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Arena - Pepper's Ghost CD (album) cover

PEPPER'S GHOST

Arena

 

Neo-Prog

3.61 | 380 ratings

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SouthSideoftheSky
Special Collaborator
Symphonic Team
3 stars Arena Fanatica

Arena has so far released six full length studio albums including this one, the last one to date. While I find even the least good albums by this excellent band very good, I have noticed a pattern in their releases to the effect that every second album from them is a bit less good compared to what came before it. First we had the excellent Songs From The Lion's Cage which was followed by the slightly less good Pride album, which basically followed the formula of the debut and did not break any new ground as such (it could perhaps be characterized as Songs From The Lion's Cage part II). After that it was time for Arena to amaze us with the masterpiece album The Visitor, this was then followed by the slightly less good Immortal? album. After that, they once again outdid themselves and unleashed upon the world another masterpiece that was Contagion. This brings us up to date and I must say that the pattern I have sketched is once again followed with Pepper's Ghost as this album is indeed less good compared to its immediate predecessor. However, being less good than such a fantastic album as Contagion is not necessarily a very damaging criticism as most good music is "less good" than that! If this pattern will continue to be followed, this brings great expectations for the band's next album (the title of which has already been announced; it will be called The Tinder Box).

As probably many fans would agree, Pepper's Ghost is the least good album the band has made since Pride (that was released almost ten years previously) and, indeed, Pepper's Ghost might even be considered the band's least good studio album ever. But even this would not be very damaging criticism because, as I have said, Arena has never in my opinion made a less-than-very-good album. It is therefore not easy to criticise music as good as this! The songs are all very well written, the vocals and instrumental talents are very strong, the production values are high, etc. However, like with the Pride album, I feel that the band breaks little new ground with Pepper's Ghost. Even if I love Arena and enjoy this album very much I cannot help to feel that I've mostly heard it all before! While the previous three Arena albums, Contagion, Immortal? and The Visitor, all have taken large musical steps forward for the band and introduced new elements into the band's distinctive sound, Pepper's Ghost is more of a backward-looking affair. Indeed, in several ways Pepper's Ghost can be said to take us back to the early days of Pride and Songs From The Lion's Cage. One similarity between Pepper's Ghost and those first two Arena albums is that the songs (not counting the Crying For Help pieces on those albums) lie in the range of four to 14 minutes with the longest tracks closing each respective album. However, Opera Fanatica, though very good, is not quite up to par with Sirens that closed the Pride album, and certainly not up to par with the excellent, classic Solomon that closed Songs From The Lion's Cage. The "opera" vocals in Opera Fanatica I find a bit over the top to be honest. But these sparse (guest?) vocals don't distract too much from a still great track.

A further similarity between Pepper's Ghost and these older Arena albums, and with Immortal? too, is that the songs, even though tied together by a loosely defined concept, are musically independent from each other and stand on their on feet (while on Contagion and The Visitor, shorter and more numerous tracks flowed into each other and formed part of a more or less continuous piece of music).

Pepper's Ghost opens with Bedlam Faire, a medium length, up tempo track that sets the mood for the rest of the album. While a good song with a catchy melody, clearly modelled on previous album openers like Chosen and Witch Hunt, it lacks the intensity of those songs. Smoke And Mirrors and The Shattered Room are very good songs that continue in the same vein and while listening to these, I sometimes feel that the band is on autopilot; a great band on autopilot, but a band on autopilot nonetheless. These songs also feature catchy choruses and strong verses too. One could perhaps say that these choruses are too melodic!

The Eyes Of Lara Moon is one of my favourite songs on Pepper's Ghost and the closest we come to a proper ballad on this album. It is initially based on vocals and acoustic guitar but soon transforms into an electric piece. Tantalus also begins as a ballad with piano and vocals. And the opening part of that song features moving vocals and captivating lyrics, as such this is one of the very few passages on Pepper's Ghost that created the kind of sinister mood of Contagion. Strangely, even if the songs here are mostly vocal based, the vocals are not as dramatic and up front as on Contagion.

Even though there are several quieter moments throughout the album, the lack of a genuine ballad is one of the things that make Pepper's Ghost less dynamic and less diverse compared to previous Arena albums. I also feel that the up tempo tracks lack the intensity of earlier Arena albums, and the few quieter moments lack true tranquillity. It is also the case that there are no instrumental tracks on this album which further contributes to making this album more linear and less varied. The music is more based on riffs and vocals than on intense instrumental work outs.

Newcomers to Arena starting with this album will surely recognize some of the greatness of the band, but they may perhaps rightfully ask what all the fuss is about. Pepper's Ghost is clearly another very good Arena album, but certainly not the ultimate place to start, in my opinion. So while this is very recommended, get the other Arena albums first.

Three strong stars!

SouthSideoftheSky | 3/5 |

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