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Arena - Contagion CD (album) cover

CONTAGION

Arena

 

Neo-Prog

4.18 | 578 ratings

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SouthSideoftheSky
Special Collaborator
Symphonic Team
5 stars I am now officially contaminated too!

On the first couple of listens, I thought that Contagion wasn't even close to being as good as the fantastic masterpiece that was The Visitor. However, to be honest, I didn't realise just how great The Visitor was right from the start either. Like with The Visitor, it took me several listens to get into this album. Yet, when I finally got into it, Contagion didn't stop growing on me and I now think that Contagion is almost on a par with The Visitor. At some point I even thought it was even more impressive, but it does not quite have the same staying power as The Visitor. The two albums are both masterpieces though, and even if Arena have always been my favourite Neo-Prog band, they have now established themselves as one of my favourite bands of all time regardless of genre! And that is no small accomplishment for a Neo-Prog band, given that I have never been a big fan of the Neo-Prog genre. But then again, Arena is certainly not your typical Neo-Prog band, at least not on this album which might be the band's most original and distinctive recording.

Like The Visitor, Contagion is another concept album where every song is part of a larger whole and the whole album hangs together incredibly well. Again like The Visitor, Contagion works as an organic whole where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The songs flow into each other and some themes return in several songs to great effect. There is again a perfect balance between vocal numbers and instrumentals and many different moods and tempos are displayed throughout the hour long album. Everything is exactly where it should be and the listener is treated to one great song after another from start to finish. The melodies are all remarkably strong, the musicianship is outstanding and the production is faultless. Even the cover art is amazing! (which is great after the not too interesting cover art to Immortal?).

I initially felt that the album's best moments where at the start and at the end with songs like The Painted Man, A Spectre At The Feast, Cutting The Cards, and the reoccurring 'surely there is someone who will reach out'-theme that is first introduced in An Angel Falls, and that the album kind of lost its direction a bit in the middle. However, after further listens I now think that the tracks in the middle are just as strong as the rest. It is very hard now to pick out favourites; there simply are no weak moments!

Arena have always had their very own musical identity, but with each subsequent album they have made more out of that identity and become more original. It is no longer appropriate (if it ever was?) to describe the music of Arena as a darker and heavier Marillion; the influences on this album are broader and include influences from Queen, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis and much more. Arena's music is perhaps still not truly groundbreaking, but I also do not find it derivative at all in any objectionable sense (and I am usually very sensitive to that type of thing). Contagion is even darker and harder edged than The Visitor was.

The bass guitar of Ian Salmon stands out as being much more prominent and distinctive compared to earlier Arena albums. There is a great, heavy bass sound. The guitar work of John Mitchell is, like always, fantastic and there are many opportunities for him to shine throughout this album. Clive Nolan's keyboard wizardry is also brilliant and he gets his fair share of the spotlight. The instrumental Riding The Tide is the only heavily keyboard dominated track, and this one if strongly Tony Banks influenced while the organ solo in On The Box is more Rick Wakeman-esque. But Nolan mostly has his own style and identity. One thing to notice is that there is more piano than acoustic guitar on this album, while it was the other way around on The Visitor. The frequent use of piano together with the way the songs flow into each other somehow makes me think of Queen's A Night At The Opera (which is another one of my all time favourite albums).

Mick Pointer's drumming is sometimes criticized, but I find nothing wrong with it. This is not complex Jazz-Rock/Fusion and neither needs it to be! The vocalist, Rod Sowden, who had been introduced on the previous album, has a great voice that fits this type of music perfectly. He sings every single note like he really means it! Arena has really been very lucky to find great vocalists and Sowden's performance on this album is remarkably strong.

One of the things I liked so much about The Visitor was the dark, mysterious lyrics. Thankfully, the lyrics are once again back to the standard (at least) of The Visitor here after the partly more 'worldly' lyrics of Immortal? Clive Nolan has really put a lot of effort into the lyrics that contain many hidden meanings that leave a lot for the listener to contemplate. Apparently, the album is based on a fairly elaborate story. However, they do not make the common mistake of letting the story take over the music. The lyric for each song also has its own meaning and value independent of the story. I honestly think that this is the best story based album I have ever heard! The lyrics are intriguing and unique and they can make you think deeply, but you can also ignore them and simply enjoy the music; this album can be enjoyed on so many different levels!

At first I didn't like they way they used the studio as another instrument i.e. those sampled background noises with muffled pieces of conversation, the morse code sound at the end of On The Box/beginning of Tsunami (that means something?), or the noise created by a vinyl album being played at the start of Mea Culpa initially bothered me. But I started to see how these things integrated with the rest of the sounds and now I don't find it distracting anymore.

I am very restrictive about which albums I rate with the full five stars, but Contagion has stood the test and deserves masterpiece status.

SouthSideoftheSky | 5/5 |

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