Arena

Todd Rundgren

Hi-Fi, 2008

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/22/2008

This review was supposed to have been written by a colleague of mine -- that is, until I received a package in the mail from him with a note saying “This disc is unlistenable.”

Ah, to be young and foolish again. Anytime someone tells me that about a Todd Rundgren disc, I automatically assume that I’m going to love it. The last time someone told me a Rundgren disc was unlistenable was when my aunt gave me her copy of No World Order, and I loved that album.

Now, I admit that I’ve fallen behind with what Rundgren has been doing. Yes, I have …With A Twist, One Long Year, and Liars sitting out there, waiting for me to listen to them. But, in a way, maybe it’s a good thing that I walked into Arena, Rundgren’s latest release, without that frame of reference -- after all, without any preconceived notions, I can’t be biased, right?

In fact, Rundgren’s return to guitar-based “arena rock” results in a very solid and enjoyable album. Of course, if you expect Rundgren to follow any popular musical patterns… well, you ain’t from around here, then, are you?

Rundgren proudly marches to his own drummer (thankfully, it’s still Prairie Prince), popularity and sales be damned… and, in a way, that frees Rundgren up to do what my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 he wants without having suits telling him how to shape things so that he’ll sell ten million out of the box.

Of course, listening to songs like “Mad,” “Strike,” and “Today” (which has some hints of the synthesizer work that made his 1974 album Todd interesting to listen to) make you wonder why the hell Rundgren couldn’t sell ten million of this album. Yes, kids, it’s that good. And to think that Rundgren just turned sixty and is still making music of this high quality -- that just adds to the impressiveness.

Sit down, slap the headphones onto your ears, and listen as Rundgren and his band tear through these thirteen tracks. “Mad” could easily fit into the playlist of any rock station worth their weight in salt, and if it were given a real chance in the marketplace, could easily be Rundgren’s first chart hit in decades. (It might even make some people forget about “Bang The Drum All Day.”) That energy doesn’t dissipate in tracks like “Afraid,” “Gun” (with its charming schoolyard chant, “This is my rifle, this is my gun / This is for firing, this is for fun!” -- love it!) or the disc’s closer “Manup.”

This isn’t to say there is no weakness on Arena. (In fact, there is a track called “Weakness” that is anything but weak.) I can’t say that “Bardo” or “Mountaintop” count among my favorite tracks -- they’re not bad in any sense of the word, but they’re, well, unremarkable. That is magnified by the excellence in the bulk of the tracks; on any other disc, they’d probably stand out. The other weakness? Well, I’d like to have had Rundgren’s vocals bumped up higher in the mix, as it was sometimes hard to hear the message that he had in each of the songs (make no mistake; each track does have some lesson to be learned).

A typical Rundgren disc is not one that you can instantly understand after a casual listen, and I admit I’m still really getting to know Arena. But if I’m this impressed early on after a few listens, I can only imagine how I’m going to feel about this one when I’m real comfortable with it! As it stands now, Arena is a solid kick in rock music’s increasingly bloated ass, delivered by Rundgren as a way of telling everyone, “I’m still here, and not going anywhere.” Here’s hoping more people take notice and listen… really listen.

Rating: A-

User Rating: A-


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© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hi-Fi, and is used for informational purposes only.