“This itches too much. I’m shaving it off.”
Three figures are slowly making their way up the inclined entrance to Virginia Water station. Three men, perhaps of a certain age, long of (slightly thinning) hair, and heavily bearded. The incline might not be the steepest in the world, but our three heroes move somewhat laboriously all the same. To the uninitiated it might look like the Fellowship, winding their slow way across Caradhras in the Misty Mountains, a scene from The Lord Of The Rings transposed onto the leafiest of Surrey’s green enclaves. For the locals, one assumes, it’s something of a shock.
Mick Pointer, for it is he, grumpily continues scratching at his beard, while Clive Nolan, for it is also he, gently goads him.
“I think it looks rather good,” he chuckles mischievously.
“It hides how much weight I’ve lost,” admits Pointer.
“Ah, but a beard hides a multitude of sins,” says Nolan.
“And chins,” grumbles Pointer, like a curmudgeonly Gimli.
Prog, for it is also us, has travelled down to this delightful corner of Surrey for the first time in 20 years. And for this, there’s good reason. Two decades ago, this writer ventured down here to meet, for the first time, Arena, the progressive rock band formed by former Marillion drummer Pointer and (still) Pendragon keyboard player Nolan. Classic Rock magazine had just come out, and Arena, with their third album, the conceptual The Visitor, were taking a few more steps up the ladder, as it were. They’d just been joined by a young guitarist called John Mitchell and were touring their new opus, and Prog was to travel with them to Holland for their gig at the Boerderij in Zoetermeer.
Chatting with Nolan on the 2018 HMS Prog mini-cruise, he put forward the idea that it might be a laugh for us to reconvene for another chat, given the impending release of a new Arena album, Double Vision, the band’s ninth. Although our paths cross regularly, Prog hasn’t ventured down to Virginia Water, the base of Clive Nolan’s operations and home to his Thin Ice Studios, since 1998. Mick Pointer has travelled all the way up from his home in the West Country. Sadly, after one or two false starts, where we’d have convened at John Mitchell’s own Outhouse Studio in Berkshire, the guitarist is not present, having had to journey to France. But this ably highlights the kind of logistical headaches that can plague a band like Arena.
Ten minutes later and Mick Pointer is no longer grumbling about his beard but studiously going over the menu of the Viceroy Of India curry restaurant – a favourite, so Nolan informs me, of one-time Virginia Water resident, the late Sir Bruce Forsyth. With the entire restaurant to ourselves on this midweek lunchtime. there’s nothing else to be done but sit back, enjoy some fine spicy repast and discuss all things Arena.
When, Prog asks, we went out to Holland 20 years ago, did either Nolan or Pointer really envisage being seated here together discussing the band’s ensuing progress all this time later? There was no Prog magazine back then, although Classic Rock did fly the flag for the genre to a point. But all this time later, here we all are again…
“I don’t think you tend to think of things like that unless it’s in hindsight,” muses Nolan. “I don’t think any of us had any idea where things might take us back in 1998. Obviously you hope things will work out for the best. And in some ways, the core of the band has remained the same ever since. But back then, if you were going to try to do the kind of thing Arena were doing, it was still largely considered commercial suicide, which is why we were so pleased when a magazine like Classic Rock came along. And then 10 years later we got Prog, which is even better.”
Alongside the core of Nolan, Pointer and Mitchell, back then they were joined by singer Paul Wrightson and bassist John Jowitt. The band had formed three years previously and made something of a splash in the prog pond with 1995’s debut album Songs From The Lion’s Cage, recorded with vocalist John Carson. He’d been replaced by Wrightson for 1996’s Pride, which continued the band’s momentum, both albums picking up fans of Marillion and Pendragon along the way.
But Arena hankered for even bigger and better things, and 1998’s conceptual The Visitor was supposed to be the album that set them on their way. Rush cover designer Hugh Syme was drafted in to create the distinctive sleeve, and the ambitious concept was fashioned into the band’s live show. What Arena weren’t expecting was that the band would all but implode as the tour progressed, both Jowitt and Wrightson departing the fold.
“Yes, things got pretty hairy for a while on that tour,” Nolan recalls. “Certainly not how we’d envisaged things turning out. But there was a lot of friction, arguments. I remember when we got back we had to sit down and lay down a few ultimatums. And the upshot of that was that Paul and John left the band. It was frustrating because we’d spent a lot of money on the band and we were starting to see some kind of return. We sold a lot of those early albums.”
Undaunted, Arena drafted in singer Rob Sowden and bassist Ian Salmon and released three more albums: Immortal? in 2000, Contagion in 2003 and Pepper’s Ghost in 2005. They were all fine records, but none could really stem the worrying feeling that their chance had come and gone, especially with the core trio all engaged in other projects. Nolan not only has Pendragon but also an increasingly successful career in musical theatre. Mitchell toured with his Kino project, joined Jem Godfrey in Frost* and later fronted It Bites. Meanwhile, as well as running Arena’s hub of operations, Verglas Music, Pointer had his own touring tribute to his old band Marillion. “You won’t believe some of the shit I’ve had for doing that,” he sighs, raising his eyes skywards. “But we’ve all had a right laugh playing old songs I helped write.”
