It’s been two decades since Arena appeared with a relative whisper into a musical environment where progressive rock was snootily dismissed by all but those who had the tenacity, in a pre-internet world, to seek it out.
Yet their Songs From The Lion’s Cage debut made enough of an impact for the band to continue, and now, 20 years on, they’re set to release their eighth album, The Unquiet Sky.
Arena have been far from prolific over recent years – this is only their third album in a decade – and given the upcoming anniversary and celebratory tour, do they feel that there’s a certain amount of pressure on them to record something special?
“You know, now you say it, there probably is!” laughs keyboard player and founding member Clive Nolan. “But there has always been pressure on us every time we make an album. The only one where we didn’t have that was the first one because we didn’t really know what to expect from it all and we just got on and did it. It was fun and then all of a sudden we had to follow it up. I don’t think that this one is any different. It’s another album and hopefully another step forward.”
The band members are all involved with other projects away from Arena, and also have a measured approach to writing and recording, so it’s unsurprising that this latest album has had a protracted period of creation. The band first convened a year ago to sketch out a vague timescale, and although sessions during last year were fruitful, it wasn’t until Christmas that the songs were finalised.
“It was actually last January when we had the inevitable meeting down the pub with myself, Clive and [guitarist] John Mitchell,” recalls drummer Mick Pointer. “We knew it was our 20th anniversary but as per usual, everyone was busy doing other things. Since January of last year, Clive and I got together at various times during the year, kept throwing material at it and hoped that some of it would stick.
“It was only towards the end of the year that we started to filter through everything. You know, ‘We can’t use that, it’s not good enough,’ or, ‘That can go somewhere else.’ We really did our utmost to pick the cream of everything we’ve got. Generally we come up with around 60 or 70 ideas for songs and then we really filter it down.”
“It’s been a strange album really, as although we had collected material together during last year, I think by Christmas we didn’t really have an album as such,” adds Nolan candidly. “It was very vague and then there was a sudden burst of activity after Christmas. Mick was due in the studio on the eighth of January to record the drums. Somehow the album was taking shape by then and it has come together very well.”
There are many bands who find the idea of writing an album a daunting one, a laborious duty that has to be concluded before the more alluring appeal of recording and live performances. That’s especially true of artists several albums into their career, with the ever-present trap of repeating themselves or battling writer’s block adding to the burden. Is that strain something Arena are familiar with?
“Well, every time we get together to start writing, we always spend the first couple of weeks with rather limp-wristed material that we generally then throw away,” confesses Nolan. “It takes time to get back into it. The first thing that happens is that I’ll think it sounds exactly like something else we’ve already done. You go through that whole miserable period when you think you’ve already written it before. Then you get to a point when you give up caring about that and things start to move forward. You have to decide not to worry too much about it as otherwise you just get stuck.
“For me, personally, I like writing the most because at that point you’re not compromising. The moment you start recording it, it then becomes a process of compromise. We try to do what we do best and try to write honest albums. I do tend to write alone but I don’t write anything that won’t go through the filter, which means Mick has got to like it as well, and vice versa. We’ve been doing it so long now that I can almost guess which ones are going to be used in Arena and which ones aren’t.”
Their last album, 2011’s The Seventh Degree Of Separation, was the first to feature new vocalist Paul Manzi, who replaced Rob Sowden a year earlier, and the direction upset a substantial proportion of their fanbase. Despite still being musically robust and possessing all the attributes of an Arena album, the short songs were seen by some as an unwelcome move away from their usual expansive approach and core sound.
“I know some people thought that but I didn’t,” argues Nolan. “I think the songs are some of our strongest material and, bizarrely enough, that album had some of our best reviews. But that wasn’t reflected so much in the feelings of the fans. I don’t know. I don’t pay too much attention to it and just get on with it.
“We always hope that people like it but we don’t all sit around a committee table at the beginning just to try to please the punters. I don’t think we’d ever get anything written if we did. But there are elements of the last album that perhaps were a direction not all fans wanted, mainly because they thought the songs were too short.”
“A lot of that was because we had a new vocalist and we played to his strengths, given the type of voice he’s got,” interjects Pointer. “I personally think he has an amazing voice and that he’s the best vocalist Arena has ever had. But not everyone is going to take to everything you do and it’s never going to be possible to please everyone.”
Perhaps keen to return to a more traditional approach, the band have opted to make the album a continuous piece of music, more in keeping with their earlier albums. It’s another concept album, this time loosely based on the 1957 Jacques Tourneur horror movie Night Of The Demon, and there are musical reminiscences to previous releases, too.
“What’s interesting about this album is that we wanted to not only progress, but also have a little bit of retrospection in there as well,” says Nolan. “So there are some subtle references to the whole history of Arena. There are little bits and pieces that will remind you of certain other album tracks. I’m pleased we’ve managed to balance that, which was quite fun. It’s very Arena and perhaps more Arena than people found the last album in a way. So that’s a good sign. It flows very well and is an album that has taken me by surprise in a way.”
Keen to try new things, they have asked Simon Hanhart to produce the album, and although he has been involved in previous recordings, this is the first time he’s also recorded the sessions. It’s a new approach that Pointer was particularly keen to adopt.
“It’s just good to approach things slightly differently,” he says. “Obviously everyone has their ideas and fortunately nobody has a sufficiently huge ego to say, ‘No, no, you’re not changing that.’ Everyone is happy to listen and take on board what someone like Simon would say. That does make a huge difference and once he’s got all the material, he can then go into a room on his own, rather than have us standing over him. He’s experienced enough and knows what he’s doing. Of course, we’ve never done it this way around before so who knows what’s going to come out of it, but it sounds pretty bloody good to me so far.”
With the band’s upcoming tour being a celebration of their last two decades, it would seem an opportune time to perhaps stage a special commemoration gig involving former members. Yet with the band having attempted something similar for their 10th anniversary, Pointer seems reticent to repeat the concept.
“That on paper sounds like a great idea but when we did that, I think the crowd loved it more than I did,” he explains. “We got back [former singer] Paul Wrightson and as fun as it was, it seemed to break the night down, rather than enhance it. I noticed that having the vocalist walk off and then another singer walk on seemed to undermine the performance. It felt like we’d then have to build the energy back up again.
“So no, this time around we don’t have any plans to do that. Although if somebody said it was a fantastic idea and it would sell more tickets, then we might look at it!”
The Unquiet Sky is available from March 19 on Verglas to coincide with the first date of Arena’s UK tour. For more information, see http://www.arenaband.co.uk.