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Magenta - Live: On our way to who knows where CD (album) cover




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4 stars Well, no one else seems to be interested in reviewing this live album, so I'll take a crack at it!

Magenta, hailing from Wales, is one of the best prog bands active today, and has been since its inception in 2001. Not only have they, to date, released seven superb studio albums, but are a phenomenal live band as well, as evidenced by their five live CDs and three live DVDs. Basically anything they release is worthy of purchase, so, one might ask, "Why the four stars?"

Because, when you are a truly great live band, your only real competition is yourself, and sadly, "On Our Way to Who Knows Where" is easily Magenta's weakest live album. It isn't even that close. Other live albums, especially "The Gathering" and "Live at the Point", are so good that the live versions eclipse even the studio versions, and I often recommend them to friends unfamiliar with Magenta as a sort of "greatest hits" album. No such luck with "OOWTWKW", which seems to find the band in an uncomfortable transition personnel-wise. The essential core of Magenta remains; the mellifluous keyboards and extraordinary songwriting of Rob Reed, Christina Booth's exquisite vocals, and the soaring lead guitar parts of Chris Fry. But the other half of the live group, Rhythm Guitarist Martin Rosser, Bassist Dan Fry, and Drummer Alan Mason Jones are gone (apparently quit en masse to form their own band), and are replaced by Dan Nelson (Bass) and Steve Roberts (Drums), moonlighting from their own band Godsticks.

The results are mixed - Nelson and Roberts are fine players, but the band has not "jelled" to the level of the other live albums, and there are tentative moments, sluggish tempi (especially "Metamorphosis") and sloppy ensemble (the beginning of "Pride" being the most obvious example). Most of the songs sound like they need a few more run-throughs before committing them to immortality on disk. But there is a bigger problem here, and that is the elimination of the rhythm guitar part previously manned by Martin Rosser. Two guitarists might seem like a luxury for a live lineup, but for Magenta it is absolutely essential. One does not realize how critical Rosser's contributions are until until they are gone. Not only did he provide a lush harmonic and rhythmic cushion in the middle of the sound spectrum, he covered the many dual lead parts, reinforced the bass at critical moments, and was a reliable second backup vocalist.

As a result, all the songs covered in previous live albums sound comparatively thin and empty here. These include live mainstays "Gluttony" and "Pride" from "Seven", "Towers of Hope" and "Demons" from "Home", and "I'm Alive" from "The Singles". The "Revolutions Medley", from Magenta's audacious and entertaining 1st album, is a successful 20 min. "highlight reel" of the first three songs ("Children of the Sun", "The White Witch", and "Man the Machine"). Why the fourth song, "Genetisis", is left out, is anybody's guess. One misses Rosser here as well, but it is a fun listen - Booth and Fry both really soar on this track. Still, I much prefer the complete versions of these songs that one finds on earlier live albums.

So, for the Magenta fan, the chief attraction of "OOWTWKW" has to be the songs that are covered here live for the first time. Fortunately, they are plentiful, with four songs from their most recent album at the time, "Chameleon" ("Glitterball", "Guernica", "Raw", and "Red"), plus the only more-or-less complete live version of "Metamorphosis", from the monumentally great album of the same name. "Chameleon" is a somewhat unfairly maligned album, and I was happy to hear these live versions. Perhaps because Magenta was going for a less prog-like, more "contemporary" sound on this album, I did not miss the rhythm guitar part as much. "Red" is one of Magenta's truly great ballads, and hearing Booth effortlessly float those endlessly long lines is thrilling live. Conversely, "Raw" receives a shattering, spine-tingling performance from Booth - This song packs a wallop live, and should remain in their set-lists for years to come.

For this Magenta fan, "Metamorphosis" provided both the greatest anticipation and the greatest disappointment. For an album that is, by Reed's own description, more densely layered with guitar tracks than any other Magenta album, the absence of the second guitar is felt acutely. And I do not understand the two small cuts that Reed inserts towards the end - This is great music that deserves to be heard in its entirety. And finally, as I indicated above, it just feels sluggish - Passages that crackle with excitement on the studio release seem lethargic. Yes it is very difficult music to play, but it is completely worth their absolute best effort, and I don't think we hear it here. (The other major track on the "Metamorphosis" album, "Ballad of Samuel Layne", is equally great and even more difficult, which explains why Magenta has not yet released a complete live version of it.) On the brighter side, it is great to have even a flawed live version of "Metamorphosis", and the terrific concert ending, combining two motives from earlier in the piece, almost is worth the price of the CD!

Also almost worth the price of the CD is the bonus track "When We Were Young", presumably a product of the "Chameleon" recording sessions. This is no curio or throwaway, but a gorgeous, densely layered ballad that shows Reed's genius as an arranger and producer in full bloom. Unusually for Magenta, it has kind of a "world music" feel, with acoustic piano combining beautifully with acoustic guitar - Soon string and wind arrangements are added. The refrain repeats the ultimate cliché from the Beatles ("Yeah, yeah, yeah"), but the music is so utterly gorgeous that its meaning is completely transformed. After some beautiful acoustic guitar work from Fry, the second verse appears completely reorchestrated, with complex overlapping wordless vocals, before eventually fading away to the opening strains of piano and guitar. Combined with Booth's typically exquisite vocals, "When We Were Young" is 4 minutes of heaven.

So, to summarize, "On Our Way to Who Knows Where" is a bit of an odd and uneven release from Magenta. Certainly there is enough good stuff here to satisfy the average Magenta fan, and most have probably already picked up this album. For the Magenta novice, though, I would much more highly recommend Magenta's earlier live offerings. For the record, these are: "Another Time?Another Place" (2004), "The Gathering" (2005), "Live at the Point" (2008), and "Live at Real World" (2009). The earlier releases can be difficult and expensive to find, but I see from that "The Gathering" is about to be re-released - When that appears on Amazon, one should snatch it up!

I do hope that Magenta will go back to the much more satisfying dual guitar lineup for their live shows - They have a excellent new album out, "The 27 Club", which cries out for great live versions of the songs. But, they won't sound very good without rhythm guitar, in my opinion.

Scott Tisdel

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Posted Saturday, March 15, 2014 | Review Permalink

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