Stefan Hennig had a wonderful time recently chatting with Magenta main man Rob Reed about the new album, Masters Of Illusion. Rob talks frankly about the difficulty and pressure of expectation when releasing a new record. He also gives an exclusive insight into what is coming out later in the year which should excite most fans of Prog. Keep reading to discover what is almost a rebirth, but is also the birth of a new prog supergroup.
How did the album concept come about?
Well, my brother (Steve Reed who has written many of the lyrics for various projects Rob has put together) and I always sit down at the beginning of writing a new Magenta album, have a brain storming session and agree on the concept of the new album. We will already have a load of music and a load of songs ready. With this album, we are both huge fans of Hammer Horror, and the old black and white Universal horror films from the '50's and '60's. We both used to stay up late and watch a double bill on a Saturday night, which we both looked forward to every week.
The opening track on the album, Bela, I had written about ten years ago, and it had sat on my hard drive. It had never been used. My brother had written the lyric to the song which was about the life of Bela Lugosi. So we thought lets give it a try with the Magenta set up, and it came out really good. So that song was about Bela Lugosi, we thought could we write the other songs about other actors.
So, rather than having a song about Frankenstein, which would have been very prog, but might be quite tacky as well, we thought about writing the songs about each of the actors back stories. Each of the actors we decided to write about have interesting back stories, so that's what we decided the album be about.
The title of the album, Masters Of Illusion, is also referring to how both musicians and actors, when they go on stage, are Masters Of Illusion, because when they come off stage they are all shy, can't take criticism, and quite fragile. When they are on stage, they put this act on, appearing to be extremely confident person when performing.
I have played the album to family member who generally do not listen to the music I do, but the premise has whetted their appetite enough for them to give Masters a listen, and their response has been very positive.
I come from a pop riting background. Before I started Magenta, myself and Tina spent ten years as a pop band trying to get a deal, which nearly killed us. I have always tried to write songs. The easy bit is writing segments which are played at a million miles an hour and in varying tempo changes. The hard bit, and the bit which connects to everyone, and the reason Yes and Genesis became more famous than other prog bands was because they wrote brilliant songs. The songs were always accessible, and then they dressed them with all the instrumental sections. Even then, the guitar solo's were like mini songs themselves, you could go away and song or whistle them on their own.
Everything on Masters Of Illusion is always about the song. So once I'd nailed the song I can think to myself, right, I can have a bit of fun now, and would go away and write the middle section. You have got to write something that draws people in.
When I'm making a new record, I'm brutally honest with myself. If something is not working and there is a weak point in the song, even if its been there for a year or more, I'll throw it out. If it spoils the song then it has to go, everything included within a song has to earn it keep.
A review of the album which has already been posted online, suggests that the final track on the album, title track Masters Of Illusion, will stretch the staying power of even the most ardent prog fan. This surprised me, even though the song last nearly 17 minutes, it feels like it flies by.
Yes, I read that, and they are the only person to have said that. Only a few people have heard the album, but everyone has loved the last track. When I'm writing a song of that length I am always aware that people's attention spans are shorter now-day's. I purposely made it so that a new part of the song, a new melody or something new happening throughout the song. Music is so personal and objective that you are never going to please all the people all the time.
The other thing is it feels like everyone is a reviewer. You go onto Facebook and everyone is giving their opinion, and it is difficult not to be steered by those comments. I don't mind people who are honest. For me the worse review you can receive is when someone says “its okay”. I don't mind someone saying “I've listened to the album three or four times and its not my cup of tea”. But at times on social media some times a line is crossed and it becomes a personal attack.
With this album I wanted to take a step back. When I made the first Magenta albums, Revolutions and Seven, and to a degree the Cyan records, they were made with such innocence. We have been doing Magenta for twenty years and there are eight albums, and all the fans, so when I was making records it got like I can't do this and I can't try that style.
