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Marsupilami: Arena *

Album Notes

Following up their debut, critically acclaimed, eponymous album in 1971, the new look Marsupilami, buttressed by the addition of saxophonist Mandy Riedelbanch, strode into the Arena. "I've come here today to rip the veil from your eyes, and pinch your heads, and pull out your bloody minds," Fred Hasson shouts in the opening "Prelude to the Arena." Be that as it may, Bob West's lyrics -- "crashing venomously through the crimson waters, rivers run free with ancient blood" -- best illustrate his style, yet sound overblown and overwrought today, reminiscent of the apocalyptic imagery so beloved of Christian fundamentalists. And although, Marsupilami certainly wouldn't have considered themselves a Christian rock band, Arena will undoubtedly resonate with that community. A concept album set in an ancient Coliseum and themed around Rome's post-Republic decadence and inherent violence, martyrs go up in flames, gladiators battle it out, and even a stray Greek minstrel is consigned to a brutal death. Russell Crowe drove the point home better on screen, Spartacus (the book) on paper, but it's musically where Marsupilami clean up the arena for good, across five extended pieces that give full rein to the band's eclectic and experimental sound. In "Prelude" they shift smartly from metal to pastoral, hard rock to jazz, never losing touch with the melody along the way. "Peace of Rome" opens with ringing bells and ethereal vocals, and boasts shouting crowds, fiery guitar solos, flute driven passages, and organ led sections. It's "The Arena" itself, however, that is the album's centerpiece, a 12-plus minute epic that begins with ominous organ and flows darkly along a mysterious Tiber that hints at the blues, Arabesque, and even tribal drumming, as keyboardist Leary Hasson and flutist Jessica Stanley Clarke trade off the melody line. And strong melodies were the band's forté, as were their equitable arrangements, which smoothly slid the melody lines and solos between keyboards, guitar, flute, and, on the jazz fusion "Time Shadows," saxophone. "Spring" even provides space for Fred Hasson's harmonica solo. This final piece moves between pastoral and cacophony before settling into a streaming, pastoral rocker that picks up speed and heft before closing with a crashing flourish like the fall of Rome itself. The curtain closed on Marsupilami soon after this set's release. With only two albums to their name, the band still left their imprimatur on the prog rock scene, their epic numbers, agile shifts of style, potent melodies, and engaging genre hybrids setting the bar for all who came after. ~ Jo-Ann Greene



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