Hailing from England, jazz-rock outfit Marsupilami released two albums in the early 1970s before calling it a day. Arena, their second and final album, is an exploration of the violence and brutality of ancient Roman culture (the album cover certainly offers a hint of said violence), with an especial focus on the bloody era of the gladiators and the persecution of the early Christians. Here are my thoughts on this obscure gem:
“I’ve come here today to rip the veil from your eyes, unhinge your heads, and pull out your BLOODY MINDS!” So begins the “Prelude to the Arena” – fitting considering the topic being explored. If Fred Hasson’s screaming vocals aren’t enough to wake you up, then perhaps the superb musicianship will. After the violent opening, the “Prelude” eventually settles down, featuring lovely interplay between sax, flute, and electric piano courtesy of Leary Hasson.
The black theme continues in the ironically-titled “Peace of Rome,” which opens with the chilling sound of wailing voices. Soon, however, the flute, bass, organ, and percussion pick up the tempo, but it is guitarist Dave Laverock’s searing performance on his instrument that makes this song particularly strong.
If Fred Hasson’s introductory lyrics didn’t make you pause, perhaps part of the opening lyrics to the title track will: “A Christian is a human torch exploding with a scream.” That line is then punctuated by the sound of a, well, screaming flute – again, fitting, but it certainly sends a chill down the spine. Overall, however, “Arena” is a flawed attempt at an epic: it loses much of its luster after an introduction that could have (and should have) been pared down. The lyrics, on the other hand, are never dull: we get references to both St. Peter’s upside-down crucifixion and Nero’s…relations with his mother, among other misfortunes.
“Time Shadows” places flutist Jessica Stanley-Clarke (whose work elsewhere on the album is worth noting) front and center, and she does not disappoint. Like the other tracks, “Time Shadows” remains somber in tone.
The opening thirty seconds of “Spring” – a gentle, pastoral combination of acoustic guitar, flute, and organ – contrast violently with the cacophony of electric guitar, keys, and percussion that follow for the next minute before the song begins to resemble a soft-rock tune out of Camel’s catalogue (as it turns out, original Camel member Peter Bardens produced Arena).
The dark, somber lyrics will recall to some listeners Aphrodite’s Child’s 666; the soft-rock and jazz-inspired riffs will remind others of Camel’s early work; and the screaming vocals will most likely bring to mind Peter Hammill’s distinctive screeches. Arena has its faults – the vocals are somewhat flat, and the random appearance of harmonica here and there disturbs the melodies (and not in a pleasant way) – but the lyrics are captivating, the musicianship top-notch, and the passion evident. It is one worth adding to your catalogue.
Stay tuned for number twenty-six!