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Todd Rundgren: Arena
Melodic/Progressive Rock
Rating: 4.0/5.0

Todd Rundgren can be described in many ways: the first of the blue-eyed soul artists from Philadelphia, a talented multi-instrumentalist who has created everything from pop rock to visionary progressive rock, an iconoclast and individualist that no label could handle or qualify, a technological guru integrating audio and video in the digital world before most anyone else, or simply an inspired and creative musician who continues to ply his trade in new ways. For me, Todd is all these things.

I was a huge fan back in day between the early 70's and mid 80's. I cannot number the times that a saw him concert whether alone or with Utopia. One of my fondest concert memories was seeing him at the Paradise Theater in Boston in the summer of 1978(?) during the Back To The Bars tour. I was at a table in front of the stage no less than six feet away from him; and the members of The Cars were in the audience.

But then there came a day (Summer 1982?) when I saw Rundgren with Utopia at the Philadelphia Zoo, a stupid location for a concert. I can't remember what song he was singing, but he got all wound up during the final chorus of a song and fell on his skinny ass. I'm sure he was whacked out on something. How quickly our heroes fall: from that point may interest declined, but I still followed his career. He fell off the radar for me in the 90's. There are few things from Todd that have interested me in the last 15 to 20 years. So here we are in 2008 and I'm giving Todd Rundgren my first serious listen in nearly 20 years.

For me 'Arena' sounds more like the Todd of 25 to 30 years where he easily mixed and move between pop rock, melodic rock and progressive rock with skill. Of course, Rundgren has always been an evolving work in progress so there are some modern nuances on here as well. Generally, the disc starts and ends well, but in between things get a little choppy and uninteresting. On the front side, the good stuff includes 'Mad' which has that famous TR pop rock sensibility blended with some heavy riffs. Then you have two basic political rants in 'Mercenary' and 'Gun.' The former is simply heavy melodic rock with a steady pace and strong riffs. The latter sounds like old school Todd: melodic pop rock with great guitar solo. From here to 'Bardo' the songs are rather dull with two exceptions. First, Rundgren returns to his blue-eyed soul roots on 'Weakness.' Second, 'Strike' finds TR venturing into straight up hard rock. It's 'Oops! Wrong Planet' Utopia meets AC/DC in the guitar riffs, rhythm section and chorus; probably my favorite song on the album.

From 'Bardo' to 'Manup,' we hear the Todd we know and love: innovative and satisfying. Of the last four, three are true standouts including the eerily psychedelic 'Bardo' where Todd's guitar sounds like early Robin Trower, spooky. 'Panic' has a funky bass groove and some more killer guitar work. Todd may not consider himself a guitar guru anymore, but when he's on he can't be beat. Finally, 'Manup' is simply classic TR doing melodic rock within a steady groove and delivering more fine fret work.

After ignoring Todd Rundgren for more than 20 years or so, I'm glad I gave 'Arena' a chance and a thorough listen. Though hardly perfect, this is the best I've heard TR sound in as many years. This is classic Todd mixing and moving between pop rock, melodic hard rock, and prog rock with skill and innovation. Very recommended


In Short

After ignoring Todd Rundgren for more than 20 years or so, I'm glad I gave 'Arena' a chance and a thorough listen. Though hardly perfect, this is the best I've heard TR sound in as many years. This is classic Todd mixing and moving between pop rock, melodic hard rock, and prog rock with skill and innovation.

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