Very few prog bands have sailed through nearly two decades of music-making with flying colours quite like the Welsh Magenta.
With prog’s Captain Prolific, Rob Reed, still holding a strong and steady course at the helm, Magenta’s band of sister and brothers are united in their overwhelming desire to create some of the most mellifluous, melodic prog around.
Never afraid to steer into previously uncharted waters, Magenta’s canon of work now includes seven studio albums, the newest being We Are Legend, which is released on 27 April.
Again, this is completely new territory for a band that is now so adept at giving us memorable figures and concepts within their specific landscape, but more about that later.
I truly believed they had reached the zenith of their considerable powers when they released The Twenty Seven Club in 2013, an album depicting six musical legends- Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, Cobain and Johnson, all of whose lives came to tragic ends at that Bermuda Triangle age of 27.
Unfortunately, the good ship Magenta was then unexpectedly laid-up in dry dock following the album’s release after vocalist, winner of many female singer awards and living inspiration, Christina Booth was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her illness was something the singer never tried to hide from fans. In fact, while she was still undergoing treatment, Booth appeared with the band at the 2014 Trinity charity festival, where her rendition of Don’t Give Up with Alan Reed was one of the most moving performances prog has ever seen. Your humble reviewer witnessed many a festival goer, both male and female, weeping and with just cause.
Thankfully, her recovery resulted in Booth releasing a solo album, The Light, and also saw her duetting with David Longdon of Big Big Train on that exquisite charity version of Spectral Mornings, again produced by Rob Reed, with a cameo appearance by the song’s creator Steve Hackett.
At the same time, Reed, ever the workaholic, used the time to compose and release Sanctuary Pts 1 and 2, his unashamedly sound-alike paeans to his original prog god, Mike Oldfield, on which he played ALL the instruments.
But with four years now passed since The Twenty Seven Club was launched, Magenta are back in full sail doing what they do best, playing both live and making that gorgeous music.
We caught up with them again on Sunday (9 April) in unfamiliar territory for them, the new Talking Heads in Southampton. It’s a sizeable and airy little venue tucked behind a quaint lounge bar where a youthful jazz band was already going full tilt for the benefit of early evening quaffers.
More than 120 people, a truly respectable turn-out for a Sunday evening, were treated to a show of innate class and skill. This is a band that does not need gimmicks or special effects, as the quality of the music – and the personalities – speak for themselves.
There were tantalising glimpses of what the new album is all about as all three tracks are given initial albeit much-abbreviated run-outs, the mighty Trojan opening the show with its bombastic introduction, then the less frenetic Legend and finally, the swirling Colours with Booth doing her best ballerina dancing on a musical box routine.
The show was a circumnavigation of some of their finest moments, including Gluttony, Anger and Pride from Seven and the grandiose Metamorphosis. For my part, hearing the gloriously moving and oh so sad Pearl, the bluesy Devil at the Crossroads and the classic The Lizard King from The Twenty Seven Club was simply a joy.
What is more, along with Reed, Booth, the ever-smiling guitarist Chris Fry and stalwart young bassist Dan Nelson, the band has introduced fresh blood to its fleet through drummer, Jiffy Griffiths. Aged just 27, Jiffy is a blossoming and energetic young force of nature, who Reed rates very highly and who also played on the Sanctuary live shows and forthcoming DVD.
As far as personalities are concerned, Booth is a woman who does not mince her words and is always up for a cheeky double entendre, especially when espying Cap’n Reed having a sneaky banana break in between songs.
The interplay between Reed, Booth and Fry, and now to a greater degree, Nelson and Griffiths, embodies the love, respect and trust within this band and the tremendous rapport they have with their audiences, including the dedicated hard-core of adoring fans who follow them on their voyages.
Again, it’s that closeness which translates so well onto record especially when, to the music-making crew, you can also add Rob’s brother, Steve, the band’s resident lyricist.
We Are Legend
There really is a different vibe to We Are Legend, starting with the album cover – three figures in a desert landscape, backs to camera, bearing a tattered flag. If you care to open up the image further, you may also notice Battersea Power Station, iconic location for Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover, but that’s an interesting clue to the music that lies within the Legend. All the publicity shots show the band unsmiling and bedecked in dark jackets that also indicate a more sombre side to this album.
As for the music, it’s anchors aweigh with the swirling keyboards that begin Trojan, the ensuing 26 minutes being an epic journey in a vast landscape of aural dynamics that so beautifully capture the 2017 prog zeitgeist.
The story for the song emanates from Steve Reed’s imaginings in its first few minutes as a Japanese animation of robots coming out of the sea and conquering the lands and eventually destroying all the humans.
This theme continues throughout the song, one of the passages being told through the eyes of a young Japanese girl who calls the robot the Tin Man. So the story unfolds that the robots contained people who were banished to the sea by the surface people eons ago. They now emerge from the robots and reclaim the planet.
However, you are never fully aware of this cataclysm as the lyrics are inexplicit, Booth’s vocals coming in with a Yes-like single word phrasing. There are also shades of Yes in the chord sequences and that is before they land in Floydian territory. Hear it through Fry’s ever-cultured guitar playing passages which so beautifully channel David Gilmour at his bluesy, heart-stopping, moody best.
Towards the end, there’s an unashamed pastiche of Pink Floyd’s Time, complete with roto-toms intro that is quickly followed by more Yes chord sequences.
However, Magenta totally own their sound through Reed’s impeccable arrangements, including these unabashed acknowledgements to the classic prog Leviathans.
A tinkling musical box intro plunges us into the world of Vincent Van Gogh, where the chaos of his inner landscape that he translates into beautiful artistic visions is depicted in the vibrant, shimmering Colours. Booth attacks the lyrics with an urgent passion which fits so well into the waltz movement flowing through it. Again, there are flashes of Gilmour and a most surprising flute-like sequence. Shades of Genesis perhaps?
Finally, Legend proves to be the most enigmatic of the three tracks. Again, while the music continues in an almost trance-like fashion, the storyline throws the existence of the human race into peril through the zombification of the planet, the theme being based on the Omega Man/I Am Legend films. Never has the metamorphosis of human being into zombie sounded so beautiful and benign.
Drama comes with a sense of foreboding in the piece, along with some gorgeous ballad-like passages where Booth’s shimmering voice reigns supreme. Ultimately, it’s the recurring line, “It’s over”, which consigns the human race to its inevitable demise, captured in a denouement, which owes so much to Yes.
Like a stately five masted clipper ship, Magenta continue to make waves with We Are Legend, which sees the band reaching new levels of sophistication and maturity within their music. However, the jury here is still out on the lyrical themes which may have inspired the three tracks. I cannot wait to hear the next album when maybe peace will finally break out!
Live photos courtesy of Martin Reijman