Issue 2019-073: Nick Magnus Inter-Review
With a musical career dating back to 1976 when he joined the cult symphonic rock ensemble, The Enid, English keyboard player, composer and producer Nick Magnus has appeared with many of the progressive rock greats.
On the release of Catharsis, his sixth solo album, DPRP's Patrick McAfee re-visits some of the highlightes of Nick's career and discovers why he is still waiting for that call from Steven Spielberg.
DPRP: In the 70s, your musical career in the progressive rock scene began as a member of The Enid and then with the instrumental prog band Autumn. When did your admiration for progressive rock begin?
Nick: My initial interest in prog began when my brother (whose musical tastes I generally frowned upon) brought home Ars Longa Vita Brevis by The Nice. Around that time I was very much into Wendy Carlos: Switched On Bach and The Well Tempered Synthesiser were rarely off my turntable. So The Nice's integration of classical (especially Bach) and rock styles really hit the spot for me. It all took hold properly when schoolfriends took to marching around the playground proudly displaying Yes (Close To The Edge) and Genesis (Foxtrot) albums under their arms. Once I heard those, there was no going back! After that it was a steady diet of Gentle Giant, Greenslade, Refugee, Kayak, and many more. It was a great time for prog!
In 1978, you appeared on Spectral Mornings, the first of many Steve Hackett albums in the next twelve years in which you played a very collaborative musical role. Of the albums or songs that you recorded with Steve, do you have any particular favourites?
Spectral Mornings will always be a very special album for me. Not only was I bowled over to be working with one of my all-time prog heroes, but it was my first ever professional appearance on an album. The whole experience was permeated with a magical glow that hasn't diminished with time. Defector and Highly Strung also remain firm favourites. It's hard to single out individual songs but I was delighted to have been able to re-record the updated version of Camino Royale for the Genesis Revisited II album; this time with a decent Hammond sound!
Your first few solo albums, beginning with Straight On Till Morning in 1994, were heavily instrumental recordings. With Hexameron and particularly Children of Another God, your albums moved more directly into the progressive rock field and have showcased your work with great vocalists like Pete Hicks, Tony Patterson, Tim Bowness, Andy Neve, Amanda Lehmann, and others. In fact, from a song-based and even choral perspective, vocals have become an important and impressive part of your solo work. What drove this change in musical direction from your earlier heavily-instrumental keyboard/electronic albums, and what goes into choosing who sings each track?
Straight On and the bulk of Inhaling Green came from an entirely different mindset to the albums that followed. When I did those first two albums, I was harbouring dreams of becoming a film and TV composer, and I think that mindset is clear from my writing at that time. The style is what I call "miniaturism"; short, to-the-point pieces that could conceivably be theme tunes to a TV series. Much as I loved long-form conceptual prog, I found it hard to write long pieces. Four minutes was about my limit before I ran out of steam!
The big watershed moment came when I joined forces with Dick Foster (who writes all the subsequent albums' lyrics). He suggested doing a concept piece; the three-part Inhaling Green title track. He came up with the concept, loosely based around the end of time. All of a sudden, my inner prog muse leapt into gear. It was like scoring a movie, and before I knew it the piece had expanded to over 16 minutes. From that moment on, there was only one way forward. It was a real turning point for me. The addition of lyrics and vocals on Hexameron provided what had been missing from before; characters, and a sense of narrative.
Much of my previous material was written in a vacuum, where your starting point relies solely on musical ideas, with no conceptual theme to act as a framework to build upon. In contrast, having narrative and a subject matter (much like a movie storyboard) steers you in a clear direction, opening a doorway to things you'd never have written otherwise.
As to the choice of vocalists, that's entirely guided by each song. For example, Tony Patterson's "earthy" voice suits songs that tend towards being dark in character, and he's terrific with the acting as well. Pete Hicks's bright, optimistic tone suits songs that have an element of irony or humour in them. Andy Neve has a very clear voice, and is great at doing close, airy-sounding harmonies. Tim Bowness has a deliciously melancholic approach, and was the perfect voice for Broken on N'monix. The song A Widow in Black on this album was the first time I've worked with Amanda Lehmann. I'd admired her singing with Steve many times, so it was fantastic to have her involved. Basically, choosing a vocalist is much like the way you'd choose which instrument is going to play a particular part.
The 'concept' or theme of Catharsis is the strong effect that certain places on this earth, as well as their history, can have on us. In this case, the Ariège region of France. The album does a fantastic job of capturing the grandeur and emotion that certain locations can bring out of us. There is a sweeping quality to much of the album that is very visual and at times, soundtrack like. Particularly on the epic opening and closing tracks (Red Blood On White Stone and Mountain Mother). The use of orchestration and choral vocals is stunning. I know that you have done film score work in the past, and was curious if that is something that you are still interested in?
Thank you! As mentioned earlier, TV and film music has always been a great interest of mine. Apart from the occasional foray into that field, that particular ambition never came to pass. It seems to me to be a very closed shop. You have to be very thick-skinned, comfortable with networking and self-promotion, and willing to work to incredibly tight deadlines, where approval is decided by committee. I'm not sure I have the right temperament any more, but having said that, if Steven Spielberg were to call I might have to seriously reconsider!