When I made the first albums, these were straight after the pop stuff, and prog was almost a swear word, nobody wanted to be associated with the genre. So I thought I'm going to make the most prog album I can, a double album with four songs, and everyone seemed to buy into it. So with Masters Of Illusion, I have tried to go back to try and really make it prog, with Moog solos, the 12 strings and the bass pedals. While the great songs are their, it is an unashamed prog album.
It has almost gone full circle since we started Magenta in the late 90s. A lot of bands around did not want to be associated with the word prog. Whereas now a lot more bands are flying the prog banner, they wanted to be known as a rock band, not a prog band. But now there are a lot of prog bands with a disposable income, and prog is one of the last forms of music that fans will still pay for a physical product. So you have bands now using the prog title for their product, and when you listen to it you think that's not prog, it heavy metal, or alternative rock. So it is a very crowded market. Hence the fact I wanted to make this album a prog album, and with the last track, full of Moog and guitar solos.
I feel that it is a more traditional prog album, with the beginning songs on the album almost being the appetiser for the main course, which would be the long track.
That's right, and for the first time it is a full band making the album. Whereas before we had session bass players and drummers, but it is now a fixed line up and everything was recorded at my studio, so we could spend a lot more time on the record. Before we would go into Rockworld or Real World Studios to record the drums, and we would only have two days to record everything. But with this record we could really go to town on it, we were all set up in the studio, so we could spend as long as we wanted, making sure we made it as good as we could.
What were the reactions of the rest of the band when you told them you would be recording an album about famous horror actors?
Well, the way we work is I write all these songs, I sing the melodies with no words, or just rubbish I make up at the time. I then give that to my brother who tries to then write the lyrics to my warbling. I then go back, record another demo of me singing the lyrics, I then hand that to Tina, and that is the moment when Tina goes “Oh my God, what's this?” The first demos are so rough, you've got me singing and playing the guitar solos with all the wrong notes.
It would be interesting to see Christina's face on first listen.
Well, one day she has threatened to release the demos to the public as they are so appalling. Then she comes in and does it properly, along with the rest of the band. One of my issues with prog band's with female singers is they completely ignore the fact they have a female singer when writing a song, so when it comes to singing, she is singing in the wrong key for her, or the wrong register. So you end up with this female voice being drowned out by this almost heavy metal and it just does not work.
So when we get together as a band, we start playing a song I have taken six months writing, and suddenly discover it has been written in completely the wrong key for Tina. So we record everything again. But it has got to be right as the vocalist is the most important part of the record. You can have all the solos, all the flash, but if the singer can't sing the song, then you have had it. We also struggle at times with the prog fans because a large percentage of prog fans do not like female singers. So the fact Magenta do so well shows how good Tina is at what she does.
When is the official release date for Masters Of Illusion?
Officially it's July 1st. But with everything that has been going on lots of things have been up in the air. We had finished the record, and it was three days before the lock down that we managed to film two promotional records. We recorded Bela, and the albums second track, A Gift From God, which features John Mitchell from It Bites and Arena. John came down and we shot the videos which we were actually lucky to have done them. I had to think hard about whether to release the album now. I had just released the Chimpan A album the first week after lock down. So that was a kind of test to see the reaction of people buying music, and it seemed to work.
There seems to be a lot of bands who have pulled the release of albums due to the current situation, and I think there will be a sudden deluge of music being released all at the same time. The other thing is because everyone in lock down has been making music which will add to the situation. So I thought it is the right time to release the new album.
We have really gone to town with the packaging for the album. I believe in providing value for money. It is because of progressive rock music and the fans that I am able to do just music 24/7, and if people are prepared to give me their hard-earned money for my music, then I owe it to them to give them the best recorded, best produced and best packaged product I can. So with this album we have produced an additional CD of tracks which we are presenting in what looks like an old film canister.
With the lock down, I assume this album release is not typical of what would happen usually. You'll be spending all your time promoting the disc rather than preparing to play it.
