One of the treats of being a prog fan is receiving any copy of a new album adorned with the fantasy art of either Roger Dean or Rodney Matthews. Matthews has taken on the duties once again to produce a fine cover for Magnum’s latest. Before I even had the chance to hear the urgent strings of the Wolf Kerschek Studio Orchestra burst into life for the opening to Where Are You Eden?, I couldn’t help but notice the detail of a number 21 amongst the Tolkein-esque creatures. Is this really Magnum’s 21st studio album? A distant memory of listening to Vigilante on my Sony Walkman as a kid whilst travelling on the X90 to London’s second-hand record shops pops into my head…
Such nostalgia might seem trivial, but it highlights a not inconsiderable detail for the lifelong Magnum fan. How does a band with such an extensive discography (one made all the more impressive by their lengthy hiatus during the ’90s) continue to sound fresh whilst still retaining that delicate balance between mainstream rock and prog that saw an album like On A Storyteller’s Night become their own diamond-standard and the envy of many a band who wished they had half of the song-writing talent of Tony Clarkin?
A little over two years ago, long-standing Magnum keyboardist Mark Stanway left the band. He was replaced by Rick Benton and, soon after, they released Lost on the Road to Eternity. Without wishing to be unkind to Stanway, this album breathed new life into the band. Benton’s arrangements of the keyboard parts were excellent and, along with some of Clarkin’s best compositions in years, and an enriched orchestral sound, Magnum put together what, I think, is their best effort since they reformed.
Happily, The Serpent Rings maintains the band’s new lease of life and is a magnificent follow-up, if not quite its equal. The opener, the aforementioned Where Are You Eden?, rumbles into life with the orchestra’s strings which then ignite a Wings of Heaven-era rocker that the band have proudly been presenting as a foretaste for the album. You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets suggests business as usual with a chugging guitar riff that carries the chorus’s vocal melody. Bob Catley really pushes his voice here.
By the third track, the album really starts to take off. Madman Or Messiah treats the listener to a delightful mix of a Supertramp-y verse, a memorably melodic chorus and a guitar solo that is classic Clarkin. The Archway of Tears is undoubtedly the album’s finest cut. The opening piano speaks of a no-nonsense rock ballad. I mentioned Wings of Heaven earlier on, and I think this is a song that would sit comfortably alongside such auspicious company as Wild Swan and Start Talking Love. The chorus will be stuck in your head long after the song’s over.
Along with …Eden?, Not Forgiven is the other track that the band have released in advance of the album. It’s easy to see why this was one of the choices, with the sort of guitar riff one expects from the Seventies rock songbook, there’s an affectionate nod to their earliest work and another solid chorus which plays to all of Catley’s still considerable vocal strengths.
At seven minutes, the title track is the album’s longest and opens with brooding strings and piano suggesting this might be Number 21’s epic. The Serpent Rings builds for over two minutes before hitting its first chorus. Another of the album’s highlights, this strikes just the right balance between orchestra, piano and guitar; there’s even an atmospheric closing section that slips through compound time into Japanese strings.
House of Kings marries its heavy rock to a jazz-infused Benton solo and The Great Unknown is no less successful in surprising the listener with its melodic and rhythmic contrasts. Man offers an off-beat reggae rhythm for its chorus whilst the unexpected chord changes on the verse of The Last One on Earth provide the contrast to a memorable chorus. The album is rounded off by the superb Crimson on the White Sand which I have little doubt may well become a fan favourite; I love the simple but effective keyboard line that underlies the vocals on the chorus and the Medievalism of the middle section is sure to please Storyteller’s… fans. Round all of this off with lyrics that thoughtfully situate themselves amongst the current social and political dilemmas and this is a Magnum album to savour.
01. Where Are You Eden? (5:37)
02. You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets (5:37)
03. Madman or Messiah (5:21)
04. The Archway of Tears (6:21)
05. Not Forgiven (5:49)
06. The Serpent Rings (6:55)
07. House of Kings (4:47)
08. The Great Unknown (5:27)
09. Man (5:26)
10. The Last One on Earth (3:32)
11. Crimson on the White Sand (4:54)
Total Time – 59:46
Bob Catley – Vocals
Tony Clarkin – Lead Guitar, Vocals
Rick Benton – Keyboards
Lee Morris – Drums
Dennis Ward – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Record Label: Steamhammer
Catalogue#/Format: CD – SPV267262; Vinyl – SPV267269; Limited Box; Digital Download
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 17th January 2020