Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews
Todd Rundgren – Arena – Hi-Fi
Published on January 24, 2009
Todd Rundgren – Arena – Hi-Fi HF1002, 56:42 *****:
Amongst the bands that surfaced during rock’s Cambrian explosion in 1967 was the talented garage band Nazz featuring Todd Rundgren. As a singer/songwriter/producer with a strong aptitude for the technical aspects of recording Rundgren has fashioned a lengthy career with multiple artistic peaks and several classic recordings. Songs such as the 1973 top ten hit “Hello It’s Me” featured Rundgren’s talent for producing multi-layered recordings. His work was always tastefully textured into an aural chainmail metal that was neatly woven into an elegant custom fit. After a long and successful career Rundgren might have retired confident in the musical legacy he had left behind. But like all artists with a restless spirit silence is simply not an option.
Arena is Rundgren’s first studio album in four years and in every respect it is a paradigm of what has distinguished his best work over the years. Superficially it may be described as guitar-driven rock with one foot in the glorious past and the other foot firmly planted in today’s music scene. The discerning ear can hear echoes of rock’s last four decades as distilled through Rundgren’s unerring artistic gifts. Touches of Boston and of David Crosby or Neil Young backed by gorgeous CSN&Y style harmonies weave their way through several of Rundgren’s Technicolor palette of 13 new songs. Hard-core metal alternately overpowers and seduces because Rundgren possesses a supremely well-crafted melodic sensibility that he is never hesitant to deploy.
From the beautiful acoustic introduction of the first track “Mad” which quickly metals-up into a Pete Townshend rage we are led into another gorgeous series of acoustic arpeggios and the splendid second track “Afraid”. By the time we reach the third track, “Mercenary,” with its insistent cries of “How do you like me now?” and glorious guitar licks that Rundgren wields like a fist made of sound we are hooked for good. Rundgren adopts a Rage Against the Machine persona on several songs: his anger is palpable and it’s obvious he never allows himself to become too comfortable anywhere on this restless, questing album.
There are songs like the tastefully melodic “Courage” and the memorable “Weakness” – which is a bluesy love song of aching beauty and insistent power – that haunt the listener like old-school Rundgren singles. Whether his voice is heartbreaking or shrill it is always expressive. These songs are reminders of what this artist has achieved and strong indications that much still remains. Todd Rundgren has created an album of sure-handed artistry proving that experience is still a potent factor in rock, despite the music industry’s constant craving for the ephemera of the new.
The recorded sound on this CD is warm and spatially well-focused. Its production values are superb as expected given this record’s provenance. The guitars have a gritty punch in the louder passages and a pristine bell-like resonance in the softer acoustic ones. There is not a hint of distortion even when the music is played extremely loud.
— Mike Birman