Friday 17 January 2020

Magnum - The Serpent Rings (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 17 Jan 2020
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While many were happy to see a new Stabbing Westward release after almost a couple of decades and a new Rage album is always welcome, this is the first major release of the year for me and I like it even more than the band's surprising hit of a couple of years ago, Lost on the Road to Eternity.

I've been a Magnum fan ever since I found rock music in 1984, with Chase the Dragon quickly becoming one of my favourite albums of all time. I know they went away for a little while at the turn of the millennium, but I have never stopped seeing them as the epitome of a strong and consistent band doing the job regardless of current trends and I'm happy that they're still doing that almost fifty years on. Amazingly, they were founded as far back as 1972.

The band has changed of late. It still features the founding core of singer Bob Catley and guitarist Tony Clarkin, but the rest of the band has shifted recently. This is Dennis Ward's debut on bass, following long runs by Colin Lowe and Al Barrow that, together, go back to 1975, three years before their debut, Kingdom of Madness. Drummer Lee Morris and Rick Benton joined before the prior album but they're still new fish. I wonder if these changes are a factor in how vibrant and dynamic the band sound right now.

Frankly, they sound like the Magnum I know but even more solid than usual, a seriously good production job aiding them greatly. Where are You Eden opens up with Clarkin's guitar as powerful as I've heard it, Ward's bass adding to that density, Morris powerful but steady on drums that resonate beautifully and Benton's keyboards welcome extra layers, whether they're mimicking brass or strings or bells. And when he joins them, Catley's voice is as strong as it ever was.

What's more, there are parts here heavier than I remember Magnum being since Soldier of the Line in 1982, and a good part of that is the drums. They are thunderous and when Morris really turns it up, like in the middle section of Not Forgiven, it's sublime stuff. I've been a fan of Morris's for years, his work for Paradise Lost being fantastic, but all credit to whoever mixed this too. I should add here that, however heavy the drum sound, all the melodic hooks and progressive moments that you expect from Magnum are still there.

There are all sorts of points where the band elevate songs. Often it's the starts, like the eastern melody and storm that kick off the title track and the old school piano and vocal combo that sets Crimson on the White Sand going, or the endings, like the elegance that wraps The Archway of Tears or the jazzy brass climax that takes us home in House of Kings.

Arguably the most interesting come in the middle of songs, because the band is already in motion and have set up how they're going to sound, only to do something wild to change it up. In Madman or Messiah, Benton hammers power chords on the keyboards while Morris's drums punctuate the harmonies Catley layers in. I was singing along without even knowing the words. Not Forgiven has more layered harmonies, this time over piano and Morris's drums escalate power to kick us back into high gear.

While much of this is quintessential Magnum at the top of their game, there are lesser songs. You Can't Run Faster Than Bullets is really just there. I liked The Great Unknown but it's softer and feels a little out of place for that. The title track is decent too, but at almost seven minutes, it's more patient and exploratory than anything else and it doesn't all work.

All told, though, this is another excellent album from one of the best and most criminally underrated hard rock bands of all time. It's a great way to kick off the major releases of 2020. Let's hope they're all this good.

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