Yes, it's a weird time, because normally now we would be learning to play all the songs live, and do some shows. But all of that has gone out of the window, so now its sitting back and seeing what happens. Where I spend a lot of energy, with all the projects I'm involved with is trying to get new fans to listen to the music.
After the release of the last Magenta album, We Are Legend, I really struggled with the enthusiasm to release another Magenta record. This was because Magenta had been going for about 20 years. It felt like we had hit a brick wall where people think they know exactly what you do. It's like oh yes, Magenta, a female singer playing retro prog, and think no thank you. You then have the fans who love what we do and I'm extremely grateful, thank you all very much. But it felt with the release of the last album we could have released Dark Side Of The Moon or The Birdy Song, and it would still sell exactly the same amount.
Because we are classed as an established band it sometimes feels that the quality of the song writing and production are almost taken as granted. But if a new band put it out, everyone would go wow isn't this brilliant. So it was a real struggle due to the expectation of what we would release, and so the battle is how do I get new people to give us a listen and get some new listeners. When we play live we always have someone coming up saying wow, I didn't know you existed and buying all of the back catalogue, and they are converted.
What are the future plans, if you still have any in the current climate?
Last year I had four albums nearly complete at Christmas. So the plan was for the Chimpan-A album to come out first, followed by Masters Of Illusion. Then there would be the new Sanctuary release, which would be the fourth under this name.
Then to finish the year, tied in with an appearance at The Summers End Festival, would be the release of a new Cyan album, which I have nearly finished. The new Cyan release is a complete reworking of the first Cyan album. In the band there is me, Pete Jones is singing, Luke Machin from Maschine on guitar, the drummer and bass player from Magenta, and a girl singer. The album with Pete's singing sounds simply amazing. I wrote the album when I was still at school, so to hear those songs now, with Pete singing, and having thrown the kitchen sink at it production-wise is simply amazing. So that is something to look forward to coming out.
Round Table Review
Magenta — Masters Of Illusion
I touted Magenta's last studio album, We Are Legend, as a return to form for the band. For that reason, I was especially interested to see how Masters Of Illusion would compare. I am pleased to say that this new release finds them even further embracing their greatest strengths. It is an unabashedly old-school prog album that both in style and quality, harkens back to Magenta's earliest work.
The concept focuses on the "Masters of Illusion" who populated horror movies from the 30s to the 70s. Specifically, the personal lives of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Lon Chaney, Ingrid Pitt, and Peter Cushing. Though one would think that this interesting subject matter would lead to a dark musical tone, the overall feel of the album is more sanguine. The concept also provides them with the opportunity to create a cinematic structure around the lyrics and instrumentation, that is perfect.
The shift back to an earlier sound seems to have inspired the band, and that results in some of the strongest material in their discography. In fact, there isn't a weak or mediocre song on the album. The orchestration throughout is impeccable and the performances should please even the most discerning prog fan. There are particular moments of note, such as the infectious choruses on Snow, the stunning instrumental closing of The Rose (featuring Troy Donockley) and pretty much every guitar solo that Chris Fry plays. Also, the album seems tailor made for singer Christina Booth, who delivers some of the finest performances of her career.
Masters Of Illusion is a work of consistently high quality, and with every listen I found myself more and more enamored with this fantastic album. It is absolutely one of the best releases of the year and may very well be Magenta's crowning achievement.
I only became aware of Magenta this year when they opened the virtual Prog From Home Concert in May. Their performance impressed me, and I jumped at the chance to hear more from them on their latest album, Masters Of Illusion.
My curiosity increased further when I learned that the album is a collection of vignettes about six horror film actors, including those from Hammer Film Productions. The horror film actors, we learn on Masters Of Illusion, are more complex, and far more human than they appear on celluloid with blood dripping from their teeth. The cover art, which shows an aging actor from the back, seated at a make-up table with broken or missing lights, hints that we are going to get a view from the actors' perspectives rather than the camera.
