Tuesday, September 9, 2008

REVIEW : ARENA Written by Stuart A Hamilton


Music Review: Todd Rundgren - Arena
Written by Stuart A Hamilton
Published September 09, 2008

One of my simple rules of life is this; anyone who doesn't think that seventies Todd Rundgren is a musical genius cannot be trusted on any music related matter. Ever. Now, I'm not going to deny that Mr Rundgren has made life difficult for me from time to time. The late eighties and nineties, in particular, were fairly indefensible, but Liars was a return to form, despite selling about three copies, and when I heard that Arena was going to be a guitar heavy rock album, the anticipation levels went through the roof.

Now I'm sitting here with an advance copy of the nineteenth studio Todd album and it's pretty much everything I could have hoped for. Todd himself said Arena "is a definite return to riff-oriented guitar rock. It's supposed to make you reflexively pump your fist and wave a lighter in the air." Well, not quite, but it is a fabulous return to form and the music that made me swoon for him in the first place. Don't come here if you're looking for his experiments in a cappella, bossa nova, and rapping. This has much more in common with some of his heavier Utopia moments, minus the gibberish, and all the better for it.

The songs are all short, sharp and to the point, with even the titles restricting themselves to a single word. And for a man who has just turned sixty, he performs them with a fire in his belly. At times he even veers surprisingly close to metal as he rocks out hard, with "Gun", in particular, a pounding riff happy tune that should sound even better with a real band on his live dates. However, this is Todd Rundgren, so the album still manages to be a concept album, albeit a loose one about the nature of conflict.

The opener "Mad", is also the single, and it's a straight down the middle rock tune that doesn't really prepare you for what's to come, although it does have a splendid guitar solo. "Afraid" is a much more restrained number which would have slotted easily onto Liars, but then "Mercenary" arrives and blows you away with it's vicious guitar and anti-war ranting. An absolute belter of a song. And is that a tribute to Boston (the band) in the middle? You won't be surprised to learn that "Gun" is about gun control, but it's another heavy rocking cracker. "Courage" takes us back to classic seventies Todd and is a nice change of pace. Coming up to the half way point and "Weakness" seems to be his take on the blues, with a slow, menacing groove.

Over on Side 2 (if only), and Todd has decided to beat AC/DC at their own game on "Strike". Yes, really, the most unlikely sentence I've written this year, straight of Flick Of The Switch, with repetitive beats and cries of "are you ready to rumble". Utterly mad and utterly splendid. Then the chorus arrives and he actually does a Brian 'Beano' Johnson impersonation. I had to hit replay just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. The obligatory comedy number arrives on "Pissin", and I do not want to know why someones "dick is in the mayonnaise". The first skippable number. Things flag slightly on "Today" and "Bardo", the keyboard heavy former sounds like a Liars outake, the latter is a good, mellow, spaced out number that just seems out of context here.

But Mr Rundgren still has a few tricks up his sleeve as we near the end, with the boogiefied "Mountaintop" finally attaining the punching the air effect, "Panic" playing homage to some of his own earlier work, and a number that long term fans will find themselves returning to and the closing "Manup", an out and out stadium rocker, replete with another classic guitar solo.

It's not the greatest album he's ever made, but it's certainly up there with some of his best. I'm old school, so would have preferred real percussion and bass, rather than Rundgren's preferred protools method, but it's a small quibble on what is one of my favourite albums of the year. I'm not sure about the UK release but there is an American version planned which will come with a DVD and CD of Rundgren's live performance of the album from a US show in July. Something I will definitely be queuing up for, especially if the UK tour lives up to its promise.

Mr H is a compulsive reviewer who has foisted his opinions across the internet, as well as in UK publications like Record Collector and Blues Matters, where he is a contributing writer. If you really want to know more go to stuarthamilton.co.uk But don't say you weren't warned

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