Having been present at the opening night of Arena’s 20th Anniversary Tour at The Borderline in London, it is an extremely pleasant and interesting reminder to see them captured on film 16 gigs later as they take to the stage in Katowice, Poland supporting their 8th studio album The Unquiet Sky.
What I didn’t pick up on the night but is immediately noticeable as you watch this DVD, is just how fresh and inventively versatile Arena are. Across the course of a 2 hour set, the excellent and thoughtful selection of songs creates an impressive showcase for the sheer diversity of engagingly rich and innovative material they have created across 20 years. It serves as a timely reminder (if any were needed) that they are, without doubt, one of the most consistently progressive and creatively adventurous of the British based bands recording and touring today.
The DVD gives a refreshingly honest and at times quite raw account of the live experience from the point of view of the (seemingly constrictive) stage and the combination of some curious camera angles along with some rough and ready editing actually contributes further to the feeling of a great stage atmosphere. Even though you sometimes feel as if you are watching a ‘found footage’ film this generally works in its favour by contributing to the atmosphere and energy of the performance.
What is never in doubt, however, is the exceptional quality and standard of the musicianship on display. At the time of filming the band are a supremely tight unit, working well with and off each other, which in turn allows them to be individually expressive because of that. Kylan Amos is an inspired addition to the line-up; mesmerising and intricate bass work is matched by a presence on stage which is an unceasing blur of movement, energy and enthusiasm. Paul Manzi is an exceptional talent, suitably theatrical in tune with the lyrics, totally engaged with the music and a commanding voice which beautifully compliments, in tone and timbre, the rest of the instruments.
The bare-footed John Mitchell can make sounds from a guitar which transport you to other worlds. His importance to the band is inestimable and it is interesting to watch the chemistry and interplay with Clive Nolan throughout the set. Indeed, what I find so uplifting from start to finish is to see Clive given space to spread his wings and demonstrate an effortless virtuosity which weaves the signature Arena sound and textures the soundscape within which the others work. Mick Pointer is on fine form, the ever present heartbeat of the band driving and watchfully controlling the momentum of the music.
In light of all this, what is a little disappointing are some of the quality issues surrounding the recording. Both the Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 options do a fine job of capturing the raw energy and vibrancy of the performance. However, the picture quality does not always do the band full justice and at times becomes distracting to the point of undermining an out-and-out enjoyment of the performance. The filming seems to have struggled with the combination of low lighting in tandem with points in the set where there is a heavy saturation of reds, purples and blues and the resulting effect is a distinctly grainy texture and/or under-exposed or over-exposed contrast to some parts of the picture. Some of the camera shots are surprising, even distracting, while the lighting conditions again mean the cameras seem to struggle to maintain a crisp focus.
The DVD also contains a small number of extras. There are two interviews, one with Mick Pointer and one with Clive Nolan, along with a Photo Gallery, Discography and a set of Desktop Images. The interview with Mick Pointer is pleasant enough but ultimately quite frustrating. Apart from being too short, some fairly bland questioning does not give him the opportunity to open up and shed any meaningful insights on the band, its origins and how they work together. A couple of times he’s left shrugging his shoulders and referring the questioner to Clive. As the co-founder of such an enduring and important band (in terms of UK prog), I believe he deserved better in terms of a set of questions geared toward his own role in and contribution to the band.
The interview with Clive Nolan is longer and more focused, with some revealing thoughts about the influence of Victorian life and literature on the setting of Arena’s music, some reflections on the song writing process itself along with some musings on possible future directions. I’m not sure if Goth Prog is a genre, but Clive certainly does a darned good job of giving it life and voice! You are left with the overwhelming impression that here is a man who both knows and thoroughly enjoys what he is doing.
Despite some of the issues, XX is a worthy addition to the Arena canon. It stands as a remarkably faithful and authentic record of a hard working band who have been creating intelligent, inventive and creative progressive music for over twenty years, whilst the set itself delivers a performance which is typically vibrant, passionate and alive. Though it may be a little rough and ready around the edges, it is thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.
This review first appeared for The Progressive Aspect
1. The Demon Strikes
3. Double Vision
4. Crack in the Ice
6. How Did it Come to This?
7. Butterfly Man
8. Bedlam Fayre
10. The Unquiet Sky
11. Traveller Beware
12. The City of Lanterns
13. Riding the Tide
14. Hanging Tree
15. The Tinder Box
17. Don’t Forget to Breathe
18. Crying for Help 7
Interview with Mick Pointer
Interview with Clive Nolan
Kylan Amos – Bass
Paul Manzi – Vocals
John Mitchell – Guitars
Clive Nolan – Keyboards
Mick Pointer – Drums
Label: Metal Mind Productions
Format: DVD-9 NTSC. Aspect Ratio 16:9. Region Code: 0 Sound: DD 5.1, DD 2.0
Running Time: 140m
12th February 2016
Band Website: www.arenaband.co.uk