Probably the strongest track, Bela, opens the album in appropriately dramatic fashion with a suspenseful orchestral intro. Chris Fry's guitar and Robert Reed's keyboards storm in, as the song shifts to energetic, 70s-styled prog, enhanced by orchestral touches. Fry's guitar skills impressed me immediately, and this track showcases a wide variety of techniques, from distorted single-note lines to slow, bluesy playing and clean-toned, jazzy, fast picking.
After Bela's lengthy but effective introduction, Christina Booth enters on vocals, with her clear voice punching out staccato words and strong melodies over a shifting meter. The song has a hooky, exuberant chorus which describes the rise of Lugosi's career in his younger days. Both the music and lyrics in Bela are sadly evocative in describing Lugosi's gradual decline: "body aging / fame is fading / options start to fall." Bela is a dense eleven-plus minutes of music, and quite a successful album opening.
The second piece, A Gift From God, is another favorite, showing off Booth's lower range in the verse against oboe obbligatos, and then harmonising beautifully in the chorus with John Mitchell (Lonely Robot, Arena, It Bites, Kino). Twelve-string acoustic guitar, synth strings, and vintage keyboard sounds evoke mid-70s Genesis, naturally leading to a Chris Fry guitar solo that sounds a lot like the round tone that Steve Hackett gets when using the guitar's neck pickup.
Unfortunately, the middle tracks on the album are not as compelling as the first two. The songs seem weaker both lyrically and melodically, with the vocal sections too pop-influenced and light in style to match the heavier, proggy instrumental sections. These are dark themes painted in pastel colors, instead of the dramatic Rembrandt-like earth tones of Bela.
The title song, Masters Of Illusion, though, returns to the strength of the first two pieces. This 16:39 track about Vincent Price is sweeping and dramatic, and Chris Fry has time to channel his inner Andy Latimer and Steve Howe in the lengthy instrumental sections. Christina Booth's vocals may be at their strongest here, over keyboard sounds that borrow heavily from Genesis and early Marillion.
The production on this album is generally excellent. If I have any quibbles, it's that I would prefer to hear more clarity on the drums, which get a little lost in the mix, and I would prefer less-nostalgic keyboard sounds that would better fit the time periods in which these actors lived. While not all of the songs on Masters of Illusion fit my taste, I have great respect for the boldness of this album's concept. Chris Fry's guitar abilities and Christine Booth's singing will surely have me following the more-adventurous songs that Magenta tackles in the future.
Magenta's latest album contains a theme, or concept, which binds together the six songs on the album, and pays homage to the actors who portrayed some of the most legendary horror characters of all time. Rather than focus upon the characters they portrayed, Rob Reed and brother Steve (the classic Magenta tune-smiths), focus upon specific issues with which each actor toiled throughout their careers.
Two of the actors' details I was not aware of. The first being Peter Cushing's love of his wife and passion of growing roses, and his alleged infidelity. Then there is the trauma that Vincent Price went through during the making of the film Witchfinder General. The stories alone have provided me with the chance to discover more detail of these legendary actors and their history. That was before even having the opportunity the hear these stories told via the six stunning songs included on Masters Of Illusion.
Each track has a life and identity of its own. With the concept, I was a bit concerned that the songs would portray a dark and brooding atmosphere. With what is currently happening in the world, I am yearning the opposite. I'm wanting hope and optimism. I need not have worried, because this is exactly how the album leaves me feeling after every listen.
Opening track Bela, begins with an orchestral introduction before tubular bells welcome the band who take the listener on a full-on prog journey with soaring guitar solos and big analogue synths that remind me of what originally made me a fan of prog. Chris Foy provides some guitar licks which at times will make you think Steve Howe has made an appearance. Chris takes every possible opportunity throughout the album to display his skill for delivering melody in every note.
A Gift From God features a guest vocal from John Mitchell which adds the extra texture to the story of Christopher Lee. He also makes an appearance on the video for the song which is included, along with the Bela video, on the DVD included in the physical package. This also includes 5.1 DTS and Dolby mixes of the album.
