Modern 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. 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.
In a recent interview with Prog magazine, Rob Reed revealed that he struggled whilst writing their last album, We are Legend, deciding to give it a harder edge with more electronics and loops. In contrast, for this album he wanted to return to the roots of the band and “what I love about Progressive Rock: longer songs, great melodies, 12-string guitars, Mellotrons. Moog solos…”
These are words that will bring joy to many melodic progressive rock fans, and those elements are certainly in abundance on this album. Alongside Reed’s undoubted compositional skills, Magenta rely upon the lyrical ideas and input of his brother, Steven Reed. Initially, the concept behind this album echoed the deceased rock star themed The Twenty Seven Club, but on this album they would focus upon Horror Movie stars. Steven shared, “Me and Rob both love the Hammer Films of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and the classic Universal Horror Films of the ’30s and ’40s. We therefore had to choose six ‘Stars’ to be the subjects of the songs.”
The album opens with Bela, obviously based on Bela Lugosi, the Hollywood superstar ‘Dracula’ of the 1930s. This sweeping piece commences, appropriately enough, with an orchestral overture (one can almost feel the cinema screen curtains opening) before tubular bells and sounds reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s San Jacinto take us into the whole band pounding out a furious rhythm, with Chris Fry’s guitar’s writhing around manically and Reed’s synths taking us back into a more cinematic fanfare… and after three minutes Christina Booth’s voice starts to tell the story of Lugosi’s rise from relative obscurity in the 1920s to the height of his fame in the 1930s. There’s a swaggering joy in these early passages, echoing his glittering success:
However, his career faded badly in the ’40s and ’50s, and the music reflects that decline more sombrely with a bluesy guitar section. A more contemplative acoustic guitar underlays Booth’s emotional vocalising of his sad slide into addiction and his virtual disappearance in the early ’60s. The music takes on a more discordant feel echoing Lugosi’s confusion and frustration as his life and career spiralled downwards. However, some hope and light enters the song, reflecting Lugosi’s bizarre friendship in the ’60s with Ed Wood, which led to his film career starting again (of sorts), albeit in what are regarded as some of the worst movies ever made. Finally, this epic piece ends melancholically with Christina’s quivering voice over Reed’s gentle piano, conveying his demise just before he started a TV career which may have brought back his fame, and the last apt and elegiac words “The End”. Knowing the story behind Lugosi’s life and how they inspired Steven Reed’s words to combine with Rob Reed’s music does help to add emotional resonance to Magenta’s songs.
Magenta take us in a very different direction with the shimmering beauty of A Gift From God. Whilst Bela is easy to associate with Lugosi it may come as a surprise to some listeners to hear that A Gift From God is based on the Hammer House of horror Dracula actor, Christopher Lee. Opening with a softly chiming guitar (or is it a harp?) a beautiful oboe from Karla Powell floats in with Christina’s almost diaphanous vocals, conveying such a feeling of regret and longing.
How does that fit with an actor renowned for playing evil characters such as Dracula, Dr. Fu Manchu, Count Dooku of Star Wars and Saruman in Lord of the Rings? Steven Reed has revealed that although he was known for acting, especially Dracula (a role he later resented being associated with), he actually secretly desired to be an opera singer! Apparently, Lee had a fine baritone voice, but he was never asked to use it in his film roles. He really wanted to sing on stage, and ironically later in life he did actually record some Heavy Metal albums (who knew, eh?!), but he never recorded his beloved opera.
Steven says, “The song is based on this longing to be in the spotlight and being appreciated for his singing voice. All the years waiting for the call”. This is one of the standout tracks on the album as it so beautifully portrays a sense of longing, framed in a wistful musical setting with definite echoes of Entangled from Trick of the Tail by Genesis. That influence comes across most clearly in the middle section in which a softly chiming acoustic guitar is overlain with a lovely oboe and an eerily sinuous synth line. John Mitchell (Lonely Robot, Frost*, It Bites, Arena and… well, the list goes on!!) provides some fine backing vocals, but this song is a showcase for Christina’s sensitive and emotive vocals, echoing herself delicately. Towards the conclusion of this resonant song Chris Fry increases the emotional impact with a characteristically fluid and glorious guitar solo. That distinctive and strangely eerie synth returns us to the opening harp-like accompaniment for Christina’s yearning, regretful voice to take us the sad ending – it’s an emotional ride, and I for one will not look at Dracula, Count Dooku or Saruman in quite the same way ever again!
