Received wisdom defines Magenta pithily. “Neo-prog, female singer,” Robert Reed laughs wryly. But over more than two decades, some of Magenta’s seven previous albums have undermined said received wisdom significantly, most notably 2017’s We Are Legend.
Complete with dystopian artwork, that album was arguably the most radical of Magenta’s career. It was a considerably more dense – and to some, comparatively impenetrable – release. By contrast the band’s new album, Masters Of Illusion, is a return to the sound for which Magenta are best known. It’s also very possibly their strongest ever release and a deliberate stylistic shift from We Are Legend.
Reed has previously openly acknowledged that he struggled with both confidence and creative inspiration leading up to … Legend, feeling that he’d exhausted Magenta musically. As a result, that album took Magenta in a decidedly different direction.
“I get really bored if I do one style all the time and the same thing over and over again,” Reed explains. “That’s why I do other projects like Chimpan A, Kompendium and Sanctuary. With We Are Legend, I couldn’t find a way in. Eventually I thought we’d do something we hadn’t done before, which was embrace electronica sounds and loops and get a bit of a harder edge – stuff I’d avoided because I didn’t think it was us.”
Reed remains proud of …Legend and points out that some fans cite it as their favourite Magenta album. “I thought I would really push the envelope and do something that people wouldn’t expect. We went to an extreme with the electronica, the longer songs and darker stuff. I really enjoyed doing it. To me, it was successful.”
However there’s no doubt that …Legend proved a cathartic experience, smoothing the way for Masters Of Illusion. “After …Legend I was all for getting the Moog, the Taurus pedals and the Mellotrons out again,” Reed enthuses. “Over the last couple of albums, I hadn’t really indulged in ‘retro prog’. I fancied going back to the beginning of Magenta and what the band was all about when we started.”
When Magenta first emerged at the turn of the millennium, prog was far from flavour of the month. “It was such a swear word. Nobody wanted to be a prog band. It was the worst thing you could be labelled as.” Defiantly, Reed proceeded to make “the most prog album he could”, namely Magenta’s 2001 debut, Revolutions.
That album and its considerably more polished successor, 2004’s Seven, firmly established the band, while simultaneously benefiting from a lack of audience expectations. “There was an innocence on Revolutions and Seven. We didn’t have any fans, so we didn’t have anybody to please.”
In pleasing themselves by making the music that they wanted to make, Magenta soon acquired a fanbase that has remained loyal to them subsequently. But success comes with a price. “When you’ve got fans, there’s pressure and a niggle in the back of your mind saying that you can’t do some things because you don’t want to upset the fans too much. People judge you more and that innocence goes a bit.”
Having taken some of the band’s audience outside their aural comfort zone with …Legend, Reed decided that with Masters Of Illusion he would make the album that he wanted to hear stylistically: “I was desperately trying to get back that writing innocence of doing it for me.”
Notwithstanding the near 17-minute title track, the hour-long new release zooms by. Yes, stylistically the album harks back to Seven in particular, but it’s a more accomplished and beautifully arranged record. It’s also highly accessible, the result of Reed’s pop background.
“Before Magenta I spent 10 years trying to be a pop star. That nearly killed me and Tina,” Reed says, referring to his time alongside Magenta vocalist Christina Booth in Trippa. “I’d had enough of being told what to do by A&R people. Magenta was a cleansing of my soul after being a slave to the pop industry for a decade, sticking two fingers up to everyone and saying I’ll do whatever I want now.”
While pop music may be anathema to some prog fans, it’s also one of the secrets of Magenta’s success. “In pop, the song is king,” Reed states. “With Magenta, the song comes first and then you put the window dressing around it. But it’s still a song at heart. That’s why Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd are huge – they wrote great songs. Some other bands are technically amazing and musicians love them, but never sold any records because they never had any songs. Today, the bands that do well are the ones that write good songs.”
And purely and simply, Masters Of Illusion contains six very good songs. As Reed points out, they all follow the classic construction of a verse, a bridge and a memorable chorus. There’s then plenty of instrumental embellishment, such that even the album’s shortest track, Snow, exceeds six minutes.
