Three years after Magenta’s previous studio album, We Are Legend, along comes their eighth studio set, Masters of Illusion. Chief writer and keyboard maestro Rob Reed admitted he found writing We Are Legend a difficult experience, and he got through what felt like classic writer’s block by trying his best to freshen up the band’s sound, including allowing some of his other influences to come through. In the light of those words, three years later, it’s interesting that the band seemed to have stepped back from that position a little and gone back to what Reed described as the things he loved about classic progressive rock.
Like The Twenty Seven Club, the band’s sixth album, the new release isn’t quite a concept album, but a collection of songs with a connected theme, in this case the careers of some of the great horror film stars over the years. Both Reed and his brother Steven, the band’s lyricist, are great admirers of the classic films of the Hammer and Universal studios, but these aren’t songs about Dracula, Dr Frankenstein and the rest, but focus on the individual actors’ lives, inside and outside show business. Even without the music, this is a lyrical tour de force, telling some absorbing and often tragic stories, and it’s really worth highlighting the depth and quality of the writing on the album.
The first track on the album, ‘Bela’, sets the standard immediately. There should be no need to inform anyone that this is about Bela Lugosi, legendary Dracula actor of the 1930s, but there’s much more here than fangs and coffins, it covers the story of his early success, then his fall into obscurity. With such a theme, it seems too easy to use a word such as cinematic, but it really is, from the exuberant opening, as his career took off, before the melancholy and sadness of his later years. Magenta have always worn their influences proudly on their sleeves, and if this does remind you of Yes, it’s much more focussed and vital than anything Yes have released for quite a while.
The second song, ‘A Gift from God’ is gentler and more reflective, based on the story of the late great Christopher Lee, who always wanted to be an opera singer, although, sadly, there’s no mention of the music he recorded with Manowar, It also has vocal backing from John Mitchell (It Bites, Arena, Lonely Robot, etc etc), giving it another new dimension. It’s a great song, and ‘Reach For The Moon’, focussing on Lon Chaney Junior, continues in the same light, starting almost as a blues, with saxophone by Peter Jones (Camel), leading to ‘Snow’, about Hammer legend Ingrid Pitt, a much quirkier song, with it’s opening jazz stylings, and several changes in mood and pace, despite it being the shortest song on the album.
’The Rose’ (Peter Cushing), starts off sounding like an archetypal Magenta song, but includes more saxophone by Peter Jones and the pipes of Troy Donockley (Nightwish) to take it in a whole new direction, before the album is completed by the title track, the longest track on the album, based on the life of Vincent Price. It wouldn’t be a Magenta album without a lengthy classic Prog epic, in this case over 16 minutes’ worth, and while a lot of it is very good indeed, it does seem to lose a little focus toward the end, possibly illustrated by, spoiler alert, the strangely abrupt ending.
This is the first album recorded by the band’s current live line up, and there are some fine performances here. Christina Booth is, as usual, is on scintillating form, bringing so much light and colour to the lyrics, and the rhythm section of Dan Nelson and Jiffy Griffiths also shine throughout the record. Masters of Illusion is an album that needs to be listened to, but the more you listen the more it shows what a good album it is.
- A Gift from God
- Reach For The Moon
- The Rose
- Masters of Illusion