At the center of the cover art is a framed photo negative of Harry Houdini. The title is a reference to Houdini's experiences with the supernatural. The year was 1996 and Magician Among The Spirits was the first album The Church recorded and released after their contract with Arista was fulfilled (and not renewed). If things had gone bad when Gold Afternoon Fix was being recorded and released, apparently things were worse with Magician - to the point where, apparently, some members of the band disown the release.
Although not to the point that it didn't get the reissue treatment. Retitled Magician Among The Spirits And Some (or Plus Some, depending on where you lived), the reissue removes The Church's cover of Cockney Rebel's "Ritz" and tacks on four originals. My copy of Magician is the original issue, so I haven't heard the four songs that replaced "Ritz," but judging by the intensity of their performance of the song, I really think they should have kept it in the sequence.
This reminds me that I should probably get my hands on a copy of The Psychomodo, the 1974 LP by Cockney Rebel from which "Ritz" originates (it closed side A of the record). Further piquing my interest in the disc is my discovery that, apparently, this was one of two LPs Alan Parsons produced after Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
Magician opens, appropriately enough, with a song entitled "Welcome." I find the song hypnotically seductive, something I'd expect to hear late at night on the left of the dial. It's lyrically obtuse, with a list of names – famous and obscure, real and imagined – and a refrain of "we welcome you." Is this some sort of vision of the afterlife? Following track, "Comedown," is a more conventional pop song – quite nice, actually, even if it isn't quite as memorable.
"Ladyboy," which closes the first half of the record flows nicely into "It Could Be Anyone," opening the second. Overall – and especially with these two songs - Magician sounds like the ideas used on "Pharoah" and "Grind" (from Gold Afternoon Fix) were expanded upon and stretched across an entire album. A good direction, I'd say from my personal aesthetic perspective. Not quite ideal though, if a band were asking me how to get a hit on the radio. Stupid commercial hit radio.
Listening through "It Could Be Anyone," I am reminded of Peter Murphy's 2002 album Dust. It's got that same expansive Middle-Eastern vibe. Also, much like that album, it's better listened to all the way through as an atmospheric piece, rather than a collection of potential singles. I suspect at this point, The Church (who had been reduced to two members) were well aware that the days of Starfish were long gone.
If what is written on Wikipedia is true, then the state of The Church at the time of Magician rivalled if not exceeded the frustrations and challenges the group faced during Gold Afternoon Fix. From the free online encyclopedia:
The album was released on the band's own Deep Karma label as Magician Among the Spirits (inspired by the 15-minute, epic title track). Due to financial constraints, the band had to arrange outside distribution for markets in North America and Europe. This limitation almost doomed the album from the beginning, but worse events were to come. Within a short time, the U.S. distributor went bankrupt, leaving the band stripped of its earnings from North American sales. Although exact figures remain unknown due to disputes, up to $250,000 worth of merchandise (some 25,000 discs) was lost. For a band already on shaky foundations, this was nearly the death knell. Comments by Kilbey in May of that year summed up the situation: "There's no immediate future for The Church.....Our management, the whole thing is broken down.....We don't really have a label. We're owed lots and lots of money and we're broke. We're trying to pursue lawyers to get our money back. Marty and I aren't having any communication. There's no one really managing us so.....that could have been the last record."
So...I'm now listening to the title cut. At 14 minutes and 8 seconds, I think it is the longest studio track The Church has ever recorded. The song was originally written as a loose jam session and that feeling was not lost in putting it to tape. I almost feel like I should be taking some mind-altering substance other than coffee as I listen to this. I also wonder why the band didn't just end the album here. If the band wanted the disc to run an even 66 minutes, they could have still accomplished that by placing "After Image" as the second to last track. Then again, that title kind of demands that it end an LP. It's a nice (comparatively) short piano-driven instrumental which doesn't deserve to be excluded.
Incidentally, I've added "Magician Among The Spirits" to my Ten Minutes or More "mix tape" on 8tracks.
While at the time many thought that it may have been the end of the road for the band, The Church continued to release albums into the new millennium. Of those, I own only one.