Cult Classic: Gandalf-Magic Theatre.

Nowadays, Gandalf is regarded as one of Austria’s most accomplished, innovative and successful musicians. Gandalf who is a talented multi-instrumentalist, is also one of Austria’s most prolific artists. He has released over thirty albums between 1981 and 2016. That’s despite not releasing his debut album until he was twenty-nine. 

Before that, Gandalf had travelled extensively. His travels took him all over the world, including to India. The constant travelling certainly broadened the mind of Gandalf. He also realised that music was a universal language. It was something that people in different countries and continents shared a love of. Gandalf experienced this firsthand.

As he traversed the globe, Gandalf made a living making music. He was the twenty-first Century equivalent of a travelling minstrel. It was during his travels that Gandalf realised that he wanted to make a living as a musician.

This came as no surprise to many that knew Gandalf. He had grownup in the small town of Pressbaum, in Lower Austria. That was where Heinz Strobl was born on the 4th of  December 1952. It would be much later when Heinz adopted the Gandalf moniker. Before that, Heinz proved to be a gifted and natural musician as he grew up.

That was despite having no formal musical education. Heinz could pickup an instrument and soon, was playing along to a song on the radio or a record that was playing. Soon, he could play the piano and guitar. By the time he headed off on his travels, Heinz had mastered a number of different instruments.

On his return from what was the modern equivalent of a Grand Tour, Heinz had mastered a myriad of instruments that he had discovered on his travels. This included a sitar, saz, charango, bouzuki and balaphon. They would play an important part in Heinz’s future musical career.

Initially, Heinz began playing with various rock bands during the seventies. During the seventies, progressive rock was at the peak of its popularity. Heinz was a member of a couple of progressive rock bands. This however, was all part of his musical apprenticeship. 

As the seventies gave way to the eighties, Heinz decided to reinvent himself, and adopted the moniker Gandalf. This stemmed from Heinz’s love of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Little did he realise that his new moniker would feature on over thirty albums. This included the albums Gandalf would release for WEA. Two of these albums were To The Horizon and Magic Theatre,  would showcase Gandalf’s unique and inimitable style.

Journey To An Imaginary Land.

It began to take shape on Gandalf’s debut album Journey To An Imaginary Land. It was released on WEA in 1981, and marked the debut of Gandalf who later described himself as a “painter of musical landscapes.”

This is quite fitting, Having written the six tracks that became Journey To An Imaginary Land, Gandalf began painting these “musical landscapes” using his has extensive musical palette. It included everything from acoustic and electric instruments to the traditional, ethnic instruments that Gandalf had discovered and collected on his travels. Included in Gandalf’s palette, were various synths and samplers. They would play an important part in not just Journey To An Imaginary Land, but Gandalf’s future albums.

With his impressive array of instruments, Gandalf began recording and Journey To An Imaginary Land at Beginning Soundstudio. He arranged, recorded and produced the album. Gandalf played each and every instrument, including the synths that play such an important part in Journey To An Imaginary Land. Once the album was recorded, Gandalf mixed his debut album. It was then delivered to WEA, who Gandalf was signed to.

WEA scheduled the release of Journey To An Imaginary Land later in 1981. Before that, critics received a copy of Gandalf’s debut album. 

Journey To An Imaginary Land was well received by critics, who were won over by what was hailed an innovative and progressive album. It was a fusion of eclectic musical instruments, influences and genres. When they’re combined by Gandalf, the result is a groundbreaking and genre-melting album, Journey To An Imaginary Land. It features elements of ambient, avant-garde, Berlin School, electronica and folk. When they are combined, they become part of what’s a captivating, mythical and symphonic musical journey that gradually unfolds over forty-five minutes. It’s an ambitious and accomplished album. Especially considering it was Gandalf’s debut album.

Buoyed by the reviews of Journey To An Imaginary Land, Gandalf eagerly awaited the release of his debut album. When Journey To An Imaginary Land was released later in 1981, the album failed to find an audience. Suddenly, Gandalf’s dream of making a living as a professional musician were dashed. However, after the initial disappointment, Gandalf was determined that his sophomore album would be his breakthrough album.



Following the commercial failure of Journey To An Imaginary Land, it was a case of back to the drawing board for Gandalf. He wrote fifteen new tracks that would eventually become Visions. They would be recorded at Beginning Soundstudio, later in 1981.

As recording began, Gandalf again showcased his versatility. He played six and twelve string acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, organ, percussion, six and twelve string electric guitar, sitar and  played synths. Gandalf also deployed a vocoder and sequenced Visions. The only instruments he didn’t play, were the flute and tabla. So he drafted in flautist Robert Julian Horky and Jatinder Thakur to play the tabla. Meanwhile, Gandalf took charge of arranging and producing Visions. When the album was complete, Gandalf mixed Visions, which would be released later in 1982.

Before that, the critics had their say on Gandalf’s much anticipated sophomore album. Visions met with their approval. It was another progressive album where the music had  mystical and mythical sound. There was also a cinematic sound, with Visions sounding like the soundtrack to a movie. Just like on Journey To An Imaginary Land, musical genres melted into one on Visions. 

