ARENA – The Unquiet Sky (2015)
* the REAL one
Founded in 1995 by Clive Nolan (Pendragon) and Mick Pointer (the original drummer with Marillion), ARENA have purveyed their brand of progressive rock for 20 years, mixing hard rock with a more symphonic sound.
To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, Arena will be releasing a new studio album “The Unquiet Sky” on April 27 and undertaking a tour.
Clive Nolan and his Neo-hard rocking companions return for the eighth Arena album in twenty years taking inspiration from (without being a direct interpretation of) M.R James’ short story ‘Casting the Runes’. It’s easy to see why the ghostly tale of supernatural intrigue and occult mystery from 1911 would appeal to Mr Nolan, and the album reveals plenty of the sleek and hard sympho rock with poetic lyrics that the British band is known for.
The previous disc was a divisive and somewhat controversial release for a new line-up of the group that now included vocalist Paul Manzi, a transitional album that saw them adopting a more streamlined hard rock / metal sound.
But long-time fans of the group will be pleased to know that, while there are still similarities to that previous album here and there, the much-loved atmospheres the band was known for are given more focus again, meaning a better balance of these two qualities together to create a truly sublime Arena work.
Some of the twelve tracks on offer still retain a melodic hard rock flavour, but everything an Arena fan could hope to discover is all present and accounted for here.
After a more low-key performance on the previous album, virtuoso keyboardist/composer Clive Nolan is center stage again over the entire disc. Not only are his exquisite synths constant and upfront, but the artist has also implemented plenty of textures into the group this time around.
Vocalist Manzi made a reliable debut as singer for the group years ago, but on “The Unquiet Sky” he lifts his game considerably and offers endless more vocal variety. Better worked into the group, he is equally at home with heartfelt ballads, prog flair and chest-beating rockers, and he has really become a perfect frontman for the band.
Kylan Amos from Nolan’s own Alchemy production replaces bass player and IQ member John Jowitt and makes an impressive debut here, ex-Marillion drummer perfectly drives the music forwards and It Bites/Kino/Lonely Robot guitarist John Mitchell delivers his usual tasteful and commanding guitar flash.
Of several of the highlights, listen out for the gleefully wicked and wondrous orchestral pomp that opens the album, the infernal and overwhelming church organ intimidation of “The Demon Strikes” and especially the shimmering dark chimes and sleek electronics of the rocking “No Chance Encounter”, where Kylan’s bass really glides.
“The Bishop of Lufford” perfectly mixes ghostly mystery with soaring symphonic prog and muscular hard rock (and wait for that hair-tearing heavy finale).
“Oblivious to the Night” is a fragile little piano interlude with whimsical synths and a thoughtful vocal, while “Markings on a Parchment” is an eerie dream-like introspective instrumental, and Mitchell’s extended guitar solo in the classy title track is terrific.
Special mention has to go to glorious power ballad entitled “How Did It Come To This?”. It’s a superb emotional tune with a sombre piano melody, delicate orchestration and dreamy lyrics, carried by a perfectly controlled yet soaring vocal from Manzi. A restrained unfolding guitar solo from Mitchell in the middle ensures it may be one of the truly most heartfelt pieces ever to appear on an Arena album to date.
You have cascading classical piano spirals with snarling brooding guitars in “What Happened Before” and Clive delivers an overload of delirious synth soloing goodness on both “Time is Running Out” and “Returning the Curse” in the best Nolan tradition that his fans always love to hear.
“Unexpected Dawn” is a strong ballad with warm Hammond organ and soothing acoustic guitar, short and wonderful.
Speaking about the songs length, most are around the 4 minute mark, a true ‘song format’ and really accesible.
Only closer “Traveller Beware” reach the eight minutes, and glad it did it! It’s an ambitious, melodic and rocking piece which finds time for plenty of epic tension, punchy plodding heavy riffs, creeping piano and a stirring repeated chorus with a dark lyric. It’s an extended Melodic Hard Rock pleasure.
“The Unquiet Sky” is one of the most lavish, sophisticated and varied Arena albums to date, and certainly one of their most endlessly melodic.
It’s a fine return to form for the Neo Prog institution, but I’d say this album is the perfect combination of Progressive with Melodic Hard Rock. Think TEN, Magnum, Gary Hughes… full of melody and punch.
“The Unquiet Sky” really shows what this latest Arena line-up is capable of, so hopefully even more impressive music is to come from the mighty Arena.
01 – The Demon Strikes
02 – How Did It Come To This?
03 – The Bishop of Lufford
04 – Oblivious to the Night
05 – No Change Encounter
06 – Markings on a Parchment
07 – The Unquiet Sky
08 – What happened before
09 – Time Runs Out
10 – Returning the Curse
11 – Unexpected Dawn
12 – Traveller Beware
Paul Manzi – vocals
John Mitchell – guitars
Clive Nolan – keyboards
Kylan Amos – bass
Mick Pointer – drums