Tuesday, 18 January 2011

First impressions: Magnum – The Visitation (2011)


First things first – this is NOT a review. Call me mad, but I like to actually digest an album thoroughly before subjecting it to critique, but that’s simply not the way the world (or more specifically, the internet) works in 2011, so here are some thoughts, based literally on my first time of hearing Magnum’s brand new album, The Visitation.

In short it’s clear that Magnum’s recent form (their previous two albums, Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow and Into the Valley of the Moonking, are on a par with anything they’ve ever released – no mean feat) was no fluke. As with those the new effort is entirely written and produced by band founder Tony Clarkin, a man who epitomises two terms that are bandied about with far too much regularity and little regard to fact: underrated and genius (He plays a mean guitar as well). As ever, vocalist Bob Catley instinctively brings Clarkin’s material to vivid life, seemingly effortlessly – it’s as if Clarkin/Catley were once a single entity somehow split into two, the symbiosis between them is so staggering. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a comparable relationship in rock history, only that between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel springs to mind, and that only works if you actually like Garfunkel.

The above is not to denigrate the contributions made by the other band members; Magnum stalwart Mark Stanway (keyboards), Al Barrow (bass) and Harry James (drums) are almost as adept as Catley at adding further depth to the material. Barrow also does double duty, being primarily responsible for the layout and artwork of the entire package. While Clarkin is clearly the leader and Catley his 2IC, this is a band in the truest sense.

On a first listen, opener Black Skies didn't leap out at me like a good opener should, but with Doors to Nowhere and the title track following in quick succession, we're quickly in very comfortable territory. That might make it sound as though the band are resting on their laurels, but what I mean is they just scream 'MAGNUM!!!!" in the way only a band with a style all their own can manage. (Classic British rock, with shades of prog is accurate but doesn't do it justice). They certainly aren't afraid of trying new things, as the bluesy intro to Spin Like a Wheel proves, and as for the mid-section of album closer Tonight's the Night...lets just say it seems on the verge of going into doo-wop (or was it barbershop?!) before returning to 'normal' (the sudden burst of 'doo-doo-doos' sounded incongruous on first listen, but I suspect it's purpose will become clearer after repeated plays!). 

There's a nice range of styles and tempos, sometimes within the same song (Midnight Kings for one), another Magnum trademark. Vocally, Catley sounds noticeably raspier than usual in places, with a few more listens I’ll probably work out whether or not this was deliberate.

Clarkin’s lyrics have always been several cuts above standard rock fare, and he handles subjects from ecology (Mother Nature's Final Dance) to human rights (Freedom Day) with his usual panache. The lyrics come across as being written by a deep man who thinks things over, rather than as hollow preaching, as can so often be the case.  The only complaint I have lyrically is the absence of any ‘yeahs’ (Catley can make such a frivolous word ripple with meaning and intensity; hearing him sing ‘yeah’ is one of life’s minor pleasures…but I digress…)

When the time comes for a rating to be given I’d be highly surprised if I could go any lower than 95%...suffice to say that if you’re brand new to Magnum this is as good a starting point as any, so why not get yourself right up to date and work backwards from there (It’s what I did when Princess Alice… was released, hard to imagine that I’ve only been listening to Magnum for a little under 4 years…you see, it’s never too late!). I can't wait to get to know it better and see where it grows (and as soon as I've posted this I'll be off to start that process with spin number 2!). No doubt I'll come to wonder why I didn't love Black Skies instantly and why I've not managed to otherwise mention Wild Angels and The Last Frontier as though they made little impression on a first acquaintance.

The former is actually the first single, so have a listen to it yourself right here:

The album is available in three formats; the album and nothing but the album (featuring the Rodney Matthews cover art), a deluxe special edition containing the album plus DVD (housed in the ‘brooch on black’ artwork, but also featuring the Rodney Matthews art, so no, you don’t have to buy both!) and a super-special, over-the-top box with the CD/DVD package, plus the album in coloured vinyl and an LP-sized 48 page history of the band. (Anything I’ve forgotten? A do-it-yourself heart replacement surgery kit perhaps?)  No doubt your own particular level of devotion to Magnum will determine the edition you go for, but while I consider myself to be a very big fan indeed, I settled for the CD and DVD combo, or the ‘middle-sized Mummy Bear’ version, as I’ve now deemed it should be called, so I can offer thoughts on that aspect of the release as well.

Whereas Princess Alice (definitely) and Moonking (I think!) had bonus DVDs centred on a ‘making of the album’ type documentary, here there are only a couple of slight, but interesting featurettes dealing with the album’s artwork, while the bulk of the DVD is taken up with performance material. Eyes Like Fire (a track that didn’t make the album) is here in a largely in-the-studio style video, but put together by the ever-reliable Tim Sidwell in such a way that it feels like something much more interesting than that suggests. Oh, and (again, based solely on a first view/listen) it’s an absolute cracker. I can only speculate as to why it didn’t make the album and who knows…perhaps it will make the next one.

The centrepiece of the DVD though is a 4-song performance culled from last year’s High Voltage Festival in London. So, half of that set then (yes, it was way too brief). Oh, and it’s in a different order on the DVD than listed on the packaging, running Brand New Morning, When We Were Younger, Les Mort Dansant, All My Bridges. It remains a fantastic performance and When We Were Younger even features lots of ‘yeahs’ to keep me happy…

Obviously, given that I was there, I do crop on on screen from time to time, but I promise that I won’t detract from your enjoyment, in fact I’m happy to guarantee you won’t even notice me at all. (I can also announce that I’ll be appearing as myself once again in Magnum’s next full concert DVD, due to be filmed at the end of April…so look forward to that!)

Somewhat oddly (although this was also the case for Moonking) the DVD also contains something the booklet doesn’t, namely  the lyrics for the album, which, if you prefer to have a physical copy to refer to you can download in PDF form here:  http://www.magnumonline.co.uk/media/viz%20lyrics%202.pdf (note that an earlier version was in a smaller font and repeated the lyrics for Black Skies twice, while leaving Doors to Nowhere out entirely; this was quickly corrected).

Right, so it's too early (in more ways than one) to start naming 'albums of the year' but if this isn't a contender at year's end 2011 will have been a VERY good year for music indeed...

Magnum beginner's guide:

My personal top 5:

Chase the Dragon (1982)
On a Storyteller’s Night (1985)
Wings of Heaven (1988)
Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow (2007)
Into the Valley of the Moonking (2009)

Missing from my own collection: A handful, mostly from the early 90s, of which Sleepwalking (1992) is probably the most highly-regarded.

Compilations: There are a tonne of them, and all have their merits, but the fact is Magnum is a band that if you like, you’ll love, so you’re going to want everything anyway, you might as well just buy the original albums in the first place.

Avoid: Paying attention to any idiot who uses the phrases 'Magnum' and 'dull mid-tempo plod' in the same breath…!

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