MARSUPILAMI - Arena (1971)

Review by Finnforest (James) - Prog Reviewer
Into the Arena!! An amazing and complex album that was in line or even ahead of where the competition was at the time it was made in 1970. As you likely know this is a concept album about the Roman culture that was produced by Camel’s Peter Bardens who also plays some percussion. Musically and lyrically it is heavy, dark (mostly), and quite adventurous. More than anything though this is a near perfect example of early English progressive rock (though recorded in the Netherlands.)

“Prelude to the Arena” (subtitled “the undertones of violence in a drifting generation”) starts quite violently with Sabbath style dramatic chords and the theatrical exclamations of Fred Hasson, whose vocals are adequate for this material but sit just on the edge of being annoying at times. This leads to alternating calm and rock sections with organ, guitar, flute. Bass and some furious drumming are pretty stellar throughout the jamming. Quite a nice opener. “Peace of Rome” (“they manufactured death to keep the peace”) starts with a back and forth between vocalizations and flute. Then there is a section of sung spoken narrations about the Roman concepts with lovely flutes and another fluent rock section with organ.

“The Arena” (“the fighting, the killing, the mother of fornication”) begins with more dramatic narration over Hammond blasts and then some extended organ over subdued drumming, bass, and female background vocals. The flutes come in and the sound is quite eerie and a bit exotic. In the middle there is a great section of piano, flute and whispered female vocal, the calm before the chaos to follow. Starting at 9:20 is a section that sounds quite Camel-ish, one wonders if Barden’s picked up some subconscious influence here although most of Marsupilami is much more brash than Camel. The latter half of this song features some truly fine prog rock moments, great guitar work, mellotron, vocals, and overall memorable textures.

Side 2 begins with “Time Shadows” (“lay low the past, the future brings hope”). This one starts very weird with echoed vocal and organ, then acoustic and flute join and then harmonica and vocal. Soon a brisk bass and jazzy drum beat grabs the weirdness and pulls it along, then some piano joins in. If this sounds like a mess, well it kind of is a musical car wreck and yet is quite fulfilling. About half way through we get the saxophone and electric guitar trading licks with an urgent flute and rhythm section behind. The last minute gets pretty crazy with the sax and guitar laying down some very heavy rock.

“Spring” is a great closer and another good hippie rock moment. After yet another insanely dramatic beginning the track suddenly jumps into the most delightfully melodic passage of flute, piano, and gentle Camel like rhythm. That stops and we move into a vocal weirdness section with cathartic wailing to edgy strings and keys. Then a short e guitar solo-the lead guitar work is good enough though by no means jaw dropping. But with everything else going on around it doesn’t need to be. The sound here again is VERY busy and ambitious, and somewhat difficult. This will be just too bizarre for some to enjoy, but others will feast on the eccentricity of the album. After several minutes of strangeness it slips back to the Camel-like melody to provide a pleasing and memorable ending.

“Arena” is an album that puzzled me at first but I’m glad I stuck with it, I now find it to be a challenging and always entertaining listen. To give a bit more info on the overall sound I quote just a short section from the GEPR: “There is also a strong folk feel in the vocal melodies and some of the music. The organ work gives a bit of a early '70s psych feel. Arena is a concept album but the songs on both albums run in the 7-9 minute range. Perhaps not essential but generally pretty nice if you like melodic prog with folk touches and a bit of an early feel. I especially like the heavy keyboards and busy drumming. Their overall sound is somewhat typical of the period - full of late sixties influences - but unique enough to be worthwhile. They occasionally sound like In Search of Space era Hawkwind but with more emphasis on vocals and keyboards. The instrumental proficiency and variety will keep the average prog-head interested.” [part in quotes from GEPR]. It’s certainly true that parts of this sound dated but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as “not aging well.” If you don’t mind theatrics I’d say this has aged quite well, the strange complexities of the composition and arrangements make it as interesting to me as some of today’s ultra complex prog. The Japanese remaster is not a gatefold unfortunately but it does offer some decent sound quality considering how old this is. 4 solid stars for a great early prog album and recommended to anyone intrigued by what they’re read.

