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Arena’s latest CD, Immortal? is a relatively standard progressive effort with all the neo-trimmings – Rothery-esque guitar solos, bombastic keyboards, and vocals that are not so much sung as they are acted. Arena also tosses in a little metal-prog for good measure, and in the end Immortal? turns out being merely a decent prog release – nothing incredibly noteworthy, bad or good.
Since their last studio album, Arena made a couple of lineup changes. First, they’ve traded in their old bassist for a fellow named Ian Salmon who does a serviceable job throughout the entire album and seems to be a good fit with Mick Pointer’s drumming to provide a steady rhythm section. On the guitar end of things, I’ll just say that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Marillion’s Steve Rothery must be blushing because Arena’s guitarist John Mitchell serves up a heaping helping of solos that seems ripped straight for Marillion’s sheet music. Not that this is a bad thing – Mitchell’s guitar playing is definitely the highlight of Immortal? even if it is extremely derivative. His chops are about the only parts of this CD that really make your ears prick up and take notice of the music.
On the vocal end of things, Arena has replaced their old singer with newcomer Rob Snowden – a guy who sings with such drama that he makes Meatloaf sound like Al Gore. When Snowden lets loose with a recital of Nolan’s lyrics, you really get the feeling that Rob was probably very heavily involved in theater during his high school days. In some cases, his affected singing is a positive trait (such as on “Ghost in the Firewall” and the closer “Friday’s Dream”). However, more often than not Snowden goes a little TOO far over the top in his annunciation and presentation – on “The Butterfly Man” you’d think the guy was reciting Shakespeare. Snowden has a good singing voice, and I think if he just throttled back a little on the melodrama he would be much more effective. Instead, in many cases, he’s actually a little embarrassing to listen to.
One of the strong points of Immortal lie with keyboardist Clive Nolan’s excellent lyrics. All of the songs on the album seem to be about man’s unhealthy fascination with technology, and the repercussions it will have on our society in the long-term. Although other songwriters have covered this topic, Nolan’s lyrics are both accessible and complex at the same time resulting in a CD that will have you “reading along” with the music. However, Nolan’s keyboard playing is not quite as successful – often Clive descends into horror movie riffs and obnoxious and bombastic sound samples. When Nolan switches to piano the results are much more appealing, but these interludes are too few and far between. Nolan also makes use of Mellotron and choral samples a bit too often, and as such they lose their emotional effectiveness.
If you’re a fan of bombastic neo-prog, you will probably like Immortal? Everything about the release is “over the top,” and I suppose that’s a good thing for followers of this progressive sub-genre. There’s more of a metal aspect on this album than I expected as well, and these heavy passages actually work very well when taken in contrast with the rest of Immortal?. If you can manage to appreciate Mitchell’s excellent guitar playing and Nolan’s strong lyrics through the din of overbearing keyboards and over-emotional singing, then Immortal? should be enjoyable. But that’s an awful lot of work to enjoy a CD, isn’t it?
Track Listing: 1. Chosen (6:20), 2. Waiting for the Flood (5:52), 3. The Butterfly Man (8:56), 4. Ghost in the Firewall (4:55), 5. Climbing the Net (4:40), 6. Moviedrome (19:43), 7. Friday's Dream (4:44)
Personnel: Rob Snowden: Vox; John MItchell: Guitars, Backing Vox; Clive Nolan: Keyboards, Backing Vox; Ian Salmon: Bass; Mick Pointer: Drums