ARENA — The Seventh Degree of Separation (review)

ARENA — The Seventh Degree of Separation album cover Album · 2011 · Metal Related Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
With the loss of vocalist Rob Sowden, it’s no wonder ARENA had to step back for a while and decide if the band should continue or not. After all, Sowden’s distinct vocal flare is what made ARENA, well ARENA, right? Well not so fast there. After a presumably restful break with some soul searching for the next move that the band should embark upon if any at all, ARENA returned six long years after 2005’s “Pepper’s Ghost” with not only a new vocalist in the form of Paul Manzi who came out of nowhere but also found the unexpected return of bassist John Jowitt who had left the band after 1998’s “The Visitor.”

While the band never officially broke up and continued to tour, the new lineup was the perfect reset button and ARENA did the wise thing and didn’t try to find a vocalist who would merely mimic the previous while pretending everything was just the way it was before. Au contraire. ARENA reinvented themselves for the seventh album aptly titled THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION which continued the ARENA tried and true tradition of cranking out an album’s worth of nebulous concepts concerning life, death and the ethers that bridge the two all set up in emotive musical drama with instantly addictive hooks laced with progressive touches.

In fact, the changes had already begun on “Pepper’s Ghost” as the band ramped up the heavier elements with harder guitar delivers, increased tempos with a more heavy rock edge than any of the album’s that preceded. THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION simply picked up where that album left off stylistically speaking as if six years were just an illusory chunk of time. However, despite the attempt to just pick up where things left off, the notable differences in vocalists dictated that things were not the same and it sounds like every attempt was made to allow the music to adapt to Manzi’s vocal abilities rather than the other way around.

Continuing the heavier aspects, ARENA opted to tamp down the more complex aspects of the progressive side of things which didn’t sit well with many a fans and for many this was a clear decline and disappointment for one of the premiere neo-prog bands of the 90s. The tracks are more clear and concise with not a single one extending beyond the eight minute mark and most hovering around four. In a nutshell, THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION is much more a hard rock album than a progressive neo-prog album but that doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of its rich tapestry of melodic weaving and excellent mastery of vocals, guitar oriented riffing and Clive Nolan’s unworldly talent for casting the perfect atmospheric projections on his keys.

Conceptually, THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION tackles the subject of death by exploring Frigyes Karinthy’s theory from which the album title gets its name only ARENA changed the original six to the number 7. Karinthy was a Hungarian author and postulated that all people are only six or fewer social connections away from each other. I guess he wasn’t taking hermits into account but i digress. As with all ARENA albums, the thematic presence is loosely defined, nebulous to the core and is meant to fire up the imagination rather than cast an iron clad tale into literal form. Once again the music perfectly matches the imagery and despite the more accessible musical compositions works quite well in tandem.

While the obligatory bloated progressive elements are removed and replaced by a series of catchy pop hooks, the tracks whiz by fairly smoothly, all connecting for a nice album ride to the near hour completion. In some ways, Manzi reminds me of Geoff Tate of Queensryche in his vocal style only without the multi-octave range but his vocal phrasings and voice signature in general makes this connection. Likewise, the progressive metal of early Queensryche also seems to have at least made a marginal impact as some of the tracks have similar chord progression and atmospheres however these are subtle references and THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION stands up on its own two feet.

For finicky prog purists, this one will surely disappoint. It seems to purposely eschew any meandering sections that point to the perfect prog escapism but rather nurtures the melodic constructs into shorter and to the point rockers. But despite the decomplexifying touches, this is still prog rock through and through and there are healthy doses of time signature deviations, stellar atmospheric overcasts that glaze the Genesis inspired soaring guitar licks and emotive rock opera styled melodramatic effects. Just don’t expect an album like “Contagion.”

What’s clearly missing is any sort of standout performances by Nolan as the keyboards have taken a back seat to the more ramped up guitar, bass and drum parts. Despite the new direction, i find THE SEVENTH DEGREE OF SEPARATION to be quite the addictive album based on the strong melodic hooks alone and the fact that they are augmented by a heavy rock bombast makes it all the stronger. I can totally understand why some fans jumped ship at this point but i find this new phase to be just as appealing as what came before but then again i crave change rather than relish complacency any day.
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