Arena - 2003 Contagion

ALBUM: Contagion
LABEL: Inside Out/Verglas
YEAR: 2003

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

TRACK LISTING: Witch Hunt * 02 An Angel Falls * 03 Painted Man * 04 (This Way) Madness Lies * 05 Spectre At The Feast * 06 Never Ending Night * 07 Skin Game * 08 Salamander * 09 On The Box * 10 Tsunami * 11 Bitter Harvest * 12 The City Of Lanterns * 13 Riding The Tide * 14 Mea Culpa * 15 Cutting The Cards * 16 Ascension


Arena are one of those bands which provoke a strong reaction, people either love them or hate them. I seem to be one of the only people sitting on the fence.

I must admit, I've not really listened to any of their albums properly since 'Welcome To The Stage', so as far as I know, I could have been missing some great music. From that viewpoint, 'Contagion' marks my first real contact with Rob Sowden as Arena's vocalist. My first impression was surprise.

The Songs

The opening number, 'Witch Hunt' showcases a much angrier band compared to the Arena I remember in the past. John Mitchell's guitar work is quite aggressive here, which compliments Sowden's hard vocal style well.

It's not until the second track, 'An Angel Falls', I recognise a sound which is more typical of the old Arena, where Clive Nolan's keyboards are more prominent. However, this is little more than a linking piece into 'Painted Man', which again, has some rather sharp edges. Unlike 'Witch Hunt' though, it's at a slower pace with a more traditional neo-prog approach.

The album's first instrumental, 'This Way Madness Lies', is a real tour-de-force between Ian Salmon's bass work and huge soloing from Mitchell.

Clive and Rob join forces in a keyboard and vocal only arrangement during the first part of 'Never Ending Night', which hits the mark - Sowden's voice is well suited to the softer material, in my opinion - the moments is fleeting though, as things toughen up again with 'Skin Game' and a crunchy guitar riff.

'Bitter Harvest', while remaining guitar driven (as opposed to keyboard based), is possibly the most traditionally prog 'Contagion' gets. Not that it's an excuse for self-indulgence, far from it, as nothing here is over-played and the track's high point has to be one of Rob Sowden's better vocal performances.

The haunting vocal set against the droning keyboard during 'The City Of Lanterns' harkens back to some of Nolan's earlier work with Shadowland on their 'Ring Of Roses' debut.

It's here I managed to pin-point one of my bug-bears with Arena: whilst the musicianship is often top-notch, the bands often lack the atmospheric and dreamy qualities offered by some of their peers. On 'Contagion', especially, they present themselves as bridging the gap between progressive rock and metal, never deciding to opt for the full-on progressive metal sound. It's as if they're in a progressive music no-mans-land.

'Cutting The Cards' sees a rare outing for John Mitchell's acoustic guitar and it's very welcome. Having seen one of his live and acoustic gigs, I know he's very comfortable playing acoustically, it would be nice if he could do it a little more. When the vocal comes in, it becomes apparent that this was not the soft-edged tune I was hoping for, as Sowden spits his vocal line with harshness. When the rest of the band joins the arrangement, it 'plugs in' to become a full-on rocker, with a chorus which is unmistakably Clive Nolan.

In Summary

I really hoped with all the hype and build up before release that 'Contagion' would be the album to help me make up my mind about Arena once and for all. Sadly, I'm still living in a land of indecision, it seems for everything I like about Arena's music, there's something I dislike. Then again, sitting on top of my fencepost ain't always such a bad place to be, sometimes the view is pretty good. In the meantime, watch this space.

The band has an army of followers out there. They'll be the ones to tell you whether 'Contagion' puts the band firmly on the map, and as Mick Pointer's ex-bandmates in Marillion will tell you: never under-estimate fan power.

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