Las Vegas' downtown strip. With all that it draws from its pool of resources, it run the risk of a power outage. To my surprise, the transmission never gets interrupted, not even by the shortest shutdown. If you like Enchant, Threshold, Kamelot, or Royal Hunt, you'll most certainly like this cut. On the other hand, this rocking number is so rare, it is hard to draw an honest comparison. It's an extraordinarily well-written track with hooks that sink in fast and deep. While somewhat long for something that's song-oriented, it keeps your attention throughout the entire duration. This is one of my favorite songs on the album and a great one to see live. I was lucky enough to see this song performed at ROSfest 2005. For me, that was one of the festival's highlights.

"Smoke And Mirrors" - By now it should be no mystery where the premise for this track has originated. For the most part, this song is probably closest to the concept of Dr. Pepper since it flat out refers to the gimmick behind the act. However, this soft drink is neither dull nor flat. This can of cola bubbles with carbonation. Clive Nolan's keyboards heave and swell while John Mitchell's hits the harmonics. Like all the songs on the album, it goes one way and then corkscrews in alternate directions.

"The Shattered Room" - This one is mysterious and creepy. It's a haunted house during the evil hours of twilight. No lights are lit, the corners of the rooms are covered in shadows, and the floorboards creak continuously. Here in this darkest house, you live with ancient wounds and you're trapped within shattered rooms. A beast howls in the mountains with a wolverine heart. Given half a chance it will tear you apart. The curse from a vampire may very well drive you insane. Don't look away; he'll drain the blood from your veins. It's a solemn and scary experience that will leave you with a queasy stomach. It's enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Fans of Iced Earth, Ayreon, and Queen will enjoy this bloodcurdling piece.

"The Eyes Of Lara Moon" - There is trade-off between the electric instruments and the ones that are purely acoustic. One passage pulsates with the static of a blown circuit; the other is dim and quiet while you go stumbling around looking for the switch. There is great interplay between John Mitchell's potent guitars and Clive Nolan's passive keyboards. As for the others, Mick Pointer's drums are poignant, Rob Sowden's vocals are pretentious, and Ian Salmon's bass is altogether playful.

"Tantalus" - This has an operatic feel to it. The curse of the phantom is prevalent in this composition. Rob Sowden's singing along with John Mitchell's backing voice results in incredibly blissful vocals. The air is musty and the ambiance is murky. You want to leave, but the savory spirit that embodies this song will keep you glued right where you stand.

"Purgatory Road" - John Mitchell gives us a sick and twisted solo and that's only the beginning. The song is a fuel-injected with Pink Floyd and interlaced with Todd Rundgren's Utopia. The bass covers all ends of the scales and it does so in a very calculated manner. I'm a sucker for this kind of song. It ripples and creates a wake as it cuts up and down the river. This song is right up there when it comes to choosing the highlight of the album. It's a tricky toss-up between this one and the opener, "Bedlam Fayre."

"Opera Fanatica" - The longest piece comes last and it is laced with lavish content. It's long and drawn out, but never disinteresting. It opens with opera singers and then makes way for a heavy-duty beat. It oscillates between heavier and lighter themes. It shuffles themes around by incorporating new ones along with others heard earlier in the album. The opera elements return here and there and it is truly striking how they're interwoven into the song. Supplementing these coordinated efforts, each musician contributes some outstanding solos of their own. This track is yet another impressive impression on the listener and it cunningly caps off this phenomenal album.

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: August 15th 2005
Reviewer: Joshua "Prawg Dawg" Turner
Artist website:
Hits: 1140
Language: english


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