Issue 2008-018: Magenta Special
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Ballad Of Samuel Layne (20:17), Prekestolen (3:43), Metamorphosis (23:15), Blind Faith (6:01)
Bonus Material: Interview with Rob and Steve Reed (19:27), Interview with Steve Reed (8:28), Prekestolen video (3:27)
Geoff Feakes' Review
I’ve remarked before on this very site that given his track record Magenta main man Rob Reed can do virtually no wrong in my view. I therefore welcomed Metamorphosis the bands fourth studio album with understandable eagerness. With a new release averaging once every two years this is the bands first album proper since 2006’s pairing of Home and New York Suite. They did off course venture into the studio last year to record the near hit single Speechless and breathe new life into several Magenta standards for the The Singles collection. Since then they’ve undergone a couple of personnel changes with the departure of drummer Allan Mason-Jones and guitarist Martin Rosser although the latter is credited with ‘detuned guitar’ on this album. Original drummer Tim Robinson stepped in for this recording but will trade places with new boy Kieran Bailey for the up and coming live shows. Replacing Martin on stage will be Ezra’s Colin Edwards, teaming up with Magenta lead guitarist par excellence Chris Fry. As with the bands earlier recordings Rob provides the bass in addition to keyboards, guitars and recorder although regular bassist Dan Fry will resume his usual place when they go out live. Completing the line-up is of course the all important, nay essential vocal splendour of Christina Booth.
As before, Rob provides the music for the album whilst his brother Steve Reed is responsible for the lyrics. And they’re some of the grittiest words yet for a Magenta album and the perfect match for the gothic cover imagery. Musically this has been proclaimed as the bands darkest, most modern sounding release yet. Personally after several spins I don’t see it as a major departure, more a natural progression. True the sound is punchier, but the elaborate set pieces we’ve come to expect from Magenta are still in evidence and they’ve never been shy of integrating mainstream rock and pop sensibilities into their music. In fact during the opening epic length piece The Ballad Of Samuel Layne, Christina sounds more youthful and buoyant then ever despite the subject matter. Here a soldier in the World War 1 trenches reflects on his past, aware that he is going to an almost certain death. From the outset, with its slow burning build to a synth fanfare and Christina’s energetic chant, you know you’re in for something special.
The main melody is a strong one with good harmony support and sharp synth punctuations, and I just love the full on bass articulations. There’s a part I particularly like around six or seven minutes in featuring stabbing, staccato string bursts followed by an electrifying guitar solo. Elsewhere the guitar provides gutsy riffs and later lyrical phrasing reminiscent of Pendragon’s Am I Really Losing You. Guitar doesn’t have things all its own way however with sub Wakeman fiery synths more akin to The Tangent, strident string parts and the stirring Uilleann pipes of guest Troy Donockley all making an impression. Following a sad and reflective acoustic ballad the pace quickens, racing towards a dramatic finale driven by the full weight of the band. A plaintiff recorder motif leads into the second song Prekestolen, a Norwegian mountain plateau that infamously provided the backdrop for a couple’s suicide pact. A haunting guitar lament evokes Peter Banks and Jan Akkerman, setting the tone against an incessant rhythmic keys line. Pipes once more take flight providing a majestic conclusion.
Although it’s still too early to say, I believe the title track may well turn out to be the bands most accomplished piece to date. Within its twenty three plus minutes Metamorphosis certainly crosses many borders, mixing edgy guitar and string sections with rich Yes flavoured harmonies and pastoral acoustic interludes. In fact the mood becomes downright angry around the half way mark with pounding bass, piercing guitar and bombastic synth work. The gorgeous acoustic guitar, piano and percussive chimes section that follows is a clear reminder of Rob’s admiration for Mike Oldfield. The guitar work that’s been stunning throughout takes on mammoth proportions from this point on, evoking Steve Howe’s flamboyant style and David Gilmour’s bluesy touch at various stages. As the song weaves its way to a powerful close the uplifting choral work has Tears For Fears’ Head Over Heels written all it, backed by a cutting guitar phrase. Given that the song is about a schizophrenic serial killer the overall tone is far more optimistic than you would expect.
It segues into the final song Blind Faith, which feels very much like a companion piece to the title track. Following a deceptively hesitant opening, heavy guitar descends, which in turn gives way to a melodic folk tinged acoustic section with mandolin. The song benefits from a memorable melody against a rhythmic piano and guitar backdrop. Yet another soaring guitar break before the string section provides a powerful and dramatic closing theme. It’s reminiscent of the coda to the title song that precedes it except here the voices are replaced by strings.
