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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Todd Rundgren

Arena

Review by Gary Hill

For my money the two greatest songwriters of the twentieth century are Todd Rundgren and Prince. Yes, I know there are all kinds of prog geniuses out there and Paul McCartney and John Lennon are in the twentieth century. It just that to my way of thinking Rundgren and Prince both create music that is at once pop oriented and challenging. It is quirky and yet catchy. In other words, they don’t travel the path that everyone else does, yet they manage to create something that is nearly universally accessible and feels familiar. Their music is consistently strong. I can’t think of a song from either one of those artists that doesn’t work. That’s something I can’t say of just about anyone else.

Well, Todd Rundgren has produced a modern classic with Arena. Every track here is easily pegged as being Rundgren’s work. Yet, there is a wide variety of sounds. He plays it from proggy to poppy, metal to blues and hits lots of stuff in between. Often we get this kind of variety in the course of just one song. This is a smoking hot album that will certainly be near the top of many “best of 2008” lists. I’m pretty sure it will make mine. This should please fans of Rundgren and would be a nice (albeit less obvious) choice for first album to own by the man. Rundgren has proven his songwriting and performing mettle for the 21st Century, too.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Mad
A cool picked guitar line leads us in and vocals are laid across the top in dramatic fashion. They eventually work it out into an almost metal jam that is still trademark Rundgren. This is a cool rocker that alternates between these different flavors in fine style. It is really turned into quite a screamer later, yet it still retains a catchy, nearly pop, atmosphere.
Afraid
This mellower cut seems to flow right out of the piece that came before it. It’s much more of a ballad-like structure. Pretty picked guitar merges with other sounds to serve as the backing for the vocals. This also has a catchy chorus. The instrumental break and bridge of this track seem to be nearly progressive rock in nature, but still manage to have a quirky pop rock texture.
Mercenary
If the opening cut had a lot of metal in its midst, this one is headbanger heaven. It’s heavy and very crunchy. There’s still plenty of Todd Rundgren’s unmistakable character in this mix, though. We also get something that sounds a bit like modern King Crimson at times. Still, there’s a slower, melodic, retro sounding proggy mid-segment to break it up. Come on, Rundgren can’t do anything that’s exceptionally straightforward.
Gun
Todd Rundgren plays the blues. This is a smoking, gritty jam that’s one part ZZ Top, one part Cactus and all Todd Rundgren. The vocals on the chorus in particular are trademark Rundgren. After a frantic chorus of “This is my rifle and this is my gun / This is for fighting and this is for fun,” they turn it metallic and then shift out into a smooth and melodic bridge. Then it’s back to the blues for a tasty instrumental section. The main riff on this reminds me quite a bit of a specific ZZ Top song that will remain nameless.
Courage
Now this is classic vintage Rundgren. It’s proggy and catchy at the same time. It’s melodic and quite tasty. It’s also a nice change of pace.
Weakness
Slow and fairly metallic, this is has a soulful chorus that puts it firmly in the neighborhood of vintage Rundgren.
Strike
This feels so much like AC/DC it’s scary. In fact there’s a vocal here that I could almost swear is Brian Johnson. It’s still got enough Rundgren in the song structure and production that no one will forget whose disc this is, though. The guitar solo on this one is especially tasty.
P***in
Again hard edged, this has more of a retro rock texture. Todd Rundgren’s sound is etched all over this creation.
Today
Although this evolves into a more full fledged melodic rocker, it starts on just keys. This is catchy and still a bit quirky. Isn’t that the mark of great Rundgren music, though? The later segments get quite powerful.  The keys and opening vocal section return at the end to restart it. They take it bath along the same path, but take a little more time getting it up to rocking speed. 
Bardo
This starts off with picked guitar sounds that are dramatic and call to mind Pink Floyd quite a bit. As the other instrumentation and vocals join other elements are brought to the fore, but yet there is still some of that Floydian texture to be found. When it shifts out into moody bluesy texture mid track I’m reminded of Robin Trower. The guitar solo also conjures up images of that man. This is a powerhouse and gets extremely powerful at times. I’d have to say that it might well be my favorite song on show here.
Mountaintop
The bluesy metal that makes up the bulk of this track reminds me of something from Judas Priest’s debut CD. Yes, you read that right – I can hear Priest on this. Mind you, we get classic Todd Rundgren vocals here and there are some other elements, too, but in a lot of ways this shares quite a bit of musical territory with the early bluesy metal. The guitar solo, on the other hand, is classic blues and feels like it could have come from Muddy Waters or B. B. King themselves.
Panic
This comes in feeling like a fast paced modern King Crimson. Although this initial riff returns later in the track, they create the bulk of the track from a more stripped down hard rock motif that’s vintage Rundgren. This killer track really smokes. It’s another of my favorites on show here.
Manup
Rundgren closes the album with another hard rocker that is all Runt Redux. This is a killer song and great way to leave them wanting to hit the “play” button and start it all over again. An instrumental section mid-track is created by intensifying the central themes of the track and they never drop it back down again. All you can say at the end is, “wow!”
 
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