So here we are again, less than eighteen months since Magnum released the acclaimed 'On The Thirteenth Day' and they are at it again.
It took all of a month between the last release and all round genius and guitarist Tony Clarkin starting work on this one.
I really don't think I need to go into the background of this band, but for those of you that have just arrived via interstellar craft, this is their 16th studio album since their 1978 debut 'Kingdom Of Madness'. Personally I first saw them live way back in 1982, strangeley on a school trip – I still don't know to this day exactly how we persuaded them it was of educational value – and now in my 50th year (yes, I'm quite surprised I got this far as well), they have been a huge part of my musical life. They are one of those bands that I just hope deep down I will never hear a below par album from, even more than normal.
So what has Mr Clarkin and the rest of the band come up with this time?
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Well, the good news is that those of you who feel the same as me have absolutely nothing to worry about. The first thing that hits you is the sheer melodic quality of the songs – even on first listen there are so many of them that get you deep down, melodies that just burrow into your soul and your head simultaneously. It's all in the songwriting you know, a simple fact yet one that escapes so many.
Tony Clarkin, as I discovered when I interviewed him in the studio last year, remains as modest as ever about his songwriting abilities but as well as being one of the most prodigious he is also one of the best. Clarkin's lyrics have always been a cut above your average rock lyrics but with this one, he has taken things to another level again.
I found myself almost ignoring the music at times to make sure I got every word and I guarantee you will do the same.
Social conscience, death and destiny are not exactly new lyrical subjects, but these are done so well, and put across with such feeling both lyrically and by Bob Catley's supreme delivery. More about his vocals later, but whilst his voice may not be as pure as it once was, the feeling and passion he portrays more than make up for it.
As for the others, Al Barrow and Harry James are about as good as you get for a rhythm section and ivory tinkler Mark Stanway brings so much feeling with his intros as well as his depth of sound.
So to the music... Magnum have gone through changes, so many changes, over the years. To my ears they have adapted again. Whilst this is still very much the Magnum sound, it is fuller (some of that is down to the very impressive production) and as I have mentioned already, melodically it has gone stratospheric.
There are more than enough rock riffs to keep everyone happy and as well as his songwriting, Clarkin shows what a damn fine guitarist he is as well. Whilst that is not exactly news, sometimes his playing was almost understated.
First off on the album is 'Live Till You Die'. I mentioned the Magnum sound, well this is pretty much as classic Magnum as you get.
Mark Stanway's keyboard intro starting things off beautifully, deep tones contrasting with some top end, before Tony Clarkin's guitar comes diving in, heavy riffs at the ready leading to the first we hear from Bob Catley. Naturally with the sands of time, his voice isnt maybe what it was but the thing with Bob is he always had such a unique tonal quality to his voice and that is still there in spades.
Vocals again sitting perfectly with guitar, keyboards doing a lot more than filling the space, creating their own space, delicate drifts layered behind the front two. This is pure Magnum, heavy, rocking with a dose of pomp thrown in. The mid section calms it down, fluttering keys, guitar and images of smoke on stage before Tony launches into a memorable solo, Al Barrow's bass and Harry James' drums in perfect unison belting out the rhythm, the sense of urgency. As opening tracks go, this one is a belter.
'Unwritten Sacrifice' is next up and again with a keyboard intro, more sombre than the uplifting start to the previous song. "How did he die, no one can recollect", gives you the feel of the song, Bob telling the story with passion and more than a little gravitas. The band have a way of still keeping the sorrowful feel to the song whilst going up tempo with it, not an easy thing to do and boy do they do it well. Musically the highlight is a top drawer chorus, melodies flying at you from all directions. This one has it all, melody and lyrics.
'Falling For The Big Plan' takes the tempo up just a notch. Keyboard beginnings, vocals and piano taking over in perfect harmony, before Harry and then the rest of the band come in. Another killer chorus and Tony again delivering an emotive piece of six string superbity.
'Crying In The Rain' comes up next and this isn't a musical description of what it's like for me and all the other hammers fans. What it is though is a musically very interesting and complex song. Almost taking you by surprise, throbbing bass and guitar kicks it all off, a very cool intro indeed touched by the funky.
