So I’m writing a review of the new album by Magic Pie, and I figure I should be clever. The Pie is tasty, a confection, a dessert par excellence, a bit tart and sweet, etc., etc. And that doesn’t even address the “magic” part. And it all sounds stupid. Like I’m trying to be clever. And failing.
So let’s drop the a la mode and whipped cream (crud, there I go again) and just get to it. Magic Pie’s Fragments of the 5th Element is outstanding. It’s a great listen with Prog singles and an epic. It showcases outstanding musicianship. There are hooks galore. It is not a concept album, and yet there is something of a lyrical theme. This is one of my favorite releases of 2019.
Things kick off with “The Man Who Had It All,” which introduces a character out of John Steinbeck called Jeremiah. He’s a wino who has just died, a guy who loved life and wants his compatriots to carry on without him. There are no regrets for living in the seamy side of society—just a guy who had fun and had a smile on his face when he passed. Musically, Magic Pie sends Jeremiah off with a fanfare that segues into vocals/piano/bass—and then moves into a dissonant section followed by a Prog waltz. And that’s in the first two minutes of the song (a music hall segment is yet to come). And there are hooks in every part! “The Man Who Had It All” is a song that has it all.
“P & C” (pleasure and consequences) follows. And somewhat surprisingly, at least in terms of Prog, it’s another song about drinking and partying. But this time, the guy isn’t going to die, drunk, with a smile on his lips. Yes, there are ramifications…
Thirteen Tequilas, joined with a bottle of red.
No doubt! Best rush I’d ever had.
Woke up next morning, – managed to crawl out of bed.
Bulldozers truckin’ throu’ my head. So….
I made a clear decision.
Behold! A man with a mission
to build a wall-defencive,
between pleasure and consequences.
Singer/lyricist Eirikur Hauksson sings as if he knows that scene—he does—and is determined to turn things around. Coming to that decision isn’t easy, of course, and guitarist/band leader Kim Stenberg emphasizes that with some outstanding soloing. Keyboardist Erling Henanger is given two breaks, one a jazzy improv that explores another Prog genre, the other a quiet synthesizer part that shows the protagonist’s soul finding peace before the final resolution to do better. Did I mention that the first two songs are each about 5:35? Succinct, varied, interesting, compelling. That’s the way to kick off an album.
“Table for Two” is a love song (not for booze)—although not in ballad form. There’s a recurring fanfare that is broken up by a dreamy chorus section. This is the love a husband has for a wife after years of being together, remembering back to how it was early on. He sets up a candlelit table in the attic, reminiscent of those cafes of long ago. They don’t have much except for each other—and that’s more than enough.
Stenberg’s guitar turns bluesy on “Touched By An Angel.” This, too, is a remembrance of love—but of love lost, the pain and yearning of a man who was once in the heavens and whose life is now hell. He wants her back, in the worst way. The initial, quiet blues swells to an emotional roar in the chorus. This one really showcases the talents of singer Hauksson. In those quieter moments, he explores the lower part of his range and sounds remarkably like a crooning David Bowie. And with Stenberg providing a guitar counterpoint, this one packs a punch.
Then comes the 23-minute Prog epic to wrap things up…
But first, a word about Magic Pie, for there’s an interesting dynamic at play with in this Norwegian band (well, Hauksson is originally from Iceland). Kim Stenberg is more than just the lead guitarist. He writes, arranges and produces the music; he pretty much has final say on everything. He is a self-described introvert who wears hats and sunglasses to ward off the world and provide a persona of mystery. He’s happy letting Hauksson, with his long hair and rock star moves, be the front man of Magic Pie. Until Hauksson came on board a dozen years ago, Stenberg also was the lyricist. But Eirikur needed to feel the words and message, so Kim gave up those duties. That keeps Magic Pie from becoming a Prog Roger Daltrey–Pete Townsend-The Who situation, where the singer is basically the doppelganger mouthpiece for the guitarist/composer.
And in the case of Fragments of the 5th Element, Eirikur Hauksson’s words and performances are among the most intimate and personal of his time with The Pie. These vignettes are part of his story, and he’s going to tell them—no matter how much pain he has to relive.
Which brings us to “The Hedonist,” the Prog epic that closes the album. The title says it all—the protagonist wants to live a life of pleasure. Sure, he knows there is a lot of pain and sadness in the world but there’s little he can do to change things. Except…it sounds like the guy is trying to convince himself of that. Being a hedonist can be fun for only so long, especially when reality keeps slapping you in the face.
Are you still here? I’m ready, help me rise
out of the abyss, into your Paradise.
Guide my journey safely to your shore.
This wayward traveler wants to pay his score…
Please, leave an open door.
There is plenty of religious language in this one without any overt mentions of God or salvation. Yet there is the feeling that “the hedonist” is somewhat secretly seeking redemption, renewal. And there’s more. When I first listened to this one, before I read the lyrics, when I focused on melody and chord progressions and arrangements, looking for impressions and comparisons, I was struck by similarities with Neal Morse. Yeah, for those of you who know me, I’m a Morse super-fan. But I’m serious! There are moments “The Hedonist” could come from Similitude of a Dream or The Great Adventure. Toss in the lyrics…
And as one should have with Prog epics, there are time and key changes galore. Intricate vocal harmonies. Some strings and a flute. Recurring musical themes. But this is still Magic Pie. Hauksson is his own singer. Stenberg is an incredible guitarist who deserves a lot more attention than he’s getting. And “The Hedonist” is a great song, with so many parts that just grab you and won’t let go. You will be hooked by the hooks. And it is a showcase for these guys and the other members of The Pie.
I’ve already mentioned Erling Henanger, the keyboardist and backing vocalist. He can go from classical riffs to jazzy breaks to fiery Prog progressions. His sound is key to Magic Pie. Bassist Lars Petter Holstad and drummer Jan T. Johannessen are a somewhat unobtrusive rhythm section, but they are very strong and vital to keeping the whole thing together and moving forward. I guess you could say they are the crust to The Pie (sorry, I know, I promised not to go there). And rhythm-acoustic guitarist and singer Eirik Hanssen is a key component to the fullness of the sound—and his voice works very well with that of Hauksson. And to cap things off, the mix is done by the legendary Rich Mouser. The sound/production are outstanding.
I admit, I’m a relative newcomer to Magic Pie; a friend introduced me to them a couple of years ago with King for a Day. I really liked that one and proceeded to work back through their catalogue. But Fragments of the 5th Element is, by far, this band’s best. It is delicious and scrumptious. It will have you wanting another piece of The Pie. Yep, that’s contrived cleverness. But Magic Pie is anything but. Order some and thank me later
Released By: Karisma Records
Release Date: August 30, 2019
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Kim Stenberg / Guitar, vocals
- Eirikur Hauksson / Vocals, guitar
- Eirik Hanssen / Rhythm guitar, vocals
- Jan T. Johannessen / Drums
- Lars Petter Holstad / Bass, backing vocals
- Erling Henanger / Keyboards, backing vocals
“Fragments of the 5th Element” Track-list:
- The Man Who Had It All
- P & C
- Table for Two
- Touched By An Angel
- The Hedonist
Magic Pie’s fifth album in its nearly 20-year history is also its best, a smorgasbord or Prog styles and approaches that is always interesting, appealing, and thoughtful in its portrayal of people seeking renewal and redemption.