Although by the late 80s they had blossomed into one of Britain’s best loved AOR/melodic rock bands, Magnum’s career had somewhat shaky beginnings as a pub rock/covers band. While popular around the local haunts in Birmingham, playing covers was never likely to break them into the big leagues, but surprisingly, they gained the attention of CBS Records who released a cover version of ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ in 1975. The single flopped; Magnum and the label soon parted ways.
Later that year, the band were signed to Don Argent’s Jet Records label, home to the then hugely popular Electric Light Orchestra. With their music now relatively removed from pub rock and rooted more in the realms of pomp and fantasy, Magnum quickly set about recording their first full-length album. Recording began in 1976 at De Lane Lea Studios and an album was completed, but Jet Records held back the release. In the intervening couple of years, Magnum were allowed to make improvements – dropping three of the older tunes in favour of material which had been written after the first draft of the album was considered complete – and ‘Kingdom of Madness’ was eventually released in August 1978.
Magnum’s chief songwriter and guitarist Tony Clarkin appears to embrace the notion that first impressions are important and the album’s opener, ‘In The Beginning’, is as big and pompous as its title suggests. A two-part number clocking in just shy of eight minutes, the gloves are off from the start. Beginning with an intro that mixes twin guitar harmonies, a quirky bass accompaniment, a few acoustic rhythms and a phasered keyboard, on one hand, the band shoehorns in far too many elements within this opening tracks first forty seconds…but then again, such a brazen kitchen-sink approach suits Magnum’s early musical outlook. Just as you find yourself wondering what could follow, bassist Colin “Wally” Lowe and drummer Kevin “Kex” Gorin lead the way into what could be best described as a pomp rock boogie, over which Richard Bailey delivers a mix of tinkling keys and slabs of space-oriented synths. While the tune has obviously found its feet, it still feels rather full on, especially once Bob Catley settles into his vocal line – a naturalistic performance, with more than a hint of the theatrical, especially once he delivers wordy lyrics befitting of the period. While Bailey’s loud keyboard work fights for supremacy in the opening movement, he’s pipped by Tony Clarkin, whose multi-track guitar leads give off a terrific twin lead sound befitting of Thin Lizzy and other giants of the period. Sounding entirely like a tune written at another time, ‘In The Beginning’s second half appears much calmer, allowing the acoustic guitars of the intro a full return. The juxtaposition of the softer acoustic side with the spacy keyboards makes for great listening, overall. In an attempt to bridge the two halves, Catley does his utmost to sound sincere delivering a wholly fantasy driven lyric. If you don’t feel faintly embarrassed by the lyrics in question, ‘In The Beginning’ is one of 70s pomp/prog’s finest moments, perhaps only rivalled by Kansas. Whatever you make of it, one thing is clear: this is the work of a band attempting to leave their pub-rock past in the dust and they aren’t doing it with half-measures.
With the album’s second track, disappointment quickly sets in. In contrast to the opener’s flowery epic, ‘Baby Rock Me’ finds Magnum revisiting the sounds of their bar band days. Simple chugging chords pave the way for piece of simple and direct rock, which in the hands of a more experienced band of the age – UFO for example – may have turned out far better. Although Magnum are far more musically gifted than this tune suggests, the main problem isn’t in its chest-beating simplicity, nor in its musical celebration of macho, leather-trousered fist pumping. The main drawback comes from its misogynistic lyric referring to “giving head”…and not even in an arty Lou Reed way. Sure, people cared less about that sort of thing in the 70s, but artistically, it is a potentially a career low for Clarkin. Some may baulk at the magic and fantasy elements of ‘Kingdom of Madness’s better tunes, but this is far more embarrassing. On the plus side, Gorin plays a mean hi-hat and Wally’s basslines occasionally show a little niftiness, but it is still the album’s weakest track. Following a bit of backwards masking and an attempt at creating a synth based spacey atmosphere, ‘Universe’ unfolds into a piece of magnificent 1970s pop. Huge piano chords worthy of Andrew Gold promise good things ahead, and while they are underused from then on, the following couple of minutes is a joy. Bailey’s synths have a crisp sound, while