Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Todd Rundgren - Arena (Cooking Vinyl)
UK release date: 29 September 2008

The question any reviewer must apply to a new Todd Rundgren album is
simple: is this Good Todd or Bad Todd? The Todd who created pop
masterpieces such as Nazz's Open My Eyes and the solo albums
Something/Anything? and Hermit Of Mink Hollow, or the Todd who has
dabbled in everything from overblown prog rock, bossa nova, show
tunes and rapping during his lengthy and erratic career.
Following on from the rather good Liars, a melodic pop album with
politically charged lyrics that sank like a stone in the UK, Rundgren
returns with his new magnum opus. The promise of a return to a
stadium rock sound rings alarm bells: surely, what the world needs
now is not another Utopia record?

Music fans can rest easy. What we have here is by no stretch of the
imagination a masterpiece, but a solid, guitar heavy rock album that
confirms Rundgren's creative fires are still burning as he celebrates
his 60th birthday. Thirteen short tracks banish any fears that Todd
is indulging any of his more eccentric musical fetishes - hell, even
the song titles are snappy one liners.

The album opens with a bang courtesy of the first single Mad. A
pretty guitar flourish leads into a driving rock song with Rundgren
screaming lines such as "This is more than upset/It's as enraged as I
get/And you ain't seen me mad yet/And now I'm mad". As a statement of
intent it does not get much better than this, and after the
restrained pop charms of Afraid the album kicks into overdrive with
Mercenary and Gun, which are as close to heavy metal as Rundgren will
probably ever get.

A change of pace is apparent on Courage and Weakness, with the sweet
harmonies and the acoustic/electric interplay evoking memories of the
pop wunderkind of the early 70s, even if the latter track is a dead
ringer for Black Maria from Something/Anything?

The second half of the album repeats this mix and match formula.
Rundgren does his best Bon Scott impression on the hard rocking
Strike, before scaling back for the obligatory novelty track Pissin,
although quite what we are make of the line "Now your dick is in the
mayonnaise" is anyone's guess. Today is one of the few tracks to
include a substantial keyboard part, while the album's longest cut
Bardo features rather dated progressive flourishes before launching
into a terrific burst of feedback at the close.

Saving the best to last, the final three tracks drive the album home
in some style. Mountaintop is tailor made for live performance with
its massed guitars and super catchy "higher higher" refrain in the
chorus. Panic is classic Rundgren with its whip smart time changes
and vocal hooks, and the closing Manup is a shiny stadium rocker that
manages to squeeze in a big guitar solo but does not outstay its

Although there are some who may wish Arena was recorded with a band
rather than Rundgren's ususal Protools set-up, which occasionally
restrains the more powerful rock tracks, the songwriting continues
the rich vein of form that was evident on Liars. For those wishing to
hear the album performed by a full rock band, Rundgren is coming to
these shores later in the year.

- Nic Oliver

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