Harry lets rip with the kit, Bob's vocals on top of it all getting the lyrics across with his usual intent. Melody again grabbing you, more harmonies than a hairspray salon, a great track. Feel wise, to me anyway, in parts at least it could almost have fitted on the 'Eleventh Hour' album, but the sound has been updated and is fresh. Inspiring stuff.
'Too Many Clowns' is in simple terms an out and out rocker. It may seem a strange thing to say given that I am talking about a band who have become almost an institution (coincidentally somewhere a few people have suggested I take up residence), but the band haven't done a great many songs of this type. Balls to the walls stuff, superb, and I mean superb, main riff, blues infused, powerful vocals, banging rhythm section, it's got it all. Your body will be a groovin' and a shakin' by the time this one is done.
'Midnight Angel' is without doubt an immense song. It is long, coming in at over seven minutes, but given what makes up the track it needs to be. It is multi layered and the track contains more than a few sections but they are fused together so well that you need to listen a lot more than once to notice them all.
If you ever want a masterclass in songwriting, this would probably be towards the top of the list. Simple yet inspiring guitar intro from Tony Clarkin, Mark Stanway proving you don't always need to go up and down the ivories to be effective, Bob Catley's voice powerful and filled with passion, Al Barrow and Harry James again doing what good rhythm sections do – those two are so tuned in with each other and the band that you almost take it for granted. And all that is just at the beginning. This really is about three songs in one, but beatifully crafted, tempo ebbing and flowing, an anthemic quality to the song.
The trouble with tracks like the last one is it can sometimes be difficult to follow up. So to 'The Art Of Compromise'. No such worries about that with this lot, a superb track in a totally different way. Melancholic piano intro, and for the first minute of the song just the piano with vocals on top.
For all the world it seems as if we are being treated to a well crafted yet more straightforward ballad, a tearjerker in the finest traditions. Yet three minutes later everything is more upbeat, hope springs eternal and the whole song has a different feel to it, music and lyrics uplifting to the soul. Musically the pre chorus rise stands out as well as the chorus once again being instantly memorable.
There is absolutely no chance of it, but the next track is titled 'Don't Fall Asleep'. If you were a little disappointed the last one didn't turn out to be a tearjerker, this may get you going. Piano and synth, soulful vocals, touching lyrics. This is a true ballad.
Nowadays that word can induce shuddering and cringeing, but this one is handled well, never even looking like it is going to descend into self righteous pity. "Don't fall asleep, that's where all dreams are born, until all the pages have been turned". A well played, well written song, it will get you going, the fitting end to the songs as Bob sings "now the pages have been turned".
'Wisdom's Had It's Day' has another piano based intro, this time with vocals kicking in immediately, soulful voice and great keyboard patterns on the chorus. Another well crafted song.
'Burning River' is another one that will have you moving, body swaying uncontrollably to the music. Not as heavy as 'Too Many Clowns', but still beefing things up. This one is more in the traditional Magnum vein, the type of track their audience laps up and who can blame them. Wonderfully done crunching riffs, forceful vocals, chorus driving along. Again the rhythm section is the driving force behind the tempo, keeping it all chugging along without ever taking it out of control.
'The Valley Of Tears' is the next and last track on the album. Lyrically strong, no surprise there then, talking about the struggles of life we all face and the seeming inevitability of it all, this will mean something to everyone.
Musically, another melancholy start with piano and the almost haunting voice of Bob Catley, string sounds and inspiring chorus. Another well written song, Mark Stanway's piano throughout the track standing out, especially as it takes on a more hopeful note. And Tony Clarkin's guitar finale just adds to the mood. A stirring way to end the album.
Getting away from the music briefly, I should mention before I go any further the album artwork, of course done once again by the vastly talented Rodney Matthews.
I think it is safe to say this album can very swiftly be added to Magnum's list of accomplishments and it may just be the best of them all. It is hard to compare albums from different periods in the band's existence but there is so much in this one, it is hard not to put it at least near the top of the list. Added to the music, the production team have done a fine job, something which isn't always the case.
Normally listening to an album for the first few times, it is fairly easy to know which tracks will become live staples but with this one I don't think there is a valid argument for discounting any of the fayre on offer. Fancy doing some four hour gigs guys?
Talking of which they are on tour here very soon indeed so I suggest you get off your backsides and get along to at least one, you will thank me.