Steamhammer/SPV [Release date 17.01.20]
You have to admire Magnum. They deliver a new studio album every two years almost like clockwork. Maybe Tony Clarkin should be considered proper prime minister material – a deft ability to deliver on promises and always providing a certain quality resolve based on creative skill and experience.
The previous ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’ was one of the band’s best in recent times. ‘The Serpent Rings’ continues the high standard and renewed vigour not least down to the addition of a relatively new keyboard player and drummer and – now – a new bassist.
The album has been carefully mixed to support rather than separate Bob Catley’s mellowed timbre. I’m fed up reading snide comments in the mainstream press about Bob’s vocals. On ‘The Serpent Rings’ he does a fine job and complements the ever-present bombast provided by Clarkin’s multi-tracked guitars and the rhythm section of Lee Morris (drums) and Dennis Ward (bass).
The album starts in fiery fashion and ‘Where Are You Eden’ is only compromised by the use of an intro and a riff that recalls ‘Live ‘Til You Die’ (Escape From The Shadow Garden) which itself recalls ’747 (Strangers In The Night)’ Has Clarkin done this to see if anyone notices? He was certainly in denial first time round when we queried his riffage. That aside, with the keyboards nicely raised in the mix and a commendable sense of urgency, it is still a good scene setter.
‘You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets’ perpetuates the promise of that opener with a nice Rick Benton keyboard groove but in truth the album ultimately morphs into the warm and cuddly, reassuring, Magnum that their fans know so well. Although not without the usual thought-provoking lyrical content.
‘Madman Or Messiah’ and ‘The Archway Of Tears’ both follow Magnum’s time-worn trajectory of stirring orchestration and choruses and that more recent sense of purpose. ‘Not Forgiven’ changes the pace, a likeable enough rocker but nothing really special.
The album pivots on the title track which like its predecessor ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’ is another standout and even with echoes of ‘Le Morts Dansant’.
From thereon ‘House Of Kings’ has brass-style interjections and there’s a jazzy breakdown section which shows that the band can mix it up when they want to and try something a little less predictable.
‘The Great Unknown’ is back to business as usual whilst ‘Man’ elicits Catley’s best vocal performance. ‘Crimson On The Wet Sand’ is a suitably rousing closer but, again, nothing really original.
That may be one criticism of a band that is seemingly closely controlled by Clarkin, who writes, plays and produces. An objective arbitrator may well point out the lack of this and that or the closeness to previous tunes (and riffs!). And maybe also the need for risk-taking. New arrival Dennis Ward is himself no slouch at the mixing desk and you have to wonder if he will have any input in this respect in the future.
In terms of studio albums, Magnum are a band that have never dwelt too much on former glories. The only retrospective here may well be the Rodney Matthews artwork and use of a vintage logo.
Although the consistency of this album is of a very high standard, as you’d expect with Magnum, there are no real “killer” tracks and the album is fairly one-paced with no real ballad that would also suit Catley’s mellowed tones.
No real surprises, then, on this outing but Magnum fans will again be well pleased. ****
Review by David Randall
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