Magenta previously explored more straight-ahead rock song writing reminiscent of Elton John at times on their 2006 album Home, re-released in a 2019 remix. Reach for the Moon could easily have fitted on Home. Starting very grandly with backing string sounds, it soon settles into a rolling rhythm. Fry’s guitars have a bluesy twang at times, perhaps hinting at the sad story of Lon Chaney Junior, originally named ‘Creighton Chaney’. Steven Reed has explained that he was the son of a much-respected silent movie actor, Lon Chaney, and became an actor in his own right. However, the studio wanted to exploit his father’s fame and persuaded him to become ‘Lon Chaney Junior’. Inevitably, he spent his whole career in the shadow of his father, struggling to live up to the family name: “It was cold in your shadow, you looked but couldn’t see…”
Sadly, Chaney turned to drink later in his career and, like Lugosi before him, he ended up appearing in any film offered, no matter the quality, but still lamely hoping for success. Pete Jones of Tiger Moth Tales adds a short and melancholic sax reminiscent of Supertramp to amplify the pathos. The tempo slows mid-way through the song with oboe and subtle guitar underpinning Christina’s voice of regret before the song returns to its main theme in a more defiant mood. There is an odd contrast between the sombre nature of the story and the often more upbeat feel of the song, which does not always work for me, but it may suggest Chaney’s ill-fated determination to emulate and surpass his father.
Magenta always seem to find interesting concepts for their albums and the story of Ingrid Pitt, the inspiration for Snow, must rank as one of the stranger and sadder themes. In later life she found fame rather glamorously in Hammer Horror films, such as Countess Dracula, but as a young Jew in Poland she spent her early childhood in a concentration camp. Inevitably this experience affected her acting career and the relationship with her father. This peculiar piece commences with an almost playful piano and vocal, reminiscent of Tori Amos. The piece swings between tripping, spasmodic verses and more sweeping melodic passages, with Christina singing of the dark memories of a terrified child:
got to live, to survive day by day, please take them away, we’re holding on”
This contrast is a curious mixture of lighter music and more sinister lyrics. Reed’s electric piano and Fry’s elegiac guitar drop us into calmer waters before we return for a final recapitulation of the opening themes and a celebration of a life of success carved out of horror by Ingrid Pitt. Some lovely singing from Christina leads us into Rob Reed’s gentle piano coda.
We have already heard about a song about Christopher Lee so it seems inevitable we would hear a piece about his long-time Hammer movie co-star, Peter Cushing. The Rose reveals a surprising and conflicting side to this respected actor, who liked to cultivate roses. Steven Reed shares that “Everyone knew Mr. Cushing as a charmer and utterly devoted to his wife Helen. He also had an eye for the ladies. This song is based on those indiscretions, how they came about and how he dealt with them. It also deals with the loss he felt when Helen died and his longing to be with her again.”
Rob Reed stated he wanted to return to the classic Progressive rock style for this album and The Rose is the clearest expression of that yearning with sounds and styles that have clearly been greatly influenced by early Genesis and even Camel with 12-string guitars and Mellotrons in abundance. The Rose refers to a rose Mr. Cushing had cultivated and named ‘The Helen Cushing Rose’. The song takes us through various shades and emotions with plaintive regret and more tumultuous sections, describing Cushing’s infidelities. Jiffy Griffiths drumming is outstanding on this piece as he swings between differing tempos, particularly an exhilarating section underpinning Reed’s funky, serpentine keyboards duelling with Pete Jones’ strident jazzy saxophone. The Rose transforms into a bittersweet final section as Cushing contemplates his sense of loss for a woman whom he loved but also repeatedly betrayed. Troy Donockley’s plaintive Uilleean Pipes underlines the melancholy felt in this high-quality composition which successfully conveys such a range of emotions.
Of course, no return to classic ‘Prog’ tropes would be complete without a full blown ‘Epic’ and the grand figure of Vincent Price provides a suitably magnificent subject for the final piece, Masters of Illusion. Apparently Vincent Price’s classic horror film Witchfinder General is one of both Rob and Steven Reed’s favourite films, telling the story of East Anglian Witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins. Indeed, the figure of Matthew Hopkins is rather a recurring figure for Magenta as he featured in their special performance last year of scintillating epic The White Witch from their 2001 debut album Revolutions. Steven Reed has shared the following fascinating insight into the theme of this latest epic from Magenta: “This song is based on the making of the film and Mr. Price’s relationship with the director, Michael Reeves. Price wasn’t the first choice for the role and Michael Reeves was almost forced to have him in the lead. Their relationship was tense to say the least, Price trying to ham it up and Reeves having none of it. The song follows this tension to the point where the film is finished and Price realises it is one of his finest performances, something critics and fans agree with…”
Masters of Illusion rolls in on eerie cinematic string sounds (one can almost see the fog billowing under the opening credits) and Christina Booth sings plaintively over Reed’s subtle piano. A pulsing organ and slithering synth breaks the gloom with Dan Nelson’s rock solid bass underpinning the piece with all the assurance and technique he has shown throughout the album. There is a real sense of tension musically in this piece, echoing the conflict between the director and his leading actor. There are extended sections in which Reed really hams it up with the keyboards and Chris Fry, whom is never shy about coming to the fore with furious or flowing guitar pyrotechnics, adds his characteristic magic. Rob Reed and Chris Fry have been playing together so long they must almost be telepathic as their instruments intertwine seemingly effortlessly to make elaborate musical pictures. Booth shows great vocal versatility as she switches from soft vocals to more dramatic expressions as the story develops. Amidst all the Gothic imagery and grandiose musical structures, Magenta always throw in catchy melodies which are almost ‘poppy’ at times. Magenta spurn the sterility of technique without feeling. Their priority is always melody and emotion. Masters of Illusion is a LONG song (over 16 minutes), and whilst many will delight in its epic scope and grand ambition, others may struggle to stay the whole course. It is a real challenge sustaining interest over such a period – but then Reed was clear about his agenda for this album and for most Magenta fans a song of such magnitude and grandiloquent intentions will be a source of great delight. After all, this is a song about a legendarily grandiose actor playing a very much larger than life figure – it was never going to be subtle or succinct! (?)