Especially, elements of ambient and acoustic music which were combined with electronica. Other influences included The Berlin School of electronic music and the music Gandalf discovered during his travels continued to influenced him. On Visions, this included the music he heard in India. So much so, that Gandalf used traditional Indian instruments, including a sitar and tabla. They became part of what was another ambitious album from Gandalf.

Later in 1982, WEA released Visions. It marked a change in fortune for Gandalf. Visions was a commercial success and transformed the fortunes and career of Gandalf. No longer was he struggling to make a living out of music. Instead, Gandalf’s star was in the ascendancy as his thoughts turned to his third album, To Another Horizon. 


To Another Horizon.

Despite having just enjoyed a successful album, Gandalf wasn’t about to rest on his laurels. He headed back into Beginning Soundstudio to record seven tracks that would become his third album, To Another Horizon. It was a cerebral concept album.

On To Another Horizon, Gandalf who was the father of three young children, looked at the threat posed to the world by nuclear weapons. Gandalf looked at how who the planet was being slowly eroded. The other things subject that inspired Gandalf on To Another Planet was science fiction. These three subjects were part of what was a very different album from Gandalf.

Although Visions had been a commercial success, Gandalf decided to change direction musically. On To Another Horizon, Gandalf’s music headed in the direction of progressive rock and space rock. This was a stylistic departure for Gandalf as he began work on To Another Horizon.

Another departure was that Gandalf brought onboard additional musicians. Drummer Egon Gröger and bassist Heinz Hummer became Gandalf’s rhythm section. They were joined by pianist and organist Peter Aschenbrenner, flautist Robert Julian Horky and vocalist Helmut Kappel a.k.a. N.A.O. Meanwhile, Gandalf played guitar, mellotron, organ, percussion, synths and wind chimes. He also programmed the drum machine, arranged, recorded, produced and later, mixed To Another Horizon. This marked a new chapter in Gandalf’s career.

It would’ve been easy for Gandalf to stick to a winning formula, and record Visions II. However, that wasn’t the way Gandalf operated. He was a pioneer, who recorded ambitious and innovative music. This had been the case since he recorded Journey To An Imaginary Land, and continued on Visions. To Another Horizon was no different.

Prior to the release of To Another Horizon, WEA sent critics copies of the album. Although some critics were surprised by Gandalf’s stylistic departure, they welcomed his decision to reinvent his music. That was a brave and bold move. There was no chance that Gandalf’s music would become stale. Not when he had produced an ambitious concept album that straddled various themes and genres.

While To Another Horizon marked a move towards progressive rock and space rock, Gandalf also incorporated elements of Krautrock and classical music and folk. Just like his first two albums, Gandalf combined elements of ambient, Berlin School, eighties electronica and experimental music were combined on To Another Horizon. It was a cerebral concept album featuring progressive music that thematically, was captivating. 

That was no surprise. The music on To Another Horizon featured some of the best of Gandalf’s carer. It ranged from dramatic and cinematic to progressive on March Of No Reason. Then as Natural Forces Getting Out Of Control glides along, the music becomes futuristic urgent and dramatic. It’s as if Gandalf is desperate to get his message across and plays with urgency and passion. However, Requiem For A Planet has a pastoral, wistful sound. It’s as if Gandalf is mourning for a world troubled by conflict and that’s being eroded and polluted. Flight Of The Crystal Ships showcases Gandalf’s new progressive rock sound. He unleashes scorching, crystalline guitars before the track takes a sci-fi sound and the Flight Of The Crystal Ships continues on its journey. So does Gandalf, as he prepares to deliver a message.

To Another Horizon: The Divine Message has an understated, thoughtful sound, before a futuristic vocoded vocal delivers Gandalf’s message. This gives way To Another Horizon: Change Of Consciousness. It features an understated, Eastern sound that’s mesmeric and later, rocky. This continues on To Another Horizon: Creation Of A New World. As it ebbs and flows, synths and guitars play leading roles. Cosmic Balance has an dreamy, ethereal quality. It’s best described as a progressive fusion of ambient and electronica. Peace Without End closes To Another Horizon and has a pastoral quality before a guitar is added and the track takes on a progressive rock sound. Just like on previous tracks, Gandalf combines different musical genres during what’s without doubt, the most progressive and eclectic album of his career.

It won over critics, who called To Another Horizon Gandalf’s finest hour. His decision to change direction could’ve backfired. This wasn’t the case. Instead, To Another Horizon more progressive sound introduce Gandalf’s music to a much wider audience. This resulted in the most successful album of Gandalf’s three album career. However, he was about the ring the changes again on Magic Theatre


Magic Theatre.

Buoyed by the success of To Another Horizon, Gandalf began work on his fourth album, Magic Theatre. Gandalf composed the nine tracks that eventually became Magic Theatre. It saw Gandalf’s music head further in the direction of progressive rock and take and showcased a symphonic rock sound.