Review by barp
A fine piece of early seventies prog. Plenty of styles fused into an original and imaginative mix. The music is mainly keyboard driven, but the vocal and brass arrangements brought to mind Colosseum's early albums. This probably does deserve the term 'undiscovered gem' - it's hard to understand why Marsupilami didn't achieve a higher profile when the album was released...perhaps like stable- mates Stray, they suffered from Transatlantic's uncertainty as to how to promote bands whose music fell outside the norm for the label? Well worth investigating for anyone who enjoys the early years of prog!

Review by Trotsky - Special Collaborator Honorary Collaborator
This concept album about the drama of the gladiator's arena during the Roman Empire is the second of two intriguing albums Marupilami recorded in the early 70s. The pair of proto-prog albums are of almost equal strength, and both are worth investigating. While the first album wins marks for being such a unique work and sounding like very little like anything that came before it, Arena's greater variety in terms of instrumentation probably tips the scale in its favour.

Prelude To the Arena: The Undertones Of Violence In A Drifting Generation begins with some threatening noises from lead vocalist Fred Hasson over some frenzied attacks but soon settles down into a truly beautiful melancholic passage with acoustic guitar, flute and mellotron. Fast-paced jazzy vocals and a great electric piano solo from Leary Hasson take this piece home.

The second track Peace Of Rome: They Manufactured Death To Keep The Peace, has a nice, dark mid-section led of course by organ and flute, before a searing special from Dave Laverock (actually the best guitar solo I've heard from him) takes the music to a new level. Marsupillami's longest song The Arena (The Fighting, The Killing, The Mother Of Fornication) doesn't start off so well but after a couple of minutes becomes an outstanding organ-dominated psychedelic improvisation, drawing heavily from Eastern themes, with drummer Mike Fouracre also making his presence felt. This track loses momentum, but again resolves itself towards the end, even if the very last notes of the song seem unbearably harsh.
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Time Shadows (Lay Low The Past, The Future Brings Hope) is a sombre, almost eerie affair, with Jessica Stanley Clarke's flute and Leary Harsson's organ doing a good job in building up an atmosphere (Fred Hasson's harmonica works rather less well). It eventually breaks into jazzy flute driven prog. There's some nice piano playing, and another pleasing surprise when a saxophone kicks in to good effect. Laverock's jazz guitar solo is also of note, while the ferentic stomping conclusion to the piece ensures that a good time is had by all.

The closer Spring is another strange one With a pastoral acoustic guitar/organ/flute opening giving way to a veritable cacophany of sound for more than a minute before a beautiful almost soft-rock passage comes into play. This portion is rather remiscent of Camel's tamest moments which is perhaps no surprise given that future Camel stalwart Peter Bardens produced this album. There's a harmonica solo, a powerful jam with an eerie conclusion and a restatement of the soft-rock passage before the show shuts down.
By and large Arena is an album that doesn't really follow any precedents, which is exactly what makes it, to my mind, so darned fresh. ... 80% on the MPV scale.

Review by Sean Trane - Special Collaborator Prog-Folk Specialist
After their debut album's release, Marsi toured and expanded by adding Mandy Riedelbanch on multiple wind instruments and found themselves relocating in Amsterdam, where they were playing a series of concert in the Paradiso theatre with the then-state of the art MC2 Lightshow. This is when they started to write and rehearse for their second album, with the assistance of an external lyricist Bob West. The album, recorded in London, was produced by future Camel founder Peter Bardens, and indeed you can hear some of Mirage's source of inspiration in Arena, including Latimer's flute, much reminiscent of Jessica Stanley. "Graced" with one of the ugliest ever prog artwork, Arena was an improvement on their debut, partly because the extra musician allowed the group to have much more possibilities, sonically and songwriting-wise.

So the aptly titled opening track Prelude does musically exactly that: it resumes the first album's progress and the band is ready to pick up things where they'd left it at. So with the following Peace Of Rome (we're in a concept, but I was never bothered to follow it too much without smirking at the pretentiousness, the worst offender being Triumvirate) is a very ambitious piece, exploring its themes over circus/arena crowd noises, and a touch of mellotron (that was missing in the debut album) and plenty of interplay time. The mammoth title track starts rather eerily, but in a second movement, it picks a mid-eastern them over tabla and drums, but in the next one, the ambitious and daring vocal passage turns close to ridicule, but saved from it by further impressive progressions until a sharp and raw end. At one point, you can hear Laverock's bowed guitar give an acetate cello sound.

