After a three-year break from all things Arena, keyboard player Clive Nolan, drummer Mick Pointer, guitarist John Mitchell and co are back.
The Unquiet Sky marks not just their return but also the band’s 20th year of purveying neo-prog, pomp and heavy rock in their very own style. As befits this impressive anniversary, they’ve conjured up a full-blown concept album, based on the MR James horror story Casting The Runes and its 1950s British film adaption, Night Of The Demon.
The Unquiet Sky deals with a powerful curse contained within the runes on a parchment, one that visits a terrible end upon any who possess it. An orchestral introduction to The Demon Strikes – all Tales Of The Unexpected and Danse Macabre on steroids – segues into a big, bold, brassy and dramatic opener with thunderous drums and Mitchell soloing as if his life depended on it. It’s Arena in full majestic, yet ominous flight.
Their trademark tropes are evident throughout the album – hard-edged and atmospheric keyboard wrangling, the irresistibly memorable refrains (The Demon Strikes, How Did It Come To This?, Time Runs Out) and the rock solid rhythm section (featuring new boy Kylan Amos on bass).
On his second Arena release vocalist Paul Manzi has come into his own, and is one of the main reasons why this album holds together so successfully. He turns in some powerful and suitably characterful performances, managing to channel resigned trepidation on How Did It Come To This?, the self-importance and veiled menace of the titular The Bishop Of Lufford, and even doing a bit of a Scott Walker impression on the verses of Time Runs Out.
One of the strongest albums of a two-decade career.
Perhaps Arena have never been the most technically challenging of bands, opting for powerful compositions and storytelling over extreme musical complexity. But nevertheless there are plenty of muso moments here: the 6⁄4 of The Bishop Of Lufford, the keyboard solo sections of Time Runs Out and, of course, John Mitchell’s astounding ability on guitar. For long-time followers of the band, Clive Nolan has also teased that there are a number of musical ‘Easter Eggs’ to be found – leitmotifs that reference tunes and themes from previous albums – see if you can spot them all.
With The Unquiet Sky, Arena have produced what may well be one of the strongest albums of a two decade-long career,
a record that is immediately impressive, then just rewards continued listening. This consistently powerful and involving set is everything a committed fan might hope for, and is sure to entice new fans too.