After a ten year wait in 2013 fans of ARENA’s monstrous neo-prog hit “Contagion” were finally treated to hearing the album as it was originally intended to be released in the form of the extended double disc CONTAGION MAX. Clive Nolan has always stated that the “Contagion” story was to be more intricate and drawn out with extra instrumental passages and vocal tracks that add more depth to the storyline. Well, Nolan wasn’t too sure about the possibilities of releasing an extra long album and felt the pressure to to edit their ambitious project down to a single disc release. The result was that seven tracks were chopped off the listening experienced and released simultaneously on two separate EPs titled “Contagious” and “Contagium.” While it was all fine and dandy to make those orphaned tracks to the public, much was lost regarding the context in which they were woven into the overall theme. After many years of a demanding public for the album to be released in full form, voila!
Fast forward ten years and the CONTAGION MAX anniversary edition finally sees the light of day in its complete original intended format. It contains all seven tracks in the proper order stuffed into the album “Contagion” from 2003 as a double disc digipak CD release. While i found nothing wrong with the original album “Contagion” and in many ways find it to be the peak of the creative juices flowing for ARENA in their lengthy career, i must say that i much prefer hearing it as the extended double album experience it was meant to be as it smooths out the ruff-around-the-edges transitions that become more apparent once listening in the band-desired delivery mode. CONTAGION MAX doesn’t exactly make the two EPs that came before completely irrelevant if you are interested in hearing electronica induced remixes of the tracks “Witch Hunt” and “Salamander” but i find them a little cliche and devoid of any true reason to exist therefore i highly recommend this beautiful extended version of “Contagion” for anyone who loves that album and wishes that it was longer.
Despite being a fairly newer release, this album has become a little difficult but not impossible to find. Initially it was released as a pre-order campaign with band members adding their autographs but was only released in limited numbers therefore not as easy to obtain as the much easier to find “Contagion.” Another worthwhile mention is that it seems that CONTAGION MAX is possibly a digitally remastered version of the original plus the extra tracks in the proper order. This album sounds EXCELLENT! The production is off the charts beautifully executed with every little sound shining like a crazy diamond and all aspects of the music perfectly mix together in superb splendor. It is unbelievable how well this album sounds and how wonderful it is to experience this one as it delivers on all accounts. Perhaps if this were released as intended it would have been considered a rival force to IQ’s “Subterranea” which is of the same calibre but could also stand up to any of the great symphonic prog releases of the past.
This track listing shows the entire track listing of CONTAGION MAX with the titles in bold being the seven tracks that appear on this expanded edition which were originally spit up randomly and placed on “Contagious” and “Contagium.” They are followed by brief descriptions
1 Witch Hunt (4:17) 2 An Angel Falls (1:14) 3 Painted Man (4:38)
4 VANISHING ACT (from “Contagious”) (4:11) was originally a leftover instrumental track from “The Visitor” album and had the title “Sacrifice” but was rearranged, rerecorded and renamed. It begins with a space rock Floydian echoey guitar and synth run and then becomes more hard rocking with a ample change of riffs drenched in camp mellotron. Very cool sequencer beat and guitar solos that brings aspects of “The Wall” to mind
5 This Way Madness Lies (3:32)
6 THE HOUR GLASS (from “Contagious”) (5:58) begins as a sensual ballad but adds some extra punchy guitars that display the vocal talents of Sowden and thick layers of synthesizers and a heavy bass led melodic development. It adds a continuity to the story as the narrative builds another layer of darkness to the mix
7 Bitter Harvest (2:50)
8 I SPY (from “Contagious”) (2:33) is primarily an acoustic guitar folk number also displaying Sowden’s vocal abilities. Other than acoustic guitar, only the bass is heard
9 Never Ending Night (3:11) 10 Spectre At the Feast (5.34) 11 Skin Game (4:44)
Disc Two: 1 Salamander (4:00) 2 On the Box (2:30) 3 Tsunami (2:30)
4 ON THE EDGE OF DESPAIR (from “Contagium”) (5:40) begins with the same bass line and melody of “This Way Madness Lies” from Disc 1 and sort of a revisiting of that point in the story but after almost a minute switches gear and becomes an acoustic guitar ballad once again highlighting Sowden’s vocals and lyrical supplementation. It continues to alternate between the beginning intro segments and then jumps back into acoustic guitar part again. Sounds really good together as the two parts contrast perfectly and add that flavor of life when some things seem familiar while totally new aspects are being introduced
5 City of Lanterns (1:23) 6 Riding the Tide (4:24)
7 CONTAGIOUS (from “Contagious”) (4:07) begins with sirens and incorporates different sounds that are from the “Contagion” album and creates a little overture of sorts to revisit certain moods of the album. It features a strong bass line with John Mitchell delivering some of the most sophisticated and daring solos on the album. There is also nice background synthesized(?) vocals that add a spooky ambience to the overall mood. Nice keyboard runs as well. This is kind of a revisitation point on the album that takes a few minutes to reflect on what’s already been happening. Very appropriate and nice to take a breather.
8 MARCH OF TIME (from “Contagium”) (7:29) continues the only two tracks that sit back to back not on the original “Contagion.” This sounds more like the majority of tracks as it begins with a heavy bass driven melody and screeching guitars in a Floydian style drenched by feedback and fuzz and then slows down a bit to usher in Sowden’s vocals. Generally speaking the vocal parts are more Floydian and the instrumental parts are harder rocking. It also has some acoustic parts that remind me of The Who especially on “Tommy” with that Pete Townsend type of strumming.
9 Mea Culpa (3:45) 10 Cutting the Cards (4:41)
11 CONFRONTATION (from “Contagium”) (5.05) begins with some sort of mixed media narration clips before ceding into a darkened bass line that is ominously overshadowed by more possibly synthesized background vocalists and that Who inspired acoustic guitar strumming pattern once again punctuated by a staccato heavy guitar chord. It all stops and enters church organ territory and then adds acoustic guitar again only before Mitchell channels his inner Pink Floyd guitar solo instincts and lets loose. This is another all instrumental track
12 Ascension (4:34)
Total Running Time Of CONTAGION MAX = 92 minutes and 40 seconds but i can’t say i get bored once through it’s entirety and much prefer this version as opposed to the truncated “Contagion” album of 2003. Something about the extra tracks connects all the dots for me on this one but that does not mean that the original CONTAGION album suffers from its brevity. On the contrary ARENA hit a home run with two stunning versions of this album that works with or without the seven tracks equally in my world.