The flipside starts on effects-laden narration as intro of the other epic of this album, Time Shadows. This tracks spends a considerable time in its first movement a piano/organ duo (overdubbing from Leary, certainly), before gradually intervening are Jessica's flute, Mandy's sax and Laverock's now jazzy guitar. After an insufferably long passage dishing out whatever lyrics the track had to offer, the group unleashes on a bass and closing lyric lines, before echoing keys and sax bring the track into a very Graaf-esque ending. Indeed you'd swear this is Jaxon, Banton, and Hammill closing this track. . I'm not sure whether the closing Spring track is supposed to be part of the concept, for it doesn't get one of those pompous description like the first four tracks, but it's also a collectively-written track, that starts as a complete mayhem to slowly settle down in a dervish-like trance, with Fred's meandering scat vocals soaring over the rest of the band's great semi-raga, until the guitar and flute slowly deconstruct the group's unity (there is a superb double flute interlude that last until the organ breaks it up, announcing the piano and now double scat vocals. Fantasrtic stuff and definitely the group's best moment and it is quite accessible too. Much more than some of the more "baroque" passages that "doesn't click all the way".

Unlike the debut album, Arena did receive a Cd issue, but this was in the early 90's with the German label Line A (and apparently there was also a Japanese remaster according to a fellow reviewer), and it was long out of print, so all kudos goes to Esoteric Records to have re-unearthed this small forgotten gem. One of the rare deceptions I have is that it seems that the new member Riedelbanch is only really present (or at least noticeable) on the album's flipside, which is a crying shame, because I think she made quite a difference. Arena is definitely an improvement on their debut album, but it is a bit like Gnidrolog?. Get both albums as they're equally good, even if this one will get more nods.
Album Reviews
Marsupilami - Marsupilami (1970)

Review by Sean Trane - Special Collaborator Prog-Folk Specialist
One of those early 70's group that should've emerged but didn't , like Audience, Comus, Gnidrolog and a few more, this south-west England sextet, built around the Hasson brothers Fred (vocals) and Leary (keyboards) and the latter's girlfriend Jessica Clarke (flute and vocals), released two superb albums that have gone way too long without being noticed. The group toured in 68 & 69 heavily in the UK and Continental Europe (from Denmark to Switzerland), even opening the first Isle of Wight Festival that year and played in the first Glastonbury fest the following year. They finally secured a record deal with the folk-specialist Transatlantic label (Pentangle amongst others) and recorded their self-titled album in June 69 (ITCOTCK is still months away), but for some reason, it was only released on April 70. Would've things changed heavily if the album had been released before KC's debut? We'll never know, but Marsipulami's sombre and slightly spooky flute- laden music, often evoking mythology, certainly was groundbreaking stuff and should've caught many more "underground public" ears, but the offer was plentiful in those times and the places in the sunshine a bit scarce.

Back in 69, the sextet's sound was definitely anchored in the 70's, even if the guitars still had a fuzz thing, and groups like Purple or The Nice were not as "modern", but the songwriting was maybe a little too close from one song to another, or the band wasn't able to arrange that the tracks had each its own proper atmosphere, precisely like ITCOFTCK or Nursery Cryme. Indeed, from the opening Dorian Deep, the atmosphere is often sombre and brooding, heavy and borderline angry (Hasson's sometimes off-key and perfectible vocals induce this), organ-driven, with the fuzz guitar and the flute (sounding more like Latimer than anderson) adding more drama, Fouracre's drumming being very strong, this leaves Hicks' bass playing often the anchoring role, but does it brilliantly. The A-side is made of three semi-lengthy tracks, building the group's overall sound, but the flipside's two epics are what the group is all about
By the time of the second-last track Ad Initio (an instrumental), despite their own little intro, we're sort of lost as to where we are as all the tracks have the same ring to them, but here there is also a bunch of classical music themes revisited, the whole thing going down in a chaos of eternal damnation and hell promised, but alas Leary's organ is resurrected through the apocalyptic end and provides a suitable outro. The last track has a more brilliant passage where a cello appears and gives directly another colour to the last minutes of Descencus Aveni., which in its opening stages was reminiscent of early Wishbone Ash despite Jessica's flute, and if it disappears for a while, it comes back as soon as the singing returns (WA's debut was released in early 70, but remember this album is early 69).

