BO HANSSON: MAGICIAN'S HAT (1973)
1) Big City; 2) Divided Reality; 3) Elidor; 4) Before The Rain; 5) Fylke; 6) Playing Downhill Into The Downs; 7) Findhorn's Song; 8) The Awakening; 9) Wandering Song; 10) The Sun (Parallel Or 90 Degrees); 11) Excursion With Complications.
This is one of those classic situations where one tries to correct the balance between accessibility / entertainment and complexity / intellectualism and may end up pushing the slider too far in the opposite direction. On one hand, Magician's Hat, Bo's second foray into the world of progressive instrumental exploration, takes reasonable precautions to protect itself from the vicious sarcasm of critics crusading against starry-eyed idealism and fanboyism — namely, although quite a few of its tunes could have easily been slipped onto the previous record without anybody noticing, there are no direct references to Lord Of The Rings, and the compositions are open to any sort of unrestricted personal interpretations. That is probably good.
What is probably not so good is that Magician's Hat sounds awfully scattered and even less focused than its predecessor. Some of the reviewers define it as a «folk-prog» album, others describe it as moving away from folk influences and more into jazz-fusion territory, still others just say that «this is great music that takes you to another dimension» without even trying to specify what sort of dimension that might be. The logical truth is that Magician's Hat is all these things — «folksy», «fusionesque», «otherworldly» — and more; and also, unfortunately, that this is not the kind of diversity that makes a whole lot of sense. As pretty as these soundscapes are, the album has not managed to override the «pleasant background music» tag that my subconscience has slapped on it during the very first listen.
Case in point: the epic-length ʽBig Cityʼ which, in its original form as ʽStorstadʼ on the Swedish edition, ran for 11 minutes, then was cut down to 7 on the international market release, then, finally, was restored back to full duration on the CD edition. I'd like to call the track «epic», but that would mostly refer to the sheer running length and the number of different «movements» — if that is enough, so be it, but normally, «epic» also surmises the idea of power, rising and falling dynamics, build-ups, crescendos, climaxes, etc., whereas ʽBig Cityʼ just sort of... trots along, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, mutating from blues-rock to choral folk chant to bossa nova to samba to fusion to a bit of avantgarde, being all over the place but fairly low-key most of the time. Not only does it not give out the impression of a ʽBig Cityʼ (more like a bunch of very small ones that you pass by in an old car at half-speed), but there are also next to no memorable themes — it is like a mediocre jazz album, with professionally set grooves and competent, but never too enlightening solo improvisations.
As we move away from the lengthy suite and into the realm of shorter tracks, things do not get better — because giving the short tracks separate names does not change the fact that the rest of the album is essentially just more of the same stuff. Every now and then, you do meet up with an interesting theme (ʽPlaying Downhillʼ has a curiously constructed brass/organ jazz melody that seems almost mathematically explorative), but, like fireflies, the interesting ones light up and fade away just as quickly as the uninteresting ones. Hansson has a ton of ideas in store for the album, but he gives poor ones as much space as rich ones, and almost never takes the time to prove that melody so-and-so actually needed inventing.
Some might see this as a challenge, and set themselves a worthy goal of learning to hum all the 20+ melodies of Magician's Hat, so as to easier win friends and influence people. I, however, seem to suffer from attention deficit syndrome in this situation, and keep on seeing all this as the result of dissipation of focus — professional instrumental noodling whose lack of conceptual purpose strips the music of the necessary energy. You know it's not really a good sign when the album's most memorable moment is basically a musical joke — in this case, ʽExcursion With Complicationsʼ, which begins as a somber bluesy march, dominated by doomy organs and stern, electronically treated solo guitar, and then transforms into a New Orleanian piece of carnivalesque boogie-woogie, thus ending the album with the author's tongue sticking out.
The album may hold up to repeated listens, I guess, if one deals with the fact that this is «prog-rock» with the «rock» component surgically extracted and dissolved in acid — as was the case with its predecessor, you'd better get yourself all comfortably relaxed to enjoy its smooth, inobtrusive hooks, atmospheric echoes, and tasteful, but uneventful soloing (including lots of guitar parts, which are now at least as prominent as the keyboards). Unfortunately, few of us will probably have the time to determine just how much Magician's Hat reflects subtlety of vision rather than lack of vision. And it goes without saying that, having originally come out in 1972 (under the Swedish title Ur Trollkarlens Hatt), the album would be very quickly quenched by Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells — where most of the pieces of the puzzle would logically come together, instead of being lazily scattered around, as they are here.