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Magnum - The Visitation
on 17 January 2011
`The Visitation' is Magnum's 16th studio album. Since the release of their debut album `Kingdom Of Madness' in 1978 the band have built on their reputation as Melodic Rock champions, and have steadily perfected the ability to create musical tapestries that often take us on travels to faraway lands. Tony Clarkin has always had a way with the written word and through his mentor's lyrics, vocalist Bob Catley acts as chief storyteller. Be it stories of war or slightly tongue in cheek dragons, Magnum have kept their fans entertained for nearly four decades.
Despite a pause in their career to take stock, Magnum have consistently delivered fine albums and since their return have hit a fine run of form - culminating in `Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow' and `Into The Valley Of The Moonking`. So as a fan myself, I was excited at the prospect of another fine offering from Tony and the boys. Have they embraced recent acclaim and continued this rich vein of form?
Well, the simple answer is a resounding yes. With opening track `Black Skies', the suspense is immediately built up with an eerie opening that sees a simple tinkling of Harry James' drum coupled with an epic pulsing Al Barrow bass line. Mark Stanway's presence is felt with his trademark keyboard washes and a hefty Tony Clarkin riff punches through the surface.
Bob Catley's vocals are simply majestic sitting atop this brooding, yet ever melodic masterpiece. If there is a word I can use to sum proceedings up its `soaring'. Each band member delivering the goods like the true masters they are. It's a majestic opening gambit with Clarkin continuing his bluesy and soulful vibe with a brief but impressive guitar solo. And Barrow and James once again proving an impressive rhythm section.
Magnum tackle the subject of childhood with following track `Doors To Nowhere'. It opens with a melody not dissimilar to their own `Dragons Are Real'. It also carries on in the vein of the last 2 studio albums, infectious, gritty and impossibly catchy. Clarkin often touches on the subject of the past and here his imagery is vivid and his lyrics take us to places in our own childhood. "...hot summer nights burnt the stars in our eyes..." and "...ran down the hillside like we were insane." It is that innocence of youth that Clarkin captures so well. Musically it is a mid-paced romp with a nailed down tight rhythm section and a breathless guitar solo from Clarkin. Catley delivers the lyrics like he's living them and we can feel every tumble and fall.
The album's title track `The Visitation' is every bit as grandiose as one would expect, crashing waves and wind blowing sit atop Stanway's keyboard swathes only to be punctuated by a stabbing, machine-gun drum beat from James. Al Barrow has improved his output with each album, slowly adding more authority to the melting pot - here he adds a bass line that borders on funk, it's clever and adds to the progressive feel of the song, full of neat time changes and atmospheric flourishes. Each band member adds an ingredient but without the overall sound suffering. Once again the band sound majestic and full of life. In short only Magnum can deliver melodic progressive rock to this standard.
Not wanting to rest on their laurels Magnum deliver, to my mind, what is their best song in a while. `Wild Angels' is quite simply melodic rock perfection. Built on a simple galloping James drum beat, it runs quickly through the gears to a hairs-on-end sing-along chorus that will soon be a fan favourite. This song could quite happily sit in the band's glory days of the mid to late 80s, such is its infectiousness. Clarkin's eye for a melody is seemingly never ending. Its feel good rock music to get excited about.
The song's outro cleverly fades to a sparse demo sounding drum beat. The sound of a band happy in each other's company. Simply what Magnum do best.
`Spin Like A Wheel' is based on Stanway's keyboards and a pulsing bass line from Barrow; it cleverly builds in momentum and is sprinkled with spine tingling melodies and atmosphere. Catley's vocals are simply immense. It's a cliché but he really is like a fine wine that gets better with age.
The song, like the album on a whole, is like a jigsaw revealing its final image. The more you listen, the more layers are revealed musically. It is at this point that I must mention the production - to my ears this is stepped up a level and every instrument sits perfectly in the mix. Al's bass for example is subtle yet prominent, pushing Clarkin's guitar further to the limit. His backing vocals are also a joy to hear - adding weight to Catley's already impressive tone.
Quintessentially English is how I would describe `The Last Frontier'; this slower paced, atmospheric song sits atop a stark military drumbeat and Stanway's washes of orchestral colour. Catley sings of village greens, giant horse led caravans and market halls. It is an image of our country relayed in an almost `Greensleeves' manner. Yes it's slightly over-blown and grandiose but it's heart-warming and paints vivid pictures in our collective heads.
Clarkin returns to a favourite subject matter of his freedom, it is something he has visited a few times over the years. With the self explanatory `Freedom Day' he asks us not to take for granted the freedom we enjoy in Europe, as there are many round the world that still endure dictatorships and communism.
A beautiful guitar melody opens what is a beautifully crafted and powerful song. Barrow's pulsing bass adds to what is an austere and chilling opening. The song quickly picks up pace and appears like a rally call for freedom. Full of hope and anger Catley adds passion to what is a well trodden path lyrically. A bombastic chorus rings out "Sing for the human race out of an ocean's roar... Sing till your voices break - till you can sing no more..." it's simplistic but powerful and all builds to an impressive crescendo.
The subject of the environment is tackled with `Mother Nature's Last Dance'. "Oh why do we act like this?" asks Catley. Clarkin's lyrics are wonderfully poignant - "Mothers were crying in dark smokey skies" expressing the futility felt by many at mankind's destruction of our planet. Musically it pumps along at a breathless pace, Catley barely stopping for breath, throwing out the images of horror as if relaying them to a disbelieving public. It is to the band's collective credit that they can mix serious subject matter with musical nous - the ability to get a message across without dwelling, sounding pompous or preaching from a pulpit.
A ferocious guitar onslaught from Clarkin opens `Midnight Kings', settling beautifully atop orchestral cello flourishes. The mix of sombre and majestic is perfectly balanced. This is a mid tempo rocker that sees Clarkin really open up his guitar. He has never been a flashy player, so it's great to see him obviously enjoying himself and showing his musical pedigree. The drums of James are impressively meaty and push the whole song along wonderfully.
If Magnum are about one thing it's melody and some would say pomp. There is no better example of this than the album's closing track `Tonight's The Night'.
The track opens with echoes of George Harrison's mournful slide guitar. The intro as a whole brought to mind the band Wings or indeed The Beatles. It is a slightly different direction for Magnum but when the chorus hits - everything the band are about hits home. It is a brave approach but within the context of the song, it works and shows a band happy to mature and re-invent themselves but retain what makes them so impressive. Put simply - it's a euphoric ending.
I can't express enough how impressive the album really is. Clarkin has always had a keen eye for a melody and has lyrically touched on things that mean something to us all. Here he has continued with the musical momentum but has cranked everything up a notch - the quality, the music, the production is all of the highest level. And more importantly the consistency is evident. Magnum have always delivered fine music but `The Visitation' is the band's most consistent album since `Wings Of Heaven'.
In Al Barrow and Harry James the band have a formidable rhythm section that is now established and it is this foundation that I believe has pushed Messers Clarkin and Catley to the limit. In particular Barrow's backing vocals and ever evolving bass playing has added further depth to Magnum's sound. Coupled with a very impressive production the band really have an album to be proud of.
Prepare to be Visited !!!
Dave Evans [...]