This is the very first Cd reissue for this album (the second did have one on Line A in the early 90's) and it's a crying shame, but at least Esoteric Records took care of this omission, and remastered the album, but apparently no extra material was available, which is no problem, since the album is self-supporting on its own. Yes, we've got certainly a major debut album, but it isn't flawless, particularly in terms of singing and in variety or spectrum, but let us not nitpick because Esoteric unearthed a real gem, here.

Review by Agemo
Marsupilami is one of those bands from the early era of progressive rock that made great music. They were a British band but moved to The Netherlands to make their music. I don't know if they were influenced at all by the Dutch progressive bands of the late sixties, early seventies. But with the good Dutch progressive tradition, they also have a flute player. The music is at times heavy, with strong guitar solos. It is mainly organ / guitar based with some accents by flute and even harmonica (which is rather unusual in progressive music). The music is complex but can also be bluesy (like Born To be Free). At times it is a bit pretentious (as can be shown in the titles of the tracks). The musicianship is great and there are some interesting instrumental bits in the tracks. My favourite is Ab Initio Ad Finem (The Opera) with its spacey start, the melodic centre and the doomy ending. This is an amazing album.

Review by Trotsky - Special Collaborator Honorary Collaborator
Marsupilami is a pretty tame sounding name, but this band is possessed of a chaotic edge that makes them one of my more exciting prog discoveries in recent times. This 1970 album is the first of two little-known gems that the band cut during its all-too brief heyday. I keep wavering as to which of the two albums is my favourite (at the moment the title belongs to Arena), but they're both worth having. I think what makes Marsupilami so interesting it that the band was done and dusted before the rules and formulas that define prog (and really shouldn't) were set in stone.

The first track here, Dorian Deep begins on a pretty ominous note that doesn't quite let up throughout the album. Eventually a powerful bass-driven song unfolds, with the organ and drums helping to build up the atmosphere while the vocals (always melodramatic and occasionally downright manic!) sing an unusual melody. Dorian Deep is a fantastic piece with Mike Fouracre's frantic drums occasionally being quite tribal in nature, and Jessica Stanley Clarke's flute flittering about constantly ... there's even time for a bit of poetry before a high octane jam takes over.

Born To Be Free starts off as languid flute-driven piece before suddenly exploding into another frenzied jam, although the Leary Hasson organ solo gives this one a jazz tinge ... that is until the harmonica solo comes in! Finally the flute reclaims the piece and the listener is thrown back to that now seemingly distant melllow beginning.

The imagery in And The Eagle Chased The Dove To Its Ruin is pretty neat (although I'd be lying if I said that lyrics were Marsupilami's greatest strength). I must say that though that this is probably my least favourite track, and I think that's because it's the one with the most vocals and the least instrumental interludes.

This minor aberration is more than made up for by Ab Intio Ad Finem (The Opera) which runs for nearly 11 minutes. It begins with a musical box kind of sound before a march gradually takes over. Some churchy organ creeps in and after 2 minutes, an excellent organ/tribal drum jam ensues and after a minute or two, some delightful flute chips in. It then becomes a guitar freak out, before flute leads the band back into a pastoral section, before everything takes off again on a wild jazzy jam at around the 7 minute mark. Although the churchy organ outro seems a tad predictable when it arrives, I still think this is probably my favourite tune.