“I don’t know if we ever sat there and actually thought it might be done,” he ponders when asked if he wondered whether Arena had finally run aground when Sowden announced he wasn’t really into continuing with the band. “Did we, Mick? No, I’m certain we didn’t. But everyone had a lot of stuff going on outside of Arena. I think there was just the feeling that we’d come back to it at some point.”
Come back they did, but not before a six-year hiatus between albums seemed to signify they might never be back at all. But when they did return, it was with current singer Paul Manzi, formerly of the Oliver Wakeman Band. John Jowitt returned on bass for a few years before the current line-up fell into place with bassist Kylan Amos joining in 2014.
The first fruits of the Manzi-fronted Arena was 2011’s The Seventh Degree Of Separation, a concept album about a man’s final hour alive. It’s a splendid collection of tunes, including the Prog Award-nominated One Last Au Revoir. To our ears, it’s one of the finest albums the band have ever recorded, but the reaction of a prog fanbase who sometimes seem only too happy to find fault was to quibble about the lack of long songs on offer.
Prog suggests that the quality of the actual songwriting should be the yardstick here, not the length of the songs. It causes Mick Pointer to jab the air with his finger to reinforce his point.
“I’m glad you said that,” he says. “I always thought it was a great set of songs, but then you get some people moaning that there are no epics. You feel like you can’t win sometimes.”
Of course, Pointer’s own former colleague Mark Kelly once opined that Marillion “could record a 14-minute fart and some of our fans would like it simply because it was 14 minutes”. Such are the quirks and foibles of an often stubborn fanbase frequently resistant to change. Not that The Seventh Degree Of Separation sticks out like some sore thumb in Arena’s body of work – it just featured some shorter songs…
Perhaps equally stubbornly, 2015’s The Unquiet Sky was notable for the absence of any whoppingly lengthy songs. But with new album Double Vision, a compromise of sorts seems to have been reached.
By now we’ve moved on to Nolan’s Thin Ice Studios, just down the road. We’re sat supping beer and discussing the new album, which Prog is about to hear for the first time. It features six shorter songs, among them the robust rockers Zhivago Wolf, The Mirror Lies and Scars, plus the poignant, acoustic Poisoned, which was penned by Nolan for the late Ian Baldwin, his collaborator in many of his musical theatre endeavours.
But perhaps the one track that will be whetting the appetite of Prog readers more than any other is album closer The Legend Of Elijah Shade. At over 22 minutes, it’s by far and away the longest piece of music Arena have ever turned their hands to. It sounds amazing, and as we scour the lyrics Nolan has handed over, the dark and mysterious story unfurls around us. Full of intrigue, it’s also laden with references to past works. When faced with the clamour for longer songs, it’s almost as if Arena have responded with everything, kitchen sink and more.
“We didn’t do it because we knew some fans were moaning about us not having recorded anything that tended toward the epic for a while,” Nolan notes. “It was because we hadn’t done anything like that, so we thought, ‘Why not give it another go?’
“I suppose Moviedrome from Immortal? was the last really epic tune I’d written for Arena, and that was back in 2000, so I did wonder whether I could still do it.
“But as with most long prog epics, it’s not just one piece of music. [Genesis’ 1972 track] Supper’s Ready is essentially several pieces threaded together in the studio – that’s how all the classic 70s bands created those massively long bits of work. So once I had the basic story, that’s how I approached …Elijah Shade. And it was good, once we really got going, to do that kind of thing again.”
And the references to past works?
“Aha,” he says, beaming with pride. “Well, for one, if you take the first letter of each section of …Elijah Shade, it spells out the word ‘Visitor’. Other than that, well, let’s leave it for the fans themselves to discover.”
By the time you read this, Arena’s live shows will already have happened. Within days of our meeting, the band were in deepest Devon, rehearsing for the tour that will take them through four UK dates, the bulk of Europe and a quick jaunt over to Canada.
Because of the ubiquitous nature of the musicians in the band (Manzi fronts the increasingly popular Cats In Space, as well as the other members’ aforementioned endeavours), there’s always a danger that Arena’s own progress could get stymied by the other projects. But in reality, a return of nine studio albums over the band’s 23 years in existence, plus five live albums, three EPs and four live DVDs, is pretty good going in this day and age.
“There’s a really good feeling in the band right now,” Pointer says. “We know we’ve made a great album and we’re just itching to get out there and reconnect with everyone.”
“If I’m honest,” adds Nolan, “Arena’s probably the strongest now, as a band, since the first couple of records. This line-up’s been solid for four years, we know we’ve made a good album and we know we can still do it. Bring it on…”
This article was originally published in Prog 88.