by Prog Nick
No-one can accuse Magenta of being unadventurous. Taking on grand and unusual themes as album concepts has become de rigeur for Wales’ premier Prog band. Previous concepts visited by the band include the themes of rock stars that died at age 27, the seven deadly sins and the trauma of emigration. Interestingly, Magenta’s previous album, the much-lauded ‘We Are Legend’ was one of those not to have a central theme, but it was, as always, unashamedly Prog. The latest Magenta album, ‘Masters of Illusion,’ sees the Welsh Prog masters return to the use of a concept, and perhaps the most unusual one yet: the lives and travails of six classic horror movie stars from the 1950’s and 1960’s. A peculiar and unusual theme? Well, let it not deter you – the melody, grandeur and Prog credentials that Magenta are known for all become evident as Robert Reed and his brother, lyricist Steve Reed, tackle this most intriguing of themes.
Magenta’s current (and quite stable) line-up is Reed on keyboards (and just about anything else that produces a melody), award-winning singer Christina Booth on lead vocals, the brilliant Chris Fry on guitars, and fine young performers Dan Nelson and Jiffy Griffiths on bass and drums respectively. There are guest appearances by two stars who impressed on the recent Prog From Home concert as much as Magenta did: the gifted John Mitchell (vocals) and Peter Jones (saxophone.) There is also, as on some previous Magenta releases, a performance of Uilleann Pipes by Troy Donockley and oboe by Karla Powell. It does not get much more Prog than that.
‘We Are Legend’ had a slightly harder edge, but with ‘Masters of Illusion’, Magenta have made a full and unashamed return to their classic melodic Prog foundations. As remarkable as it might seem, Christina Booth was apparently not exposed to 70’s Prog in her childhood. You would not know it. For someone who was not fed a full diet of Yes and Genesis, Booth certainly knows how, with Reed and her other band-mates, to conjure the spirit of 70’s Prog in abundance. She is with little doubt the premier female voice in today’s Prog scene, and while she obviously relies on the accomplished Prog chops of the rest of the band (each a stellar performer in his own right), Booth strides through these epic Prog arrangements as if she were Jon Anderson’s female alter-ego. Reed is the driving force, Fry is one of the most impressive guitarists in Prog, and Griffiths and Nelson are like granite. It all works perfectly to cast the music into grandeur, like purple dye in a toga.
The six songs on ‘Masters of Illusion’ produce a combined multi-chromatic palette of colors that are as varied as the rainbow. From granite grey funk to sparkling pink pop, from the black depths of regret to the triumphant feel of, well, magenta, it is all to be found here. Melody and harmony create vivid colors on this album. Exactly why the Reed brothers selected the horror actor theme to be their next choice of concept becomes, quite frankly, immaterial. More to the point is that the concept has led Magenta to deliver a collection of Prog songs that will galvanize any melodic Prog fan-base. If strange and unusual themes can yield music like this, you will hear no complaints from me.
Opener ‘Bela’ begins in truly cinematic manner with a soundscape that would not be out of place in the opening scene of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. After the most wistful of intros, the intentionally cinematic and symphonic prelude introduces Booth in fine voice, and the story takes flight from there. Soon enough Fry’s precise and distinctive guitar signals the band’s intent to deliver expansive, melodic and epic Prog. The track is, quite obviously, about renowned actor Bela Lugosi, and in telling the tale of Lugosi’s rise to fame and riches and his subsequent decline, it is quite sad. Lugosi’s rise and fall are reflected not just in the lyrics, but also in the sympathetic ebb and flow of the melodies. When the actor’s career peak is referenced, the band soars, and Griffith’s energetic drumming reflects the actor’s excitement. When Lugosi declines, the sad and solitary melodies reflect his pain. Reed’s affection for ‘Tubular Bells’ is apparent at various points, and Fry’s bluesy solo reminds us just how good he is. Booth whispers the words ‘The End’ to signify the expiration of Lugosi’s vivid life and the end of the song. The first set of musical hues in this spectrum is delivered with much success. A great start.
Second track ‘A Gift From God’ is about Dracula actor Christopher Lee, but you should not expect a vampiric theme. What you will get is the complete opposite – a gentle longing and extraordinary sadness, couched in a heavenly and translucent melody. With harp-like keys, tender acoustic guitar and vocal echoes, there is a very sad irony to the song that is reflective of Lee’s desire to be a musical performer – a call that never came. Think of Genesis’ gentlest melodies, delivered 2020-style, and you will get the picture. Featuring an underlying verse melody that sounds almost Baroque, the song has a glistening beauty, with Reed’s various ‘70’s keyboard sounds providing a twinkling, striking and occasionally eerie platform. The oboe fits beautifully, and Fry’s longing guitar solo cuts like softly penetrating fangs. Perhaps a little more could have been done to exploit Mitchell’s vocal talents in the chorus, but this wonderful, pastel melody nevertheless makes for a highlight. Possibly my favorite song on the album.
Third song ‘Reach for the Moon’ takes the calculated risk of repeating the theme of longing for success, only this time on behalf of Lon Chaney Jnr, an alcoholic actor who lived in the shadow of his legendary father. (Hence the lyric ‘It was cold in your shadow.’) Chaney’s deep green envy is well depicted in the lyrics. Instrumentally, the band shines, and Jones is given space to deliver a red-hot sax solo that is quite intentionally reminiscent of Supertramp. The song turns out to be quite poppy in contradistinction to its somber theme, and this works extremely well. Reed takes a chance in this song by conferring perhaps one or two too many choruses, but can there ever be too much of a good thing in Prog? All the band’s 70’s influences are on display in the canvass of this song, and melody is the tint.
