Arena, Live In London

Arena return to the stage, after a three-year absence

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The faintest suggestion of nervousness emanates from the Arena camp tonight – it’s their first full show in about three years, marking the start of a 32-date 20th anniversary tour, and the singer has a throat infection and the guitarist has a broken finger.

As befits the subject matter of their latest release, The Unquiet Sky (see review page 92) a grainy black-and-white film trailer ushers in a backing track of the big orchestral intro to album opener The Demon Strikes, before the band explode into the song proper, creating a gutsy, heavyweight wall of sound punctuated by John Mitchell’s frenetic guitar. Over a generous two-hour set, aided by back-projected graphics and video, and an audience keen to sing along, the band celebrate a 20-year career, covering tracks from every album bar their debut.

Some “big hits” emerge. A Crack In The Ice and (Don’t Forget To) Breathe sound as glorious and anthemic as ever, as well as two further new tracks: the ominous yet strangely tender How Did It Come To This? and the new album title track. There are a couple of minor surprises. The tricksy start to Double Vision (not heard live since 2008) gets a sizeable cheer from the assembled aficionados in a packed Borderline, while the sprawling 19 minute-long Moviedrome (here “by public demand”) has been played live infrequently since, as Clive Nolan explains, it wasn’t originally written with live performance in mind, so the audience is encouraged to sing the solos just in case. Even if it does get slightly ragged towards the end, the band handles its twists, turns and solo sections with panache.

Nolan is ever the musical master of ceremonies and reminds the audience that he can still wig-out on Riding The Tide, while Mick Pointer and new bassman Kylan Amos give everything drive and weight. Broken finger or not, John Mitchell plays an absolute blinder, not least on The Unquiet Sky and guitar showcase Serenity, but mention should be made of Paul Manzi’s role as frontman. Any lingering doubts about Manzi replacing long-serving and much-liked Rob Sowden five years ago have hopefully been silenced, as he makes the older material his own and performs with real confidence and commitment – the audience quickly forgiving his fluffing the lyrics at the beginning of The Butterfly Man.

Ending the main set with a frantic version of The Tinderbox, the band return with a rousing cover of Queen’s The Show Must Go On and the almost obligatory Crying For Help VII, both dispatched with far greater aplomb by Manzi than might be expected after the night’s exertions. A stirring end to a celebratory evening.

Gary has contributed reviews and news features for Prog Magazine for over a decade now. A fan of prog and heavy rock since childhood, his main areas of interest are classic and symphonic prog, prog-metal and modern acts bringing in fresh influences to the genre. He has a professional background in youth and community work, he teaches drum kit in schools and is a working musician. Gary was the drummer in semi-legendary NWOBHM band Praying Mantis for a couple of years and has been a member of indie-prog-pop-art-rock combo The Mighty Handful for more than twenty years. He loves cats and skiing, and has a Blue Peter badge.