Throughout, Christina Booth delivers wonderful vocals as you would expect. I feel this is her best recorded performance; all made possible by some stunning song writing, enabling her to showcase her voice to its best. Listen to the choruses of Reach For The Moon and The Rose and tell me they don't have some of the best, catchy hooklines you have heard for a long time. You will find yourself with those melodies stuck in your conscious for a long, long time.
What seems to have made a vast difference to the sound, is the rhythm section of Jiffy Griffiths on drums and bass player Dan Nelson. Both are now permanent members of Magenta, and this has enabled them to feel like a part of the band. The time restrictions imposed on previous Magenta recordings have limited the available recording time of drums and bass, and has meant that the rhythm section was very automated in their delivery. But the extra time afforded to record the drums and bass have added a new dimension to the Magenta sound. This is best displayed during Masters Of Illusion, where during the instrumental breaks, both Jiffy and Dan appear to exploit the chance to improvise, and add to the proggy atmosphere.
I am surprised the track Snow was not released as a teaser for the album, as its quirky, funky piano intro riff, the type associated with Kate Bush and Tori Amos, gets its claws into you aural receptors and will not let you stop listening to the song. Then the pop undertones of the chorus pull you in to what should be gracing the pop charts. A simply enthralling piece of songwriting. I dare anyone not to like this song.
The production of the album is simply stunning and Rob Reed should be proud of having produced and absolute gem, both in sound and song writing.
For anyone who has been looking for a unashamedly progressive rock record that wears the banner loud and proud, look no further than Masters Of Illusion. This is probably the most essential prog release for a long time. If you call yourself a prog fan, then buy this album. You will not be disappointed. You might even FANG yourself for it.
Magenta — Masters Of Illusion [Special Edition]
Robert Reed ranks among the most prolific modern-day prog artists. Last year he released an album with Les Penning full of nice, folky instrumentals in the Mike Oldfield-vein (review here) as well as producing a live 2CD/2DVD set of two Magenta acoustic gigs recorded in 2018 and 2019. He released a new Chimpan-A album this spring, thus adding his contribution to the pop scene. And now there is a brand new Magenta album entitled Masters Of Illusion, comprised of six well-elaborated songs. Apart from the huge quantity of new music that he releases, the musical styles are so different that it is nothing but amazing that one person can write all these tunes. Additionally, he also does the production on all these albums as well as of the videos that accompany them. And he also answers the mail himself, which is great. Does that man ever sleep?
This review deals with the special edition of the new album that offers the original album, a 5.1 DTS & Dolby surround mix on dvd with two fine promo videos and a very informative interview, filmed in black-and-white, with the master himself, plus a full-length bonus cd entitled The Lost Reel with alternative mixes of five tracks from the new album, three older songs and a brand new song not on the main disc. This lovely package, also including a beautiful booklet with all the lyrics and very fitting artwork, could only be obtained by pre-order from the band's website, but the The Lost Reel is still separately available in CD and digital versions.
The six new songs are typically Magenta in many ways. Each is complex with many different musical themes blended together in a deceivingly 'natural' manner. Christina Booth's vocals are top-notch of course, as is the guitar playing by Fry, both during his many solos as well as during his acoustic and electric support of the songs. That man is very undervalued as a guitarist!
The rhythm section is again superb. The many changes in timing and pace are played impeccably. Reed himself is all over the place, with intricate keys sounding like oboe and harp in A Gift From God (or are these the real instruments? I can't tell) as well as in-your-face Moog solos and some Hammond parts in Bela ans in the title song.
Stylistically this album is more varied than former ones. We hear a romantic ballad with fabulous instrumentation that makes you think of, for instance, Ripples, there is an English waltz-like song (The Rose), an epic in six minutes (Snow), a bluesy track (Reach For The Moon), and an epic title track fully packed with musical themes, tempo changes and a huge variation in instruments taking the lead.