Facilis Descencus Averni is a different beast altogether, perhaps even more jarring than the most manic moments of Dorian Deep. There's crazed laughter, more poetry, a garish instrument (I can't figure out what ... perhaps a distorted organ) that reaches in and almost tears at one's ears, and a another high-powered jam, with a drastic switch to a meditative flute passage ... before the great jazzy vocal part restates itself.
There is a vibe that reminds me occasionally of Quintessence and at other times of Iron Butterfly, but Marsupilami probably has more to offer the average prog fan than either of these two bands. The intermitently off-key vocals may put some off, but I love these sort of rare prog albums, by bands who were indisputably prog, yet were done before the likes of Yes, Genesis and ELP hit their peak. ... 78% on the MPV scale
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Review by Atavachron - Special Collaborator Art Rock Specialist
The product of two brothers, Leary and Fred Hasson (organ and vocals respectively), Marsupilami - a name taken from the work of Belgian cartoonist Andre Franquin - formed in 1968 and was one of Transatlantic Records first acts to be signed. A fascinating missing link in the Prog chain, Marsupilami's debut is a hoot-- a wonderful and slightly insane record that revealed a wholly unique kind of underground rock. Oh it's prog, baby, but at the time the six-piece was conflicted as to what exactly they were offering and evidently felt their work should be placed with Jazz or classical. Of course they were neither, just an incredibly inventive rock band and looking back, had a small but measurable effect on what became the Prog era with a sound that may have even influenced the likes of Dave Stewart and Keith Emerson. In 1969 they were on a heavy schedule appearing with Deep Purple, Joe Cocker Band, Quintessence, Mighty Baby, and were the first group to play at the Isle of Wight Festival. By mid-'69 they'd turned down an offer from MCA and recorded this album near King's Road in London at an old dairy turned studio, released in April 1970 on Transatlantic.

Each cut was done in one or two takes, capturing an immediacy most prog artists save Egg or Soft Machine would reject in favor of precision and formality. No such sacrifice of living energy here, the material an impressive amalgam of cerebral complexity and organic depth, structure with some room to bend but not break. We're met with a wind-swept valley for the monastic 'Dorian Deep', Dave Laverock's classic fuzz guitar leading with Leary Hasson's organ and Jessica Stanley-Clarke's twitter on flute, somewhere between Santana's early jams and Arzachel's wraith-rock. Canterbury School jazz for 'Born to be Free', and majestic 'And the Eagle Chased the Dove to its Ruin' drips with the rhythmic energy of classic psychedelia. The funereal creaking of 'Ab Initio Ad Finem' evolves into a serious rock movement and interprets an Old Testament-style sermon on cataclysmic events, an instrumental clocking in at a healthy 10&1/2 minutes with the hot timekeeping of Mike Fouracre & Richard Hicks, Hasson letting go on his Hammond. And they close with 'Facilis Descencus Averni' where their Baroque leanings come out in full.

Earthy, powerful and intriguing, Marsupilami was one of the first true progressive rock bands. Complete in its ambition, total in its capabilities, absolute in its theater, an ensemble that burned just a bit brighter than most in the English post-underground scene and a must for any serious Prog completist.

Review by psarros - Prog Reviewer
Outstanding sextet formed in 1968 and among the first bands to be signed by Transatlantic records.They moved to The Netherlands to record their first eponymous LP.''Marsupilami'' is a fantastic example of early-70's really progressive rock music,based mainly on magnificent organ orgasms and attacking guitars with heavy doses of flute and harmonica passages.However,their music cannot be labeled as hard rock by any means.They have actually a diverse sound with blues,jazz and psych overtones mixed with superb instrumental interplays and a dark,intense atmosphere.A great LP,personally listed in my top-5 prog albums of 1970,strongly recommended to fans of early dark prog yn the vein of GNIDROLOG or VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR.

Review by erik neuteboom - Prog Reviewer
As a huge fan from the early British Progressive Rock Movement I got excited after reading the positive reviews on this site. So I ordered their two albums and especially this eponymous debut album is a treat. The sound is typical early Seventies: very alternating (a progressive blend of classic, folk, blues and psychedelia) and dynamic featuring long compositions that are build around great Hammond organ play, powerful flute work and fiery electric guitar. The vocals are good and the instrumentation delivers also bongos, xylophone and mouth organ. To me the music of Marsupilami has echoes from JULIAN'S TREATMENT, BEGGAR'S OPERA (first album), IRON BUTTERLY, THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN and some early PINK FLOYD but their music has sufficient musical ideas to nail them as a derivative! I'm delighted about this discovery, VERY COMPELLING AND EXCITING EARLY PROG!

Sources:

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Marsupilami (1970) - Audio CD
Digitally remastered by
Esoteric Records
Arena (1971) - Audio CD
Digitally remastered by Esoteric Records