October 22, 2022

There’s a more modern and gritty sound to the band now and that should please existing fans and win new ones. 

Ah, how time passes. Arena, who in my mind are the new kids on the block, living in the shadow of Genesis and Marillion, have passed 25 years of age! The band have carved out their own niche in that time with a very British style of neo-prog, but considering their supergroup credentials (Clive Nolan had been in Pendragon, Shadowland and Strangers On A Train; Mick Pointer was a founder member of Marillion, and John Mitchell is somewhat polygamous, managing to be in Arena at the same time as It Bites, Frost* and various other projects), one wonders whether they have really should have had greater success. For this, their tenth release, those supergroup credentials are boosted further by the arrival of Damian Wilson, of Headspace and Threshold fame.

In good prog and Arena tradition, this is very probably a concept album. I say ‘probably’ because as someone who gave up biology after one year of confusion, I struggled to understand exactly what the concept is. I did Google the title of the album which confirmed my suspicion that the theory of molecular inheritance reveals all about genes and heredity (i.e., why you look like your parents). In the penultimate track, Part Of You, Wilson sings ‘One single molecule…More than just yourself, I’m a part of you you’re a part of me’ so whether this is simply all about a father/son relationship or something deeper, I don’t know. Oddly there is a song entitled The Heiligenstadt Legacy. Now if you’re thinking ‘The what?’ then it is about an anguish-filled letter that Beethoven wrote about his growing deafness which he had intended to send to his brothers but instead hid away in his apartment in Heiligenstadt (a suburb of Vienna).  The letter was found after his death. I struggle to see a linkage between Beethoven and molecular inheritance beyond such a genius being the exception to the rule (since his father was a mediocre music teacher).

Anyway, concept or no concept, fans of Arena will certainly find plenty to like here. The opening salvo of Time Capsule has everything we’ve come to expect from the band. There’s a good prog metal guitar chord sequence and a vocalised phrase (which reveals itself later as the chorus melody) to get Wilson warmed up. It’s a neatly constructed melodic song and add a short solo from Mitchell too and this track is very much Arena in a nutshell. There’s perhaps a slightly harder edge here and throughout the rest of the album, probably the result of a change in the balance of the sound – more towards guitar and less keyboard-driven than in the past. In terms of the vocals, some might prefer Wilson over Paul Manzi or vice versa but personally I would sit on the fence for that argument. They are both great singers. However, Wilson has a more natural story-telling vocal style which certainly fits this album perfectly.

There are eleven tracks in total which, excluding the two-minute ballad Confession, are all around the five- or six-minute mark. Despite this apparent shortness, the songs are rarely straight forward or predictable; there’s plenty of dense prog writing for sure.  Highlights include The Heiligenstadt Legacy which opens with a gorgeous rippling piano and a wonderfully delicate vocal delivery from Wilson (with some very hard to reach high notes!) which then alternates with a rockier section.  Field Of Sinners is another standout with its irresistible groove.  Pure Of Heart has a brilliant prog metal opening (despite one element being so like Marillion’s White Russian that you will be singing ‘Uzis on the street corner’). Speaking about similarities to other bands, Under The Microscope is an impressive piece, especially the solos on keys, but the chorus is a little too close to Comfortably Numb for comfort (sorry for the pun!). The album closes in a satisfying way with Life Goes On. It’s a clear attempt to write the sort of epic end of album statement that prog fans love, and it works a treat as it builds up via Mitchell’s best solo on the album to the sublime final anthemic melody.

To these ears, past Arena albums have had a certain safeness about them, remaining within an easy-on-the-ear polite prog sound. There’s a more modern and gritty sound to the band now and that should please existing fans and win new ones. For those looking beyond the standard CD release, there’s also a double CD ear book version which has additional acoustic or instrumental versions of some of the songs. And for hardcore fans, there are a number of other packages, some of which include a lavish 180-page coffee table book entitled Arena…From The Beginning. Take your pick, but an hour of top-class British prog is guaranteed.