“But you can get away with that, because on this album you’ve got the goodwill of the good songs. On We Are Legend, I was trying to write in a different way and break all the rules that I’d set myself. This new album is accessible because it’s going back to what Magenta were about on Seven.” It’s surely no coincidence that Seven remains Magenta’s best-selling album.
More surprisingly, given how cohesive Masters Of Illusion is stylistically and sonically, some of the music on it dates back a decade, with only the title track and A Gift From God specifically written for the album. “With the song Masters Of Illusion I was on a mission to make the proggiest track I could,” Reed confesses.
Two of the album’s indubitable highlights – the catchy Reach For The Moon and the gentle, emotive The Rose – were recorded and demoed at the time of …Legend. “We had almost finished those songs but I thought they sounded too prog, not modern enough, and were going back too much to the past. They were completely alien to what we were trying to do. So because I wanted to shock people and do something completely different, I put them aside while we were finishing the last record. When we came to this album I played them and realised that they were really good songs.”
Similarly, opening track Bela had sat on Reed’s hard drive for a decade with the keyboardist failing to find a suitable home for it. Having previously demoed it with himself singing, he realised its full potential once Booth demoed vocals for it. Snow had been similarly homeless for around five years.
While Masters… is musically cohesive, like Seven it benefits additionally from a unifying theme, although that considerably postdated the writing of the music. “The music always comes first,” Reed continues. “Lyrics are just not my thing, hence my love for Mike Oldfield and instrumental music. It’s all about the melody and the chords for me – they are what float my boat. Lyrics are secondary. Shoot me down in flames for saying that, especially in prog!”
Reed has always relied on his brother Steve to supply lyrics. “I don’t go near the lyrics. They’re not my department and I just can’t get my head around them. I do notice when I hear a corny or bad lyric, though!”
Instead, Robert Reed relishes having a concept to write music around. For Masters Of Illusion, the Reed brothers alighted on movie stars from the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s and subsequent Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
“Steve and I used to spend every Saturday night watching the Horror Double Bills on BBC2,” Reed explains. “Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are my acting heroes and I just loved the look of the films, especially the Hammer films which look like paintings. We were fanatical about them.”
With the lyrics for Bela inspired by the life of Bela Lugosi and written a few years subsequent to the song’s music, the brothers decided to make a horror actor the subject of each track on the album. “The real prog thing would be one song about Dracula and another about Frankenstein etc. But that was a horrendous idea and all the worst things about prog!”
Instead they chose to focus each song on the personal lives of six protagonists, with Lugosi, Cushing and Lee featured alongside Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr and Ingrid Pitt. As Reed points out, elements of the back stories of all six have a degree of universality. But there’s also an overarching concept to the album and a similarity with the world of musicians.
“With actors, you see them up on the screen or out at premiers and think they’re
so confident. But in real life, most of them are frail. It’s the same with musicians. To some extent, we’re all masters of illusion. You get on stage and people see this cocky arrogance. But when you come off stage, you’re as frail and as open to not liking criticism as anyone else.”
The album’s artwork features some important visual references too. “The cover shows this actor and various demons in the mirror. And the typewriter is meant as a nod and a wink at reviewers and journalists who can destroy people.”
With the prevalence of social media, it’s not just journalists who proffer opinions, welcome or otherwise, about creative endeavours. Reed has experienced this to his cost, principally from his Mike Oldfield-inspired Sanctuary albums, regarded by some Oldfield obsessives as sacrilegious.
“With social media everyone’s got an opinion and there’s no protection. Whereas before you’d have three or four critics and just had to weather that storm, now you’ve got millions: everyone’s a critic. Musicians are not built to take criticism, but when you’re putting music out, something so personal to you, you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
Reed clearly remains shocked by some of the reaction to his Sanctuary albums. “The level of abuse I got personally was on another level. There were such violent and personal attacks. I hadn’t killed anyone – I only made a record! But you’ve got to stand there like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back, because if you engage or try to fight back, that’s even worse.”
Happily, it’s highly unlikely that the excellent Masters Of Illusion will result in
a torrent of abuse raining down on Reed and his Magenta cohorts.
This article originally appeared in Prog 111.