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Arena - Contagion CD (album) cover

CONTAGION

Arena

 

Neo-Prog

4.18 | 576 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

siLLy puPPy
5 stars As ARENA entered the 21st century they finally hit a stable lineup and for the first time and released two albums in a row with the same band members which allowed them the opportunity to learn how to coalesce their individual talents and develop a strong and stable chemistry. On their fifth studio release CONTAGION they hit the high point of their career with yet another concept album that like many of their albums delivers vague and ambiguous notions of going through the trials and tribulations of being human and experiencing every emotion there is to be had a hundredfold. This one is supposedly about the end of the human race and all the emotional baggage of being alive until it happens. As much as i try i still haven't found a decent explanation of what exactly the concept is supposed to consist of but it matters not for at long last ARENA found their perfect sound with Clive Nolan (keys), John Mithcell (guitars), Ian Salmon (bass), Mick Pointer (drums) and their third lead vocalist Rob Sowden and the quality of the compositions on CONTAGION shows it.

From the first notes of "Witch Hunt" it is obvious that ARENA got major rekindling of musical mojo. At this point they sound less and less like 80s Marillion which was the sound of their early albums and more like their contemporaries IQ who also released a concept album at the same time. This time around the band found a new lease on neo-prog by adding heavier and harder rock guitar and bass often verging into metal territory briefly with virtuosic guitar solos and heavy churning riffs and thundering bass but still manages to weave it around the intricately delicate melodies that have been carefully crafted into extremely strong and catchy tunes that build upon one another and seamlessly transition from track to track until an entire album unfolds around you. There are also many space rock references to Pink Floyd with dreamy echoey guitars, sensual solos and Salmon's strong Rickenbacker bass lines.

CONTAGION is perfectly partitioned into vocal and instrumental tracks. "Witch Hunt" begins with a thundering bass line, heavy guitar riff and powerful vocal performance by Sowden which sets the tone for the majority of the album but there are also ballad segments like the beginning of the music box beat backed "Spectre Of Feast" and the piano laden "Never Ending Night" which weaves in tender moments surrounded by more thunderous heavy rock. Despite having the qualities of AOR, something about ARENA's attention to details make the music quite sophisticated with variations in the subtleties such as keyboard runs, echoey guitar backings or different types of drum fills. The melody is the main driver of the tracks with Sowden's vocal emphasis on the lyrics being mostly in the spotlight except when the band delivers excellent musical prowess such as on the instrumental beasts "This Way Madness Lies," "On The Box" and "Riding The Tide."

I must admit that i wasn't a huge fan of CONTAGION upon first listen as it sounds very much like many neo-prog albums that may come off as gimmicky with the heavier rock elements added but after a few spins i was hooked and the intricate charms of the album shone through with synth rich ambient notes backing heavy yet melancholically addicting melodies passing the torch to the next track that takes the listener onto a new adventure and then on to the next. While there are clearly stronger tracks than others, the beauty of the album is that is places all of the elements in key places. It opens with several strong tracks and then has some quieter less powerful tracks that skillfully link the various parts together. The musicianship is extraordinarily strong on CONTAGION with every member going the extra mile to eke out the most satisfying musical performances.

CONTAGION was originally intended to be released as a double album but Clive Nolan got cold feet on releasing such a sprawling 90 minute plus behemoth of a double album and nixed seven tracks and would release them simultaneously on two separate EPs titled "Contagious" and "Contagium." After many years of demands by rabid voracious fans to release CONTAGION as the originally intended double album, in 2013 it finally came to be as a tenth anniversary expanded edition titled CONTAGION MAX which contains all of the missing seven tracks in their proper places amongst the others. While it was not intended to replace the original truncated form and was solely intended to provide a supplemental insight into the album's history, i have to say that ARENA scored big time with CONTAGION as i find it works equally well in either form as CONTAGION doesn't feel forced and never indicates that certain tracks were left out merely for editing's sake nor does CONTAGION MAX feel like the extra tracks were superfluous filler either. Personally i would highly recommend both editions but CONTAGION is probably the first place to stop for anyone wanting to check out ARENA's thoughtful and subtly textured symphonic progressive rock. CONTAGION will surely go down as their magnum opus as it is one of those album's that only gets better the more you listen to it, at least that's the way it worked for me.

siLLy puPPy | 5/5 |

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