Ingrid Pitt (or Countess Dracula to film-buffs) is the subject of fourth track ‘Snow.’ What is generally not known is that Pitt had personal childhood experience of the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. Once again, extremely dark lyrics are positioned, in direct antithesis, against a snow-white melody. Built on a piano structure that is jazzy, frisky and funky, the pop-oriented chorus and slick harmonies allow Booth to take flight. The song is almost aerial in its lightness, and you will love the textures that it produces. Exploiting pop elements to the full, this honeyed and melodic track creates imageries that are the opposite of the ghoulish scenes acted out by its protagonist. An exemplary Prog-pop song, there is a gentle Reed piano sign-off that fades the song to its end. Clearly influenced by classic Genesis, I could not help wishing that Reed had explored that closing melody a little further.
‘The Rose’ at first seems to be a gentle love song, but on closer examination, is about the romantic exploits of mischievous lothario Peter Cushing (Christopher Lee’s long-time co-star) whose indiscretions led to dark regret after the loss of his wife. The composition leads the listener though a varied exploration of colors, shades and feelings in parallel with those of the conflicted protagonist. The band’s rhythm section is particularly formidable in the instrumental passage, as they alternate cadences in tandem with the themes, under the poignantly strident melodies created by Reed, Fry and especially Jones. Big, spacious and flowing in time with a fulfilling slow groove, this song shows how much the band have matured as a line-up. Griffiths and Nelson (whose combined sounds are massive throughout the album) create tasteful and effective accents that lead into the superb sax solo and an indigo Uillean Pipes performance that is almost unbearable in its sadness. It is the perfect use of an unusual instrument, showing Reed’s accomplishment as a composer and producer. It is not there because Reed wants to do something unusual. It is there because it sounds just right. Once again, a Reed piano coda ends the song. Simply brilliant, ‘The Rose’ is melodic Prog at its experimental and colorful best.
Final track ‘Masters of Illusion’ is even more epic than the other songs, at 17 minutes. But it is not epic only due to its length. It is cinematic, it is visual, it is sonically varied and it provides everything that a true Prog fan will desire. An elegy about Vincent Price and his torrid experiences performing the lead role in the film ‘Witchfinder’ (especially his creative conflicts with the film’s director), the song is an animated and arresting display of melodic and lyrical variation. The lyric ‘Looking out I see the flames rise,’ in tandem with the accompanying instrumentation, turns the song from dark blue to startling crimson, and then every colour in between. Griffiths is given wings on this one, and his stabs and double kick drum flourishes, while highly impressive, are never over-played. He might be young in age, but he is a very mature performer, and the same may be said of Nelson. Booth’s vocal soars into the heavens in climactic fashion, and Fry’s twisting, note-bending solo in earthy tones is just imperious. The lyrical theme describes Price’s internal conflict and his desire not to sell out for success at the director’s behest, and the tensions in the song’s chord progressions reflect the story. There is also a clear but natural tension between the technicality of the musical performance and the emotion of the theme. It is a long song that tells a long story, but somehow, you will wish it were even longer after its 17 minutes come to a final close on a strong, staccato Booth vocal harmony. It becomes a sweeping, epic tale of Price’s life, and like his life, it ends big. A Frankenstein of a song if ever there was one.
You will want more, and more you shall receive: the standard edition includes a bonus DVD with a 5.1 mix and video promos, and the deluxe edition includes an entire additional album of re-recorded Magenta songs, old and new, entitled ‘The Lost Reel’ (some provided in limited edition mini film-cases.)
‘Masters of Illusion’ is a varied collage of cinematic portraits that entrenches Magenta’s position as one of the UK’s leading melodic Prog acts. The band is relaxed, tight and solid. Vibrant and sensitive keyboard melodies are entwined with Booth’s magnificent voice and Fry’s consistently exceptional guitar work, to create a rich production that can only be defined as Magenta. Despite their 70’s Prog influences, these fine musicians have been collaborating for long enough to make it safe to proclaim that there is an identifiable and unique Magenta sound. The album conjures all hues from the deepest, saddest blues to the most majestic ochre flames. Moogs and Mellotrons, bass pedals and odd timings, majesty and melody – it is all there. Immersive lead guitar solos with a sometimes edgy sound act as a highly effective counterpoint to Reed’s always Proggy keyboard flourishes, while Booth regales us with the stories, and the band hardly seems to break a sweat. There is always a feeling of spaciousness in the arrangements, and the production is exceptional. This all combines to ensure that Magenta’s new album is truly magenta, but also most other colors you can imagine.
‘Masters of Illusion’ is the most authentic Classic Prog album produced by Magenta since ‘Seven.’ I am not a horror movie fan, but I am now genuinely motivated to watch some of the movies made by the six actors, simply because I am such a fan of the music. The theme gives Reed and his cohorts the opportunity to vent their most classically progressive proclivities, and the opportunity is never wasted. Long compositions, pristine Prog melodies, polished production and an unusual concept. To put it simply, if you are a melodic Prog fan, what’s not to love? This is not so much a return to form – Magenta never lost form – it is more like a driven return to their musical origins. Congratulations are in order. The kings (and queen) of Welsh Prog have done it again and our lives are just a little more colorful as a result.
Released on July 1st, 2020
Key Tracks: Bela, A Gift From God
Magenta: Masters Of Illusion
2.A Gift From God
3.Reach For the Moon
6.Masters of Illusion
Line-up / Musicians
– Christina Booth / vocals
– Chris Fry / guitars
– Rob Reed / keyboards, guitars
– Dan Nelson / bass
– Jon ‘Jiffy’ Griffiths / drums