I've never been an Arena enthusiast. In fact, I'm not specially interested on them, but I don't feel the aversion I developed some time ago. The first work from Clive Nolan's band that I really liked was “Immortal?” Unlike most of the fans, “The Visitor” left me quite indifferent, so I consider “Contagion” to be their most accomplished conceptual work to date.
The truth is that I went to the Arena show with some reservations, but there were some appealing points. For example, John Mitchell, whom I consider to be an excellent guitarist. The audiovisual part also interested me, with diverse videos and images related to the lyrics alternating with the music.
After seeing the british quintet in action, I arrive to some conclusions. They're not virtuosos, specialy Mick Pointer, a certainly mediocre drummer, or Clive Nolan, very cold and synthetic on keyboards. Besides, they're a band without personality, which members almost seem anonymous (I'm sure most of the crowd didn't recognise or know who was Ian Salmon) mercenaries without enthusiasm. Maybe there are some humorous details (Salmon playing with a towel covering his face), basically at Rob Sowden's, the melodramatic vocalist, expense. Sowden has his own show, withdrawn from the rest of musicians. The fact is that Rob has his talents, with a superb voice and good scenic presence (a lot of corporal expression and continuously changing clothes), but sometimes his excessively theatrical style collides with his' mates' discretion.
Another of Arena's remarkable points is their ability to make virtues out from their faults. We mentioned their discretion as musicians, to what we have to add a simply average compositional work; in spite of this, they get a compact, majestic, "widescreen" sound. Live, you have to add the effectiveness of the video projections, distributed in three screens, which offered excellent and imaginative pictures related to the concept from “Contagion”, which I guess are David Wyatt's designs, and a good resource to enhance the music and catch the listener's attention.
About the setlist, not very surprising. The first half of the concert related to their last work, which from they offered a slightly abridged (almost complete except the “On the Box” / “Tsunami” / “Bitter Harvest” section and “Mea Culpa”) performance, sounding powerful and faithful to the studio version; specially remarkable were the performances of “Witch Hunt”, “Spectre at the Feast” and “Cutting the Cards”. After the short and beautiful floydian instrumental, played as an interlude, Arena offers a compendium of their pre-Contagion work, giving a balanced resume of their repertoire. Good versions of “Chosen” or the dark “The Butterfly Man”, a generous dose of The Visitor (“Double Vision”, the vampirical “Don't Forget to Breathe”, “Enemy Without” or the beautifully dramatical “The Hanging Tree”), and some classics as the festive “Crying for Help VII” or “Jericho”. In spite of this complete setlist, performed in about two hours, I missed some key songs like “A Crack in the Ice”, the “Moviedrome” suite or jewels such as “Medusa” (the most requested of the night along with “Sirens” and “Solomon”).
At all events, a pleasant evening, improved with the presence of Nick Barrett and Peter Gee as the opening act, performing Pendragon in an acoustic format. Very pleasing to experience songs as “Paintbox”, “And We'll Go Hunting Deer” or “A Man Of Nomadic Traits” in such an intimate shape. Besides, their behavior was simply exquisite (mainly Barrett's, very friendly and receptive; Gee promised a full band tour for 2004) with the 300 people we were there.
After the concert, autographs and photos without any trace of selfishness, showing respect and attention to the followers. Last detail: the merchandising; very interesting, and the cheapest that I've ever seen. They really care for the fans.