Catharsis captured me from the first listen. It has everything that a progressive rock fan would want. There are grand and dramatic moments, the melodies are memorable and the songwriting and performances are superb. One of the things that I think is great about the current music scene, is the ability for artists to make albums outside of the pressures and push of the corporate record labels. This album seems to be so clearly your vision. As someone who has worked on both sides of the business, how important is it for you to be able to create your art on your terms?
I'd say it was very important, which is why I'd probably make a lousy film/TV composer! The great thing about progressive music is that the artist generally does have the freedom to do what they want; it goes hand in hand with the very nature of the genre. However, even the less 'corporate' labels put pressure on artists to turn out a certain amount of product in a specific time period. That's one reason I opt to self-release, since I don't feel I could do the best job possible given those time constraints. I'm a slow writer, as the long gaps between albums attest to. Also there are two of us involved in the writing, so there are two 'muses' that have to feel in the mood to write!
Some fans feel that the heyday of Steve Hackett albums was during the years that you were in his band. In many ways, your solo albums capture a lot of the spirit of those classic albums. The fact that you have continued to work with Steve, John Hackett and Pete Hicks is wonderful. They play a big part in your musical story, as you do in theirs. When creating a new album, do you go into it with parts for Steve and Pete in mind?
Dick and I like to storyboard an album right from the moment that we have a concept in mind. That storyboard may stay much the same, or it might change radically as we go along, often before any music or lyrics have been written. So we'll have embryonic ideas for the feel of specific tracks quite early on, and quite often some idea of who would be good to have involved, vocally or instrumentally. That way we can write with those people in mind, which helps inform the way the tracks evolve.
Sometimes it's not clear who will be on a track until halfway through writing, and you have to wait for the track to tell you. The Market At Mirepoix is a good example. The thought to have Steve Unruh do a rock violin solo came when I was doing some guest keyboards on United Progressive Fraternity's Planetary Overload - Loss album. I was so impressed with Steve's work on that album, I knew the solo simply had to be him. His playing is uninhibited in a way that I could never match, and fits in perfectly with the 'gitan francais' feel of the track.
Aside from your own albums, you have appeared on others' recordings over the years, including recent appearances on the important United Progressive Fraternity albums. Do you stay connected to the current prog scene and are there bands or artists that you are particularly impressed with?
I'm probably not as well acquainted with the current prog scene as I could be. That's arguably a positive thing as far as avoiding being influenced too heavily by what others are doing. Nevertheless artists I've been impressed by recently include Lifesigns, Frost*, Nad Sylvan, UPF and their previous incarnation Unitopia, The Mute Gods and my current favourites Big Big Train. Oh, and some guy called Steve Hackett; but then of course I'm biased!
Just a quick fun question to end things with. Do you have one or a few Desert Island albums that are especially important to you? Either your own or from other artists.
Given my previous answers, some of these will be obvious: the Refugee album, Selling England and Trick Of The Tail by Genesis, English Electric Full Power by Big Big Train, Close To The Edge and Fragile by Yes, pretty much anything by Gentle Giant... I could go on. However, I simply couldn't get by without Vladimir Ashkenazy's performance of Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto.
Nick, thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions and for all of the great music that you have given us over the years!
Thank you too Pat. It's been a pleasure.
Nick Magnus - Catharsis
Over the last 25 years, keyboardist Nick Magnus has somewhat quietly released an impressive collection of solo albums. Best known for his work with Steve Hackett in the 70s and 80s, Nick's solo material confirms the influence that he had on the great Hackett albums of that era.
Like most of his previous solo releases, Catharsis is unabashedly old-fashioned, in the best sense. It's not that the album sounds dated, but Nick embraces the old-school musical values that helped to create so many excellent albums "back in the day". As technically talented as the classic prog musicians were, and regardless of the amount of time changes utilised, the music was almost always melodic. Nick Magnus seems to be dedicated to that same ideology. Catharsis succeeds, in large part due to his ability to create music in which strong melodies are always a key feature.
The opening track, Red Blood On White Stone is a perfect example of this. Filled with musical twists and turns, there is a tonne of grandeur and majesty packed into its nine minutes. The song's diverse menagerie, includes a mix of orchestral segments, pounding drums, choral and harmony vocals and Steve Hackett's screeching guitar. All of these various elements are tied together by some truly infectious melodies.
Magnus creates progressive music that is accessible, but also complex and intricate. Inspired by the the beauty and history of the Ariège region of the French Pyrénées, the concept of Catharsis allows Nick the opportunity to convey many musical moods. There is a sweeping, film-score feel to much of the album. The music is visual and many of the songs are epic, if not in length, then certainly in scope. Variety is key to the material and each track presents a distinctly different musical vision.
Aside from the excellent instrumentation throughout, the vocal work of Amanda Lehmann, Pete Hicks, Tony Patterson, Andy Neve, and Magnus is also outstanding. Considering the diverse nature of the concept and the musical styles utilised, the use of several vocalists works really well. This is one of the those albums that, as I was listening to it, I found myself marvelling at how good it is.
As mentioned above, there is something nostalgic about Catharsis which lends to its appeal. Ultimately though, nostalgia only goes so far, and this album is entertaining for reasons far beyond sentimentality. If you reflect on classics like Spectral Mornings or some of the great Alan Parsons Project releases and say: "They don't make them like that anymore", think again. Nick Magnus does. Impeccably produced, full of great songs and outstanding performances, Catharsis has earned a place on my list of 2019's best albums.