Monday, 24 January 2011

Album Review: Magnum - The Visitation

2011 is off to a great start musically with this album, Magnum’s 16th studio effort overall, and their 5th since reforming around a decade ago. The first album of the reunion, 2002s Breath of Life had a somewhat mixed reception, but since then the reformed band have gone from strength to strength, with recent albums – particularly 2007s Princess Alice and the Broken Arrowproving songwriter/producer/guitarist Tony Clarkin’s muse is well and truly on form.

Paradoxically, while the previous album, 2009’s Into the Valley of the Moonking contained more straight-out rockers (All My Bridges, Feels Like Treason, Blood on Your Barbed Wire Thorns, etc) this effort feels heavier overall, dominated as it is by some very aggressive riffs courtesy of Clarkin, and Harry James’ thunderous (oh dear) drumming.  Excruciating puns aside though, James really is on fire throughout and it feels as though he has truly found his niche within the band. He and bassist Al Barrow certainly reach the bar in terms of making this configuration every bit as vital as the ‘definitive’ Magnum line-up of Clarkin/Catley/Stanway/Lowe/Barker.

The album opens with Black Skies, a mid-tempo, but still aggressive, number that ably sets the tone for the whole album. Bob Catley’s voice is at its raspiest here, but this adds to the ominous feel of the song as a whole. A fine opener, but the best is yet to come.

Doors to Nowhere follows, and this is classic Magnum from start to finish, with multiple tempo changes throughout, climaxing in an irresistibly catchy chorus, the first of several on the album to fight for ‘airplay’ in your head once you’ve finished listening. The instrumental break towards the end of the song also gives the band members ample room to demonstrate their considerable chops. Lyrically the song deals with the innocence of childhood being irretrievably lost to us all, a theme Clarkin has looked at before, notably on Princess Alice’s opener, When We Were Younger. This song is also the inspiration for the Rodney Matthews’ version of the cover art, and would have been a strong contender for a single release in the band’s late 80s (commercial) heyday.

The title track features some of Clarkin’s best lyrics, featuring stunning imagery such as the concept of reaching out in desperation ‘like somebody’s lost child’.  What the ‘visitation’ itself actually entails is open to interpretation; on first reflection it seems clear to be religious, or at least faith-based, but there is the possibility of it being something darker than this, and the music seems to point in this direction. An initially slower instrumental break allows Mark Stanway to build the tension nicely, before those BIG guitars come crashing back into the mix.

Wild Angels adds to the ‘memorable chorus quota’ of the album, there’s a real anthemic feel to this track, making this (hopefully) a dead cert for the forthcoming tour. I can already ‘hear’ the audience singing along in places! It has also reportedly been receiving airplay on Planet Rock (Sorry, Magnum getting airplay? Just how chilly is it in Hell these days?!)

No Magnum album is complete without an absolute epic of the highest order, and Spin Like a Wheel meets that criteria here. The song deals with a relationship in its dying gasps, and all of the hurt that goes with it. I’m not sure if this is written from personal experience, but it feels too real not to be, especially the line, ‘Couldn’t look past your face into your eyes’. Such raw honesty in the lyric is driven home by one of Bob Catley’s finest vocal performances.

The Last Frontier taps once again into our ability to look back on our own pasts through rose-coloured spectacles. Whether you’ve ever experienced ‘England’s warm sunny days’ or not you’ll find the music conjuring up rich, vivid, images of simpler days gone by, in what might just be Magnum’s finest slow number since The Last Dance. The music and lyrics are certainly perfectly matched (although the same is true of basically everything on the album!), culminating in a stirring string arrangement that adds to the sense of peace and innocence that the song engenders.

Magnum have always focussed on the needs of the individual song over the abilities of the players, and for this album it does feel that Mark Stanway’s keyboards are a little more in the background than usual. On Freedom Day he gets his chance in the spotlight, however, beginning with some fabulous interplay with Al Barrow. Yet another big chorus, featuring some excellent vocal harmonies (another important aspect of Magnum’s sound that is all too easy to overlook due to powerhouse Catley’s vocal dominance), and providing some optimism in what is otherwise a fairly dark track.

It’s blatantly impossible to find an absolute favourite song on an album this full of greats, but if pressed I think I might go for Mother Nature’s Final Dance, Tony Clarkin’s elegy to our planet and our seeming inability to notice it falling apart right in front of us. This is a tune laced with mournful regret, but it’s  a questioning, non-judgemental, piece, again rich with imagery, such as that of ‘Sweet ruby wine’ pouring, ‘like blood to the floor’.

I remember my first stereo system had a function wherein you could preview the first ten seconds of each track on a CD to give you a ‘feel’ for what lay ahead. For some reason this album brought that back to mind, by virtue of it proving just how useless it was. You simply don’t know from the beginning of any of these songs where they’re going to take you and Midnight Kings is a case in point. It begins as an out and out rocker, but slows right down for the verses, before exploding back to full pace for the choruses. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of it the final chorus fades into a beautifully orchestrated outro.  I want to say it has a Baroque flavour, but given my knowledge of classical music has faded significantly in recent years I may be out by a century or two. In any case I’d be happy for it to last twice as long as it does.

On the album’s final track, Tonight’s the Night, Bob Catley goes full circle vocally, taking us back to the raspy tones with which he opened the album. The most notable aspect of this track is the sudden change of styles as a barrage of layered vocals comes forth in sheer doo-wop style. On a first listen this seemed incongruous, but I have to say it now seems to fit quite well – although I may just be getting used to it. In any case it’s quite brief, so even if you hate it (as I’m sure some will) it’s gone before it can cause too much upset! Overall the song isn't quite as strong as the others on offer, but still forms a fitting conclusion to the album, particularly with the slow, majestic guitar solo that rings out at the end.

Overall then – a masterpiece. Yes, I’m heavily biased towards all things Magnum, but I do not feel that I’m overstating anything by labelling it as such. Certainly if their recent efforts have hit the spot for you this one is bound to do the same, but even if you’re still harking back to the Storyteller/Wings of Heaven days you will find a lot to love here. Very pleasingly the album has already made a respectable showing in the UK charts, entering at #55 (higher than any Magnum album has been since 1992!) and a staggering #3 in the UK rock album charts, not bad at all for a band the average man in the street will claim never to  have heard of (I do feel sorry for the average man in the street, he doesn't know what he's missing!). As is usual with this band repeated listening is the key to fully appreciating the album -  while it certainly sounds fine on a first listen, there is an awful lot to be gained from repeated, close listening. Right throughout the music and lyrics are married together with exquisite precision, and once the songs have gotten under your skin you’ll do well to avoid having your head become a veritable Magnum jukebox. My only wish is for more keyboards next time around, but that is the only quibble I can scrape up.

Eyes Like Fire, which didn’t make the album, but is included in video form on the DVD (for those with the special edition) is an excellent song, but I do feel that leaving it off was the right decision. As it stands the playing time of just under an hour is perfect, and while it can be tempting to throw everything you’ve got at an album there comes a point where all you do is dilute the impact of the individual songs. Hopefully though, if there are two or three unreleased gems of this quality from each of the reunion album sessions we may get a special release containing them all in the future. Tony Clarkin is not known as one too keen to delve into the past unnecessarily, but if the material is there we can only hope he’ll agree to it being released. If you want to make this happen make sure you write to your local the meantime, I have no hesitation in announcing that at least one unkool person rates this album 10/10.

Haven’t got it yet? What on Earth are you waiting for?

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