October 14, 2022

…the current line-up of the band could be argued to be as strong as any in its history, and this show certainly attests to that. Next time Arena tread the boards anywhere within travelling distance, do not hesitate to go and catch the show.

All photos: Chris Walkden

This is a much-anticipated, and also highly significant round of touring for Arena. Not only has there been the embargo on live appearances faced by everyone during the pandemic years, but also there is the small matter of a new frontman for the fans to weigh up. Paul Manzi had replaced his own predecessor Rob Sowden back in 2010, going on to hold the position for a full decade prior to announcing his departure in 2020 – the second longest serving singer in the band’s history, with only Sowden being in place longer, for twelve years. Manzi himself had faced a certain ‘bedding in’ period, before becoming such a familiar presence (and improving his stage-craft year on year also) that it became difficult to imagine Arena without him. With the task of finding his replacement, the band faced a quandary as to what sort of frontman to recruit: many fans called for a return to the ‘theatrical’ style of the imposing Sowden, while others pointed out that the more traditional rock stylings of Manzi had succeeded in no uncertain terms. What they did surprised many, but in real terms actually went as close as could be imagined to satisfying both camps, when they brought the hugely experienced Damian Wilson on board. Some might have immediately questioned the decision, being familiar with Wilson mainly from his time with prog-metallers Threshold, but such would be to miss the fact that his own ‘theatrical’ CV is more than up to date having toured in the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and also having previously been with veteran proggers Landmarq and done several albums with Arjen Lucassen. So for a great number of punters, this show, like the others on the tour, was very much dominated by the question of ‘how will Damian do?’

They needn’t have worried. Within three songs of Wilson’s arrival on stage any doubts are well and truly banished by the remarkable way he fits straight into the band as if he had never been away. No-one could doubt his technical proficiency as a singer, but with songs such as Don’t Forget To Breathe and A Crack In The Ice, he demonstrates an ability to ‘inhabit’ the persona of the song’s narrator in a way which recalls Sowden at his scenery-chewing best! Also remarkable, if unsurprising for anyone having seen him perform with Threshold, is the way he commands the stage in an effortlessly charismatic manner. A natural showman, possessed of a confidence and enthusiasm bordering on the need to be occasionally ‘reined in’, he stalks the (rather small) stage, engages the audience in hugely entertaining banter and story-telling, and most crucially even manages to use the limitations of the stage area to his own advantage. An absurdly low stage, being at little more than knee-height, means that for health and safety reasons a barrier has to be erected in front to prevent the crowd members from being pushed onto it, but the ever-resourceful Wilson uses this potentially divisive feature brilliantly, repeatedly leaping from the stage over to the small platform at the foot of the barrier, and using it to tower over the crowd right in their midst. He even climbs over a couple of times, to engage with, and sing with the crowd, and all eyes are inescapably drawn to him. With his black stage attire and full beard he might not resemble the typical prog rock vocalist, but tonight he utterly makes the position his own.

But that, of course, is only the start of the story. With a new album, The Theory of Molecular Inheritance, just released (with Wilson), there is much speculation as regards how much of it the band will feature, and also how much of a spread of older material will make its way into the set. Those wanting a celebration of the band’s 35-year-plus history can have few complaints either with the choice of songs, the excellent performances by the band, or indeed the extremely impressive sound balance. Opening bravely with Time Capsule from the new record, followed by Rapture from The Seventh Degree Of Separation (possibly the band’s weakest album to these ears), they proceed to knock it out of the proverbial park with Bedlam Fayre from the brilliant Pepper’s Ghost, How Did It Come To This from the similarly excellent The Unquiet Sky concept album and, to top off this trio of classics, the crowd-favourite The Butterfly Man. As the show continues, with only two more (actually very impressive) tracks from the latest album, we are treated to a string of big-hitters and favourites such as Don’t Forget To Breathe, Salamander, A Crack In The Ice, The Visitor, The Tinder Box, A State Of Grace and the first encore’s brilliant rendition of Enemy Without. The final encore is of course, as it always is, the crowd singalong of Crying For Help, which admittedly is something I would like to see rested in favour of something such as Ascension or an early classic such as Solomon or Empire Of A Thousand Days, but in fairness tonight’s is an effective and powerful version, stripped of too much by the way of lengthy ‘audience participation’, and the crowd responds well.

Driving force Mick Pointer and keyboard maestro Clive Nolan, founder members of the band, will always attract much of the focus, and it is impossible to imagine the band without them, but equally important to this and all performances is the guitar work of John Mitchell. Often taciturn and possessed of a very funny dry wit, he bounces off the irrepressible Wilson brilliantly, and his playing is absolutely exemplary. With bass player Kylan Amos now an eight-year veteran, the current line-up of the band could be argued to be as strong as any in its history, and this show certainly attests to that. Next time Arena tread the boards anywhere within travelling distance, do not hesitate to go and catch the show. They are at the top of their game, and with so many standouts in their deep catalogue that they could put on a show with an entirely different track-list to this and still disappoint scarcely anyone. A fine evening’s entertainment, to say the very least.