One of the leaders of the contemporary progressive rock scene, Arena, is back with a powerful new album of ballsy and melodic rock, loaded with catchy anthems, symphonic keyboards, and muscular guitar pyrotechnics. A follow-up to the highly regarded Immortal, the new CD Contagion follows a similar path to that album musically, as the band has seemingly gone in heavier directions and rely less on 70's prog rock trappings than they had earlier in their career.
The opening cut "Witch Hunt" grabs you right away, with the chunky guitars of John Mitchell and the powerful, husky vocals of Rob Sowden leading the charge. This is Sowden's second recording with the band, and the singer is brimming with confidence throughout the album. On the emotional "Painted Man", the vocalist pulls in an MVP performance, as his powerful and pained performance is matched only by the fluid, David Gilmour influenced fret work from Mitchell. The guitarist and keyboard wiz Clive Nolan lay down some complex, sonic blasts on the melodic instrumentals "This Way Madness Lies" and "On the Box", two tracks that are excellent but really serve as seques to the vocal pieces. "Spectre at the Feast" and "Never Ending Night" are reminiscent of songs from their CD The Visitor, featuring emotional, haunting melodies, chilling keyboard washes, and the tortured guitar lines of John Mitchell. The band even approaches prog metal bliss on songs like "Skin Game", "Salamander", and the surging "Tsunami." Nolan is fairly restrained as far as solos go on this CD, and goes for a more varied and textural sound, but on the tune "Riding the Tide" he lets loose with a vengeance, blasting out wild synth solos with reckless abandon.
Contagion is another in a long list of strong albums from Arena. Although Nolan and drummer Mick Pointer founded this band, the rising stars are definitely Mitchell and Sowden now. Their contributions propel this band to the head of the class in the modern day prog wars. While this CD may not have all the Mellotrons and long epic tracks that were evident on the group's earlier albums, they are following a winning pattern that just spells out exciting, dramatic, and well played progressive rock, with a lots of "gusto"!!