It’s been well publicised that this album was mixed at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth where amongst others Queen and Rush recorded Bohemian Rhapsody and A Farewell To Kings respectively. Whilst the songs here may not be destined to crack the charts in the same way that Bohemian Rhapsody or even Closer To The Heart did, it’s a fresh and vibrant work that will hopefully gain them wider recognition. It was Rob’s ambition to produce a modern progressive rock album and I feel he’s succeeded in style. It certainly has all the right ingredients but above all else it’s the spectacular guitar work that really elevates it into the realms of greatness. To be truthful, I didn’t find this album as immediate as Magenta’s previous releases but that’s not a bad thing. Now that it’s succeeding in sinking its hooks into me I feel that it will cling on for some appreciable time to come.
Mark Hughes' Review
Magenta's fourth studio album sees a somewhat reduced version of the band, at least if the photographic evidence in the booklet is anything to go by; only Rob Reed and Christina Booth are featured despite guitarist Chris Fry still being included in the core trio of musicians. Other performers include Tim Robinson on drums, Martin Rosser on detuned guitar, Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes and Stephan Rhys Williams on backing vocals. Bass and additional guitar duties are performed by Rob Reed with lyrics, once again, penned by brother Steve.
So what is on offer this time round? Well for a start the sleeve is a bit more 'artistic' than previous releases with a central image more usually associated with a heavy metal band. And quite a strange image it is too, a heavily tattooed cadaver with no lower arms, one leg and a post-mortem midline incision. There is possibly some religious intent as the corpse, suitable attired in a loin cloth, is positioned crucifix like and the head is laid in some form of tube giving the impression of a halo. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it?! Whatever, the association between the art and the title (metamorphosis: a change in body form, such as a tadpole to a frog) is not immediately evident. Musically, the long tracks are back with two of the four tracks exceeding the 20 minute barrier. And yes, it is a concept album.
Opener The Ballad Of Samuel Layne is the first of the long numbers, relating the tale of a young couple married during a war and almost immediately being separated when the husband goes off to fight. The song is divided into three sections, an intro and scene setting, the war bride's prayer and the soldier's prayer, although it is mainly the lyrics that differentiate the sections. True to the Reed's recent statements, the album is more guitar focused than previous releases, with keyboards playing a more supportive role throughout. Some of the guitar work is reminiscent of Steve Howe particularly at the time of Tales From Topographic Oceans. A string quartet features periodically as do Mr Donockley's pipes and Christina's vocals are as good as they have ever been.
Unfortunately I found the whole thing rather a bore. Yes there are moments that spark the interest but overall the song seemed to drag and I wasn't totally engaged by the lyrics or the music. Prekestolen (which is a mountain plateau in Norway), is a short (relatively speaking!) piece that seems to primarily be a linking track as it doesn't really stand up by itself. Metamorphosis continues in a similar vein to what has gone before and accordingly suffers the same fate, some moments that strike an accord, others that seem just to extend the piece. However, there is greater musical variety in Metamorphosis which does give it the edge, even if a section 8 minutes or so in has a strong resemblance to early seventies Pink Floyd. Blind Faith sees the grinding, heavier guitars making a comeback but on the whole, did nothing to really make me sit up and take notice.
No doubt I will be in the minority in thinking that this is the least appealing of the Magenta studio albums, but I just did not get Metamorphosis, not as a concept, as a set of lyrics or as pieces of individual music. There is a lot more to a compelling song than the duration, the music should justify the length and not vice versa.
Bart Jan van der Vorst's Review
According to Magenta mastermind Rob Reed a new Magenta album usually orginates out of a song from the previous album. Apparently the song Demons off Home initially sparked the idea for their fourth album Metamorphosis. When I first read that news I was delighted; Home is one of my favourite albums of 2006 and Demons is my favourite track on it!
The artwork showing a severed torso hints at a departure from the accessable prog-lite of the previous albums. The presence of tracks over 20 minutes on the other hand hints at a return to their debut album Revolutions.