All songs on this album are simply fabulous, maybe with the exception of Snow that doesn't appeal to me that much. Yet you have to spend some time to discover the musical gems on this album, since so much happens in the songs. When the choruses stick to your mind, the verses start to flow naturally and the music comes to life. This is how (prog) music should be. This album marks Magenta again as one of the most important prog bands nowadays.
The full-length bonus CD The Lost Reel features new mixes of five of the six tracks on the new album, augmented by new mixes of three older tracks.
An outtake of Legend, the title song of their former album opens this fine album. This short version is only half the length, yet succeeds in sticking quite close to the original, because within its six minutes the central themes and vocal lines remain. The Shadow mix of Reach For The Moon is a piano-driven, stripped down version of the original, fortunately with the fine sax solo played, this time against the subtle background of piano and keys. After the characteristically-loud thunder, a choral and orchestral arrangement lead to the majestic end, formed by a short piano coda. This version shows again that Magenta songs are well suited to be played acoustically, in spite of the complex arrangements.
Not In Your Name is a new song written during the sessions for the We Are Legend album but it never saw the light of day (until now). Why it was shelved remains a mystery to me as it is a very nice tune that wouldn't have been out of place on that album. This track alone makes the purchase of this special edition more than worthwhile.
No information is given on who Victor is, the one responsible for a new mix of The Rose but he surely knew what he was doing. The essence of the song is not altered, but Fry's guitar is slightly more dominant while the middle section offers a beautiful orchestral interplay between Reed's strings, piano and oboe. Karla Powell is credited here for playing the oboe, where she is not mentioned on the original album, suggesting that the oboe sounds there came out of the synths.
The band mix of Bela is significantly shorter, as it lacks the fine orchestral intro. This time the song starts with the energetic guitar and Moog interplay, while the vocals come in after only a minute instead of after more than three minutes. The instrumental mix of the title song is a great piece of symphonic music that sounds very appealing. Yet I have to admit that I miss the vocals here dearly; they add so much to the music.
I was a bit worried about the 'horn-mix' of The Gift From God, having in mind loud horns sections of Phil Collins but that proves completely unnecessary. The fantastic, intricate interplay between oboe and strings is still there, no horns audible until the five-minute mark where they introduce a slightly different mood perfectly.
The short outbursts of the French horns are beautiful, mingled as they are with tubular bells and indicating the end of this version. But it isn't, for after a few seconds of silence, the song continues and an even more beautiful instrumental section follows with strings, oboe and harp leading towards the last vocal lines by Booth. It is stunning that they manage to make two very different but both very strong versions of that song.
The oldest reworking is Man and Machine from their debut album Revolutions. That 24-plus-minute epic is brought back to five-and-a-half minutes and is simply very nice to listen to. There is an orchestral arrangement in the background, fine lead vocals by Reed and Fry and the biting guitar theme. But knowing the original, this version cannot stand in its shadow.
That cannot be said of the closing track, Turn The Tide from the rather disappointing 2011 Chameleon album. With the slower pace, the different instruments and the melancholic atmosphere it is hardly recognisable as a reworking of that song. Fry's solo near the end is fantastic, as is the quiet piano coda. It is, to my opinion, far superior to the original.
With this new album, Magenta has not merely succeeded in maintaining the very high musical quality of their former albums, they have exceeded it. The oboe, saxophone, strings and uillean pipes add even more layers to their already wide sound, and form a big contrast to the loudness and busyness that always characterises their music. Because of this, the music on this new release has gained even more depth and variation.
The playing throughout the whole album is just wonderful, no one exempted. Christine Booth's vocals are fantastic as ever. The many incredible and creative musical talents working together in this band have again made a prog album that has everything to become a classic.
Therefore I can't say anything negative about this release which should lead to the highest score possible. Yet I won't, for a peculiar reason. I think that the band will somewhere in the near future, improve themselves again; however impossible that now seems. I don't know why I think it will happen, it just feels that way. Meanwhile I will cherish this record.