Friday, July 11, 2008

Todd Rundgren strikes gold with 'Arena'

In 2004, Rundgren wowed fans and critics alike with the mind blowing return-to-form retro modern album "Liars". Expect the unexpected from the Wizard, A True Star. Todd's back, but this time he's not asking "can we still be friends?"

Rundgren's new album, "Arena", is a stripped down, back to basics collection of guitar rock anthems. Nuances and nods to vintage ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, RUSH, Robin Trower and AC/DC, make no mistake, this ain't no Salvation Army, formula rock dime store, digital plastic fantastic or a throwback to AOR radio. This ain't distant relative to the likes of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Journey.

Todd's got something to shout about. This time around he's really got his trip together, and the process is very entertaining. Like Neil Young, Rundgren continues to push the envelope.

The once-upon-a-time boy wonder who always reinvented the rock landscape with every new album he released, now, at the ripe age of 60, makes bands like the Strokes and the Killers sound redundant.

On his 1975 album, "Initiation", Rundgren once echoed the sentiments in the song "The Death of Rock and Roll"... "The critics got together and they started a game. You get your records for nothing, and you call each other names."

Twenty-eight years later, the former Hermit of Mink Hollow, continues to wave the rock'n'roll rule book in front of the noses of all those cynics who never even knew how to rock in the first place. It's a delightful display of self-recognition and an affirmation that he still holds all the cards close to his chest.

What you get on the new album is a one-way ticket into rock'n'roll salvation. Marvel as you listen to these gorgeous collection of songs. Not only do they evoke an emotional impluse, but, collectively, they also represent a rock mindset that doesn't date.

The album kicks off with the rock humdinger "Mad", followed by the lush mid-tempo power ballad, "Afraid." Make no mistake, on "Arena", Rundgren makes no concessions. This is a guitar rock album, simplified, potent and direct.

Third track in, TR hits the nail on the head with "Mercenary", a song that sounds like it could have stepped out of RUSH's "Moving Pictures" album. "How do you like me now?," screams Todd. No doubt, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson fans will love it.

Are you just lookin' for some "Tush", or is that that the same riff TR's executing in the song "Gun"? The latter starts off all retro sixties electric guitar and then if flash forwards to Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" with Utopia backing vocals. This is a bluesy guitar rockin' track that blasts Hendrix and Gary Moore. "This is my rifle and this is my gun. This is for fighting and this is for fun."

When you think there's no stopping the harder edged rock riffs, Rundgren, takes two steps back and introduces one of the best rock ballads of his career. In "Weakenss" he epitomises the human experience. The song starts with a lazy Hendrix guitar riff that sounds it was just ripped out of Electric Ladyland. Todd comes on with a bluesy, gutsy vocal, and literally sings his heart out. Shades of "The Last Ride" from the "Todd" album, and you suddenly find yourself in some kind of post hippy psychedelic acid flashback.

"Are you ready to rumble?" So, asks Todd in the AC/DC electrified song "Strike". Raise your fist in the air. FM radio, smoking dope in your best friend's kitchen, getting so drunk that you can't even remember your name or your home phone number. Remember that scene in Cameron Crowe's movie "Almost Famous", when the guitarist from the band "Stillwater" jumped off the roof of the house, into the swimming pool?

"Pissin" sounds like it was performed by a bar band straight out of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet", and then gradually morphs into some southern fried slide guitar anthem. Perfect for driving down Ventura Highway with the top down, drinking a beer with the car radio blasting.

"Today" begins with a shimmering keyboard intro, sneaks up and subjects you to a masterpiece in pop perfection. It's also quite possibly the only song on the new album that sounds like a distant relative to 2004's exquisite "Liars" album.

As you dig deeper into the album, the song "Courage" rears its head, and suddenly, you find yourself thrown back into Side 1 of "Faithful" where acoustic and electric guitar interweave into a hypnotic flurry of stunning melodic hooks, enhanced with beautiful vocals and glorious harmonies. This is Rundgren's shining moment; the key song that establishes the man as one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time.

The song that illustrates Rundgren's genius as the ultimate songsmith is celebrated in the thumping, grunge electro guitar rocker, "Mountaintop". Here, Rundgren borrows the riff from Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky", and then turns it into a radio active guitar anthem, featuring one of the catchiest choruses you're likley to hear this year.

"Arena" is Todd Rundgren's masterclass in pop perfection. This is the Wizard's gripping return to the guitar rock album. It's a remarkable achievement.


Peter said...

"look who's on the racks again"

thanks for the early heads up on arena. your HOB clips also wet the whistle. should be.....great. as a long-suffering fan i have now stopped thinking "okay, this is going to be todd's breakthrough". there's nothing worth breaking through anymore anyway. yea todd!

Cucumber Jones said...

TR seems rangry on this album, and after all, isn't that what real rock'n'roll music is supposed to be all about...ANGER?

One of the reasons why Todd sticks out it because he actually has something to say. If TR's pissed, and the listener is also pisssed, the everyone's pissed.

I'd like to refer to "Arena" as TR's 'revenge' album.

Rock'n'roll's not dead. It just needed an enema.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review.

Will you revise it when you hear the actual album?

Cucumber Jones said...

Revise it when I hear the actual album?

I've been listening to the album since July 10th.

Besides, what's to revise. This is a great album. Very powerful.

cade said...

From the new Arena songs I’ve heard MAD (Myspace) COURAGE, PISSIN, STRIKE (YouTube) this is shaping up to be the album we’ve been waiting for from Todd since his collaboration on Bat Out of Hell; ie a rocking out, kick ass guitar frenzy… but with intelligent lyrics. His ability to produce massive hits for other artists yet not crack the charts with his own material remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time. My theory is that Todd’s astounding work rate and creativity has resulted in a tendency to be over prolific, both in the quantity and content of albums…fuelling a propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in terms of gaining wider exposure to his undeniable musical genius. ARENA seems to be a focussed collection of songs with the potential to unlock the door to some kind of ‘mass’ appeal. I sincerely hope so. I need redemption for 35 years of devotion and it would be cool finally not to have to explain to people who TR is.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cade - Arena may be the album to give Rundgren the respect and credit he so richly deserves over the years. It's a mystery as to why he hasn't already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don't think Todd's "astounding work rate and creativity has resulted into a tendency to be over prolific... fuelling a propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in terms of gaining a wider exposure." I think you miss the point. Will Todd get "mass appeal" for the new album? I'm not sure how "mass" you want to get here, but one thing's for certain, if anything, I hope this album wakes up the majority of Todd fans up from their 40 and 50 something coma. This is the album that could potentially win over new fans from the classic rock and metal circles as well as winning over a younger generation of fans. I mean, come on, the obvious no brainer radio friendly rock song to milk has got to be "Strike". Any decent loving AC/DC fan will understand the sentiment and the sound of this song. This is an angry record with balls, something most of today's lame indie bands lack. There's no need to preach to the unconverted because when this album eventually hits on September 30th, the shit will most definately hit the fan and then we're all gonna have to make our way back to Sunset Boulevard.

jmucci said...

Hey, first off, thanks for leaving some comments on my site. You're right, the rock critics of today just don't measure up to the older critics (Fricke and Anthony DeCurtis are about the last of that breed). It could be the magazines' fault though - they want every article or review to basically be 200 words or less, so what can you say in that space? Everything is written in "soundbite" form. People don't have attention spans anymore. It's a shame.
Secondly, I had no idead Rundgren was making a new album. Judging from your review though, it sounds like a good one. Can't wait to check it out.