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.