Just like on To Another Horizon, Gandalf brought onboard sone session musicians. Drummer Egon Gröger joined bassist and flautist Robert Julian Horky in the rhythm section. Pianist and saxophonist Peter Aschenbrenner was also drafted in as work began at Beginning Soundstudio during July 1983. 

As usual, Gandalf juggled a variety of roles. He arranged, recorded and produced Magic Theatre, and played bass, guitar, keyboards and synths. Gandalf also added a variety of effects to Magic Theatre. The sessions lasted two months, and by August 1983, Gandalf’s fourth album Magic Theatre was complete.

It wasn’t until 1984 that Gandalf’s concept album Magic Theatre would be released. Magic Theatre had been inspired by Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf. It featured a Magic Theatre.

Within the Magic Theatre, there’s a corridor that features several doors. They all lead to different chambers of the subconscious. Each of these seven chambers are represented by a track on Magic Theatre. The book’s protagonist, Harry Haller visits five of these chambers seeking redemption. In each chamber, he has to conquer his concerns and fears. This Gandalf  sets out to do between the opening track Entrance-The Corridor Of The Seven Doors and the closing track exit. Just like previous Gandalf albums, it’s an ambitious, cerebral album where he combines disparate musical genres.

On Magic Theatre, Gandalf moves further down the road marked progressive rock. There’s also a symphonic rock sound on several tracks. Elsewhere, Gandalf combines elements of acoustic and ambient music with classical, Eastern and electronica combining. Meanwhile, the book’s protagonist confronts fears and concerns. His emotional responses are replicated on Magic Theatre. It’s akin to an emotional roller coaster.

Having made his way down The Corridor Of The Seven Doors in the Magic Theatre, Harry Haller enters Door 1-Reflections From Childhood. Once through the door, the music veers between elegiac, ethereal and pastoral. After this, Harry passes through Door 2 to the Castles Of Sand and the music becomes rueful and ruminative, and later, melancholy and wistful. However, when Harry makes his way through Door 3 he suffers from a Loss Of Identity In The Labyrinth Of Delusions. As a result, there’s an element of darkness and drama. Suddenly, it sounds as if Harry is struggling to overcome his fears and concerns. Meanwhile, elements of free jazz, progressive rock and experimental music combine to replicate Harry’s state of mind on this powerful track.

Things change though, as Harry heads through Door Four and encounters The Magic Mirror. Suddenly, the darkness and drama of the previous track disappears, and is replaced by a much more melodic progressive rock track. It glides along, with synths and guitars playing leading roles. Now there’s hope, where previously there was none. Suddenly, as Harry heads through Door Five, he’s Beyond The Wall Of Ignorance. The music ebbs and flow, beatifically and blissfully showcases ethereal and Eastern sounds. That is not the end of the story.

Beyond The Wall If Ignorance is the sixth door. Behind it, is what Harry’s come in search of, Peace Of Mind. He achieves this, and it’s reflected in what’s without doubt, the most beautiful track on Magic Theatre. Flourishes of piano, a flute and Spanish guitar reflect Harry’s newfound Peace Of Mind. Then when Harry makes his way through the seventh door, he drinks deep from The Fountain Of Real Joy. It’s genre-melting tracks where ambient, acoustic, jazz, progressive rock and fusion combine. To this, Gandalf adds samples and effects. Soon, with his Peace Of Mind restored, Harry heads for the Exit. This is another genre-melting track that gradually builds, and reaches a crescendo. By then, Exit takes on a joyous, celebratory sound, as if Harry has been reborn and is ready to begin his life again.

For Gandalf, Magic Theatre was a powerful, poignant and realistic portrayal of Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf. Through the medium of music, Gandalf hoped to introduce the book to a new audience.

Critics hailed the Magic Theatre a musical triumph. It was an  ambitious album that was full of pitfalls. However, Gandalf brought Steppenwolf over just forty-five minutes. During that period, the chameleon like Gandalf continued to reinvent his music. 

That had been the case throughout his career. Magic Theatre was no different. It was as if Gandalf was scared that if he stood still musically, his music would cease to be relevant. There was no chance of that happening. He was musical pioneer, who combined a disparate selection of musical genres, instruments and influences. Gandalf also drew inspiration from many sources, including his travels and literature. Both played their part the sound and success of Magic Theatre.

Upon the release of Magic Theatre, the Gandalf success story continued apace. The album sold well, and found an audience not just in Austria, Italy and Germany, but across Europe and into Britain. Gandalf was making up for lost time.

He was twenty-nine when he released Journey To An Imaginary Land. It was the only album that failed to find an audience. Since then, Visions, To Another Horizon and Magic Theatre all brought success to Gandalf’s door. This was just the start of a long and successful career for a true musical pioneer, who would release over thirty albums. However, many music fans regard Gandalf’s early as some of the best of his forty-five year recording career. This includes To The  Magic Theatre, a cult classic which is the perfect introduction to Gandalf, a music pioneer and “painter of musical landscapes.”

Cult Classic: Gandalf-Magic Theatre.


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