I'm sure anyone reading this review has a few albums they'd consider "essential masterpieces". Albums that have defined an extended period in their life, have been listened to literally hundreds of times, or are absolutely impossible to review from a solely objective point of view. Pendragon's 1996 masterpiece, The Masquerade Overture, holds all three of these traits to me. Here's an album that has hardly left my rotation for almost two years, it's dominated my headphones in long car rides, and it just puts a smile on my face whenever I'm having a lousy day. Is it possible for me to review such an album from an objective point of view? No, probably not. But I'll try my best to leave out fanboy rhetoric and senseless babbling about how great this album is - which, trust me, it is.
Pendragon (at least at this point in their career) plays a style of symphonic neo-progressive rock. Expect layers of symphonic keyboards, melodic guitar solos, and British-accented vocals to characterize The Masquerade Overture. Pendragon has obvious influences from bands like Marillion, IQ, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Yes, but their upbeat attitude gives them their own unique sound. Pendragon never fell into a "clone band" category, and this album arguably shows the band at their creative peak. Every one of the songs here is a 5-star masterpiece in my book. The album opens with the operatic title track before segueing into "As Good As Gold" - a symphonic prog tune filled with abundant keyboards and an unforgettable chorus. "Paintbox" is a bit more of a melancholic tune with an excellent instrumental build towards the end featuring some top-notch guitar work from Nick Barrett. "The Pursuit of Excellence" is a short, but extremely powerful, piece featuring lush keyboard work from Clive Nolan and commanding vocals from Nick Barrett. "Guardian of My Soul" is a more upbeat neo-prog track that focuses on its excellent choruses and tremendous interludes. "The Shadow" and "Masters of Illusion" close the album off with long epics that serve as true emotional rollercoaster rides.
Pendragon is one of the most talented bands in progressive rock, and that's certainly visible on The Masquerade Overture. I've heard some people complain about Nick Barrett's vocal delivery, but I happen to find his pipes to be charming and often times extremely powerful. Of course, not to mention his fantastic guitar playing that could give some of the prog rock legends a run for their money. Clive Nolan is the "modern day Rick Wakeman", so to speak - he uses tons of keyboard tones throughout this album and always adds the perfect lush atmosphere to each song. His synth solos (particularly the one in "Guardian of My Soul") are also mightily impressive. Peter Gee (bass) and Fudge Smith (drums) serve as an excellent rhythm section and often play some complex stuff as well. This band is simply a joy to listen to on all fronts - seldom do I come across such a professional and great-sounding act.
The production has a synthetic feel that will likely be a bit unnerving to audio purists. I don't mind it at all; I think it fits the mood of the album perfectly, and the synthetic, overblown atmosphere still sounds crystal-clear and powerful. I tend to generally prefer more authentic 70's productions, but I can still appreciate the excellent sound on The Masquerade Overture.
Pendragon is one of my favorite bands in the neo-prog revival, and The Masquerade Overture is probably their magnum opus. This is the epitome of the genre - a classic that can rival the likes of Script For a Jester's Tear and The Wake for sure. This is a near-flawless effort that's essential in any self-respecting prog fan's collection. The Masquerade Overture is a "desert island" disc for me; giving any less than the essential 5 star title would be criminal. If you're going to take a venture into Pendragon's discography, this should undoubtedly be your first step.
1. The Masquerade Overture (3:03)
2. As Good As Gold (7:15)
3. Paintbox (8:39)
4. The Pursuit Of Excellence (2:37)
5. Guardian Of My Soul (12:41)
6. The Shadow (9:55)
7. Masters Of Illusion (12:51)