Review Summary: Humanity's complex dark side joins forces with neo-prog to form an intricately written, audacious concept album which only just falls short of being a modern prog classic.
Concept albums can be nothing short of disastrous (Styx’s “Kilroy was Here”"""). Or they can be mind-blowing, timeless classics (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” immediately springs to mind). Water’s focussed on loneliness. Here, Arena hone in on pain, death, redemption, humankind’s purpose, and the nature of knowledge all with a religious slant, and are assisted by The Visitor, a metaphysical concept, or spirit being, travelling through time. So, a suitably epic idea from a consistent neo-progressive band; a recipe for another timeless classic. And the result"
As far as concept albums go, this one falls somewhere right of centre. On paper it overflows with potential, but tiny flaws hold it back from reaching total greatness.
Neo-prog gets slated for its more than intimate associations with Gabriel-era Genesis. Just one listen to this record and the references to Tony Bank’s keyboard style are unavoidable and sometimes become irritating, especially on “Pins and Needles” and “Blink of an Eye”. Secondly, Paul Wrightson’s vocals might not appeal to everyone. His accent is very middle-class English, and he tends to emphasise some words in a way that doesn’t fit the song’s rhythm. His tone also makes lines which are meant to sound aggressive, sound almost sarcastic and comical, most noticeable on “(Don’t Forget To) Breathe”. Also, some tracks here are quite noticeably weaker than others, namely “Enemy Without”.
There may be a few problems, but for the majority of the time, they get in the way like a Stop sign gets in the way of a Panzer. If you want to be niggardly then fine, but here is a wealth of incredible material here. If you’re a Genesis fan you won’t care, and the issues with the vocals could be pedantry gone mad. With a concept album, album structure is thrown into the mix; relatively easy if the concept involves a story, but this is more of a musical essay. Across the fourteen tracks, pain, death and their friends are stylishly intertwined, expressed both musically and lyrically. “Serenity” and “Elea” break up the album but are by no means fillers, both being highly-charged guitar leads. “Running from Damascus” ties everything up, paving the way for one of the best guitar solos I have ever heard; don’t play “The Visitor” from 03:15 onwards near any glaciers. They will shatter in seconds. A grand ending to match the grand opening of “A Crack in the Ice”.
Song structure is equally impressive (“Double Vision” boasts time signature changes through 5/4, 6/8 and 7/8, and what’s more, it works), and tracks such as “The Hanging Tree” have been put together with an almost motherly care; quaint minor arpeggios, crushing suspended chords, rousing choruses and powerful guitar solos create a track not epic in length, but in sound. Most of the songs here are not the usual six plus minutes you would expect from a progressive rock band, but that is more due to the organisation of the album along the lines of “everything must work together”, rather than a lack of musical creativity, or longevity for the sake of longevity.
Aside from being a sophisticated and effective musical discussion of humanity’s darker aspects, one of the album’s greatest achievements is its ability to hide its - often microscopic - flaws. Unless you’re naturally pedantic, or are reviewing the thing (or both), this is an hour long marvel.