The Deluxe Edition of this album comes with Reed’s usual penchant for a 5.1 version, which is always very welcome, and an additional album called The Lost Reel (in a special film reel case). This features different mixes of some of the songs, which gives an interesting insight into the development of these songs over time. It also includes interesting versions of some older songs, such as the shortened version of the sprawling Legend which has been the more common live version of this piece. Additionally, there are crisp ‘2020’ versions of Man the Machine (also shortened) from 2001’s Revolutions, and the more recent Turn the Tide from 2011’s under-rated Chameleon. Perhaps most interestingly, Magenta have also included Not in Our Name (featuring Andy Edwards, ex-IQ & ex-Frost*, on drums), written during the We are Legend album sessions. Magenta released this as a free download in 2016 after a certain vote in the UK with some rather… pointed lyrics, shall we say. Magenta and politics? Whatever next!?
Magenta, as always, certainly have interesting ideas and ambition, but have they succeeded with Masters of Illusion?
Personally, whilst I enjoy its scope and imagination, I am not sure it always works for me (and I confess I do prefer Rob Reed’s other incarnation with the great, but VERY different Chimpan A album The Empathy Machine so far this year).
However, on the whole, Magenta have hit the target again with an album of fascinating pieces imbued with passion and quirky insights into the lives of these peculiar figures, described in imaginative musical frames. These are meticulously well put together pieces filled with melody, power, drama, emotion and dazzling musical virtuosity.
This is a high quality ‘Prog’ album (very definitely with a capital ‘P’) focusing on wildly dramatic actors with turbulent, complex lives playing exotic and baroque figures in Gothic horror films… absolutely perfect for Magenta’s brand of elaborate, widescreen music.
[TPA would like to give a special thanks to Chris Jones and Steve Reed for their help with this review.]
01. Bela (11:16)
02. A Gift from God (8:30)
03. Reach for the Moon (9:27)
04. Snow (6:04)
05. The Rose (11:18)
06. Masters of Illusion (16:38)
Time – 62:13
The Lost Reel (Additional Deluxe Edition CD)
01. Legend (2020 Mix) (6:08)
02. Reach for the Moon (Shadow Mix) (5:42)
03. Not in our Name (2020 Mix) (7:15)
04. The Rose (Victor’s Mix) (8:01)
05. Bela (Band Mix) (9:07)
06. Masters of Illusion (Instrumental Mix) (16:37)
07. A Gift from God (Horn Mix) (8:33)
08. Man the Machine (2020 Mix) (5:34)
09. Turn the Tide (2020 Mix) (6:31)
Time – 73:28
Total Time – 135:41
Robert Reed – Keyboards, Mandolin, Acoustic & Electric Guitar, Backing Vocals
Christina Booth – Vocals
Chris Fry – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Backing Vocals
Dan Nelson – Bass
Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Griffiths – Drums, Percussion
Karla Powell – Oboe (tracks 1,2,3,5 & 6, & The Lost Reel tracks 4,5,6 & 7)
John Mitchell – Vocals (track 2, & The Lost Reel track 7)
Troy Donockley – Uilleean Pipes (track 5, & The Lost Reel track 4)
Pete Jones – Saxophone (tracks 3 & 5, & The Lost Reel tracks 2 & 5)
Andy Edwards – Drums (The Lost Reel track 3)
Tim Robinson – Drums (The Lost Reel track 8)
Kieran Bailey – Drums (The Lost Reel track 9)
Record Label: Tigermoth Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 1st July 2020
• Revolutions (2001)
• Seven (2004)
• Home (2006)
• New York Suite (2006) (Home and New York Suite later combined and re-released 2010)
• The Singles (2007)
• Metamorphosis (2008)
• Chameleon (2011)
• The Twenty Seven Club (2013)
• The Singles: Complete (2 CD) (2015)
• We are Legend (2017)
• We are Seven (2018)
• Masters of Illusion (2020)