In truth, it's a bit of both. For starters the sound of the band has matured since Home. Magenta's music will always be called derivative, but it is no longer possible to reference each and every musical passage to another band like it was the case on Revolutions and Seven. The music is also slightly heavier than before, with several rocky guitar sections popping up throughout the album. On the other hand it is a return to the long song format of Revolutions -not my favourite of their discography- and judging from the photographs in the CD-booklet also a return to being a two-person project. On Home, and even moreso on the many singles and EPs the band released, it looked as if Reed wanted to portray Magenta as a full, proper band, with the entire live band appearing on these studio recordings. However, late last year both guitarist Martin Rosser and drummer Alan Mason-Jones left the band and seemingly this led to the decision of making a distinction between the studio and the live format of Magenta. So on the new album Magenta is once again presented as just Rob Reed and Christina Booth, with longtime collaborator Chris Fry a honorary third member (receiving a special credit in the liner notes).
The type of music Magenta is generally instantly likeable. Twiddly keyboard solos, heavenly guitar solos and angelic vocals - what is not to like? But for me the long running time of the tracks make the music far less easy to digest, and the dark concept about death and destruction even less so. So the two weeks I had to prepare this review did not seem long enough. There is a lot of good stuff on the album, in fact there are loads of really cool bits and riffs and solos and stuff, but on the whole it just doesn't seem work. The end result is just too patchy to my ears.
I won't be as negative as my colleague above however. I really like the music of Magenta. But somehow I wonder if the album wouldn't have benefited from a bit more work and possibly editing down the tracks into shorter ones. And coming from someone who listens to prog that is a rather odd statement, I know.
Let's just focus on the good bits for now. One of the first things to note about the music is that it is a bit heavier than its predecessors. Especially the title track and Blind Faith contain some fairly heavy guitar riffing. The sound has also been modernised and is combining seventies style analogue keyboards with present day vocal effects and drum loops, which work really well.
Rob Reed's keyboard solos echo the best of the Banks', Wakemans or Nolans of this world. Chris Fry, Magenta's lead guitarist since the beginning, excels with his many beautiful licks and Uilleann piper Troy Donockley makes a welcome return, adding his trademark sound to The Ballad Of Samuel Lane and Prekestolen. As for the bass, this is played by Rob Reed himself, and as he explains on the DVD, bass was one of his prime focuses for the album, and it shows, as the bass on Metamorphosis is definitely the best of all Magenta albums.
Though the album consists of four tracks, from a musical point of view there are only really two tracks on the album. The Ballad of Samuel Lane and Prekestolen are pretty much one track, as are Metamorphosis and Blind Faith. From a lyrical point of view though these tracks are to be considered separate songs, even though the short ditty Prekestolen doesn't really play as such. The second half is definitely the better half. The title track contains many good sections and good solos, and as said before, the heavyness of some sections gives it an extra punch. That said, the overly happy end-section sounds like a Spice Girls song with its 'la-la-la' chorus, and the final slide guitar solo comes too close to Pendragon's Am I Really Losing You? for comfort.
The album is available as a standard CD as well as a DVD, oddly titled The Metamorphosis Collection. The DVD contains several interviews and documentaries, as well as the entire album in 5.1 Surround Sound. And it is this surround mix that truly makes the music come alive. I have said this many times before: if there is one genre fit to take full advantage of surround sound mixes, it is the prog genre with all its layers, textures, multiple instruments, samples and generic weird stuff. Too few bands seem to be taking this road though, so I am particularly glad to be enjoying the album coming from all corners of my room. The surround mix just does the music so much more justice, you can hear so much more detail as opposed to the stereo mix.
The documentary and interviews are very informative, though a tad on the long side. The "Inside The Mix" section however is a gem. It shows Rob Reed behind his mixing desk talking through the entire album, highlighting each and every part in the music in what is basically the musical equivalent of a DVD commentary commonly featured on movie DVDs. The surround mix is worth the price of this DVD alone, though, so the rest of the content could be regarded bonus anyway. If you're only going to buy one version of the album, this is the one to go for!
My conclusion is a difficult one. How do you rate an album that contains wonderful music but doesn't work as a whole? The only song that I can truly say I like is Blind Faith which combines the best the band has to offer (great solos, beautiful vocals) into just six minutes, and sounds like a proper song. The rest of the album is just too patchy for my taste, proving that many good bits of music, don't necessarily make a good song. Had this been the band's follow-up to Revolutions I would probably have called it a great leap forward; after the magnificent Home it comes as a disappointment. However, that might be saying more about Home than about Metamorphosis.