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Arena - The Unquiet Sky CD (album) cover

THE UNQUIET SKY

Arena

 

Neo-Prog

3.72 | 240 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Aussie-Byrd-Brother
Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars * Please note - this review is based on the pre-order CD sold directly from the band, one month before the worldwide general release *

Clive Nolan and his Neo-hard rocking companions return for the eighth Arena album in twenty years, `The Unquiet Sky', taking inspiration from (without being a direct interpretation of) M.R James' short story `Casting the Runes'. It's easy to see why the ghostly tale of supernatural intrigue and occult mystery from 1911 would appeal to Mr Nolan, and the album reveals plenty of the sleek and heavy symphonic rock with poetic lyrics that the British band is known for. The previous disc `The Seventh Degree of Separation' was a divisive and somewhat controversial release for a new line-up of the group that now included vocalist Paul Manzi, a transitional album that saw them adopting a more streamlined hard rock/metal sound. But long-time fans of the group will be pleased to know that, while there are still similarities to that previous album here and there, the much-loved symphonic atmospheres the band was known for are given more focus again, meaning a better balance of these two qualities together to create a truly sublime Arena work.

Some of the twelve tracks on offer still retain a hard-rock flavour, but everything an Arena fan could hope to discover is all present and accounted for here. After a more low-key performance on the previous album, virtuoso keyboardist/composer Clive Nolan is center stage again over the entire disc. Not only are his exquisite synths constant and upfront, but the artist has also implemented plenty of theatrical and orchestral symphonic textures into the group this time around, his recent work with the `Alchemy' musical being obvious right from the start, and these theatrical flourishes are a perfect fit for the group. Vocalist Manzi made a promising and reliable debut as singer for the group on `...Separation', but here he lifts his game considerably and offers endless more vocal variety. Better worked into the group, he is equally at home with heartfelt ballads, theatre flair and chest-beating rockers, and he has really become a perfect frontman for the band. Kylan Amos from Nolan's own `Alchemy' production replaces bass player and IQ member John Jowitt and makes an impressive debut here, ex-Marillion drummer perfectly drives the music forwards and It Bites/Kino/Lonely Robot guitarist John Mitchell delivers his usual tasteful and commanding guitar flair.

Of several of the highlights, listen out for the gleefully wicked and wondrous orchestral pomp that opens the album that could easily be an outtake from Mr Nolan's `Alchemy' show, the infernal and overwhelming church organ intimidation of `The Demon Strikes' and especially the shimmering dark reggae (yes, really!) chimes and sleek electronics of the thrashing `No Chance Encounter', where Kylan's bass really glides. `The Bishop of Lufford' perfectly mixes ghostly gothic mystery with soaring symphonic prog and muscular hard rock (and wait for that hair-tearing heavy finale!). `Oblivious to the Night' is a fragile little piano interlude with whimsical synths and a thoughtful vocal, `Markings on a Parchment' is an eerie dream-like introspective instrumental, and Mitchell's extended guitar solo in the classy title track even brings to mind Nolan's other band Pendragon.

Cascading classical piano spirals with snarling brooding guitars in `What Happened Before', and Clive delivers an overload of delirious synth soloing goodness on both `Time is Running Out' and `Returning the Curse' in the best Nolan tradition that his fans always love to hear! `Unexpected Dawn' is a strong ballad with warm Hammond organ and soothing acoustic guitar, and the ambitious seven minute closer `Traveller Beware' finds time for plenty of ghostly gothic tension, punchy plodding heavy riffs, creeping piano and a stirring repeated chorus with a dark lyric.

But special mention has to go to glorious power balled entitled `How Did It Come To This?'. It's a glorious emotional tune with a sombre piano melody, delicate orchestration and dreamy lyrics, carried by a perfectly controlled yet soaring vocal from Manzi. A restrained unfolding guitar solo from Mitchell in the middle ensures it may be one of the truly most heartfelt pieces ever to appear on an Arena album, and it's certainly one of their most purely romantic musical statements to date.

Along with typically fascinating and surreal proggy cover artwork and a lavish CD booklet (but what a shame there doesn't seem to be a vinyl version in the works so far), `The Unquiet Sky' is one of the most lavish, sophisticated and varied Arena albums to date, and certainly one of their most endlessly melodic. It's a fine return to form for the Neo prog institution, and it really shows what this latest line-up is capable of, so hopefully even more impressive music is to come from the mighty Arena!

Four stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |

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