MAGENTA – Masters Of Illusion (2020)
UK, Welsh progressive rock band MAGENTA are a band who follow their own very distinctive melodic path, describing narratives through dramatic and emotional music. They create beguiling musical and lyrical canvasses. Their new album “Masters Of Illusion” is based upon the stories of six classic Horror movie stars and Magenta’s stirring widescreen music is an apt setting for these cinematic tales.
However, typically, Magenta do things with a certain twist and these musical vignettes tell us things about these stars which may surprise and move us.
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.
‘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.
With ‘Masters of Illusion’ Magenta have made a full and unashamed return to their classic melodic Prog foundations. As remarkable as it might seem, vocaist 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.
Opener ‘Bela’ is, quite obviously, about renowned horror 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.
‘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.
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.
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 frisky and funky, the pop-oriented chorus and slick harmonies allow Booth to take flight. 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.
‘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.
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 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.
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.
‘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 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.
This all combines to ensure that Magenta’s new album is truly magenta, but also most other colors you can imagine.
2. A Gift From God
3. Reach For the Moon
5. The Rose
6. Masters of Illusion
Christina Booth – vocals
Chris Fry – guitars
Rob Reed – keyboards, mandolin, guitars, backing vocals
Dan Nelson – bass
Jon ‘Jiffy’ Griffiths – drums
Pete Jones – saxophone (3,5)
John Mitchell – vocals (2)
Troy Donockley – uilleann pipes (5)