Arena- Pepper's Ghost (Inside Out)
review by Jim Clark

Track Listing

1. Bedlam Fayre
2. Smoke And Mirrors
3. The Shattered Room
4. The Eyes Of Lara Moon
5. Tantalus
6. Purgatory Road
7. Opera Fanatica



Let me start out this review by saying that I'm not really a fan of Arena. As a matter of fact, I quite dislike their first two discs. I took a chance and bought their third release, Visitor, and enjoyed a good bit of it. But Immortal lost me - I neither liked nor disliked the disc - it was just sort of there. And I didn't bother to pick up the band's last release, 2003's Contagion. So I decided to listen to Pepper's Ghost, the band's current CD, with quite a bit of skepticism. Would it be the neo-prog monotony of the first two releases, the forgetfulness of Immortal, or would it be something that I liked, like Visitor?

As strange as it is to say, it's a little bit of all three as there's parts of Pepper's Ghost that I like, parts that I dislike and parts that I just find so-so.

The disc starts off on a strong note with "Bedlam Fayre." The track features some strong guitar and synthesizer parts, delivered by John Mitchell and Clive Nolan, respectfully. Rob Sowden sings a catchy melody while some creative vocoder is thrown in as well.

"Smoke And Mirrors" is another solid number with Mitchell again throwing out some excellent guitar lines and Sowden providing another catchy vocal.

After this, though, things start to go downhill. "The Shattered Room" is standard neo-progressive fare with the obligatory mellotron section and fast synth solos. Mitchell does add some fiery playing to the track, but not enough to keep me from hitting the skip button on future listens.

"The Eyes Of Lara Moon" is a decent acoustic number, but nothing really to write home about. Sowden gives an over-the-top vocal, but Mitchell yet again comes to the rescue with some great guitar bits.

A piano intro leads into "Tantalus," another prog-by-the-numbers track. Still, Mitchell plays more inspired guitar on this tune (see a trend here?)

"Purgatory Road" is a pretty solid song with some decent ideas. Some interesting samples and vocal effects add to the music, and Nolan plays a good synth solo. The drumming, though, is fairly stiff, as it is throughout much of the disc. Still, it’s one of the better tracks on this release.

Nolan's "Opera Fanatica" begins with mellotron while there’s some operatic singing in the distance. Organ and jagged guitar soon take over before the real vocals begin. Elaborate instrumental sections lie between the song’s big choruses. Not a bad song, but not very memorable, either.

The accompanying artwork for Pepper's Ghost is fairly elaborate with comic strips running throughout. The strips, drawn by Tim Bisley and conceived by Nolan and art director David Wyatt, are quite nice.

My biggest fault with Arena is some of the contrived ideas that they offer. While not quite as obvious as the vocalists that preceded him in the band, Sowden at times sounds like he's trying to sing like Fish or Peter Nicholls. Still, he manages to keep enough of his own personality in the vocals to keep him from being a Fish clone (something that I unfortunately cannot say for Arena's other vocalists).

And I find much of Nolan's playing to be fairly uninspired. While he does play some solid backing parts, I feel like I've heard it all before as far as his synth solos go. And drummer Mick Pointer, while better on the skins than his Marillion days, is a fairly basic drummer who really offers nothing of interest in his fills.

Mitchell is the disc's saving grace. His playing throughout is stellar and really makes some of the songs better than they are due just to his solos.

Essentially, I find Pepper's Ghost to be basically a Prog-101 CD - a disc that, much like most of Arena's output, tries too hard to be neo-prog and fails to live up to the high standards set by groups like IQ and Pallas. Still, Pepper’s Ghost has enough interesting moments (thank you Mr. Mitchell) that I will probably give this disc’s successor a listen when it comes out.

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