Catley’s naturalistic vocal style sounds relatively soulful on the softer arrangement. Harmony vocals do their best to fill what is essentially a one-trick, one line chorus, but the tune is so floaty the band carries off such simplicity. While Clarkin’s lead break does much to lift the song beyond middle of the road sappiness, musically, Wally’s basslines provide the greatest interest. Pushed to the front of the mix, his playing shows a rock solid sensibily, almost worthy of John McVie. Its soft commercial air would have made a perfect late 70s radio filler, but keener to promote themselves in the hard rock field, Magnum chose a far harder track as this album’s sole 7” release. [While ‘Invasion’ had that honour, ‘Universe’ can be found on the B-side]
The title cut is a relatively succinct number at four and a half minutes, but even so, rather like ‘In The Beginning’, Magnum bravely manage to squeeze most of their different styles into the duration. An intro mixing finger-picked acoustic work (leaning towards flamenco) and prog-folk flutes initially suggests we’re about to enjoy something Jethro Tull-eque, but no sooner has it settled, the band then throw in one of the albums heaviest moments as Clarkin mixes staccato electric guitar riffs and a sledgehammer chord. …And then, just as you feel ready for something heavy, things settle for something resembling a medium – a rock riff that typifies the best melodic rock of the era, huge falsetto vocals borrowed from Uriah Heep and a simple hook (bringing back themes of fantasy and madness) collide to leave an indelible classic. While Catley’s slightly raspy voice is no match for a some of the true rock giants of the age, he has enough charisma and presence on this number (and, indeed, most of this debut) to prove he can more than hold his own within the genre. Although Magnum jettisoned most of these songs in favour of superior material by 1982, ‘Kingdom of Madness’ remained a mainstay in the bands live set for many years, quickly becoming a fan favourite.
Moving away from the rather busy and more towards classic sounding 70s pop, ‘All That Is Real’ has a strong musical base which mixes fantastic electric piano and acoustic guitar in only a way the decade could. Balancing out the unashamedly soft rock, occasional appearances of hard rock guitar fill the catchy (but one-line) chorus but don’t detract from the enjoyment of quieter moments. For the lead guitar break and instrumental peak, things shift dramatically into a very busy arrangement where Clarkin performs a rather aggressive solo which sounds like it was written with another song in mind. A Frankenstein-esque creation in every sense, the band somehow manages to get the best out of each of the tune’s disparate elements…well, almost. Christ alone knows how Bailey chose his synth embellishments; for his (mercifully brief) solo, he chooses a sound that’s akin to an ugly theme tune to an Open University programme… Still, it probably sounded much better back then! In contrast, the dated synths on ‘The Bringer’ sound much better all round, complimented excellently by a hard approach from the rhythm section, where Gorin gets to indulge in a combination of hi-hat and cowbell excess, while Catley croons and wails his way through another selection of fantasy lyrics without flinching. There’s nothing here you won’t have experienced from either ‘In The Beginning’ or ‘Kingdom of Madness’, but that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable. Of particular note is Clarkin’s meaty riff during the closing section, seemingly paving the way for Magnum’s journey towards a harder sound on their later albums (beginning with 1982’s ‘Chase The Dragon’).
Although not quite as hard as the finale from ‘The Bringer’, the single release ‘Invasion’ continues down a hard rock path, one which finds Magnum rocking out almost as hard as they could over the course of a whole song. Following a brief reprise of the choral hook from the title track, a big multi-tracked guitar riff adopts something Thin Lizzy-esque, before dropping back to allow a galloping bass to lead the way. Catley’s vocal is rather theatrical, holding its own against a fast keyboard riff. Occasional forays into Uriah Heep styled falsetto vocals beef up the pompous elements, but it’s Wally’s bass which eventually wins out. In just over three minutes, the listener gets to experience this incarnation of Magnum at their most full-on; the end result is a solid enough hard rock outing, but as most fans will have gathered by this point of the album, even in their fledgling years, Magnum were capable of far more inventive tunes – and potentially better playing at times. [File under “great in the live set”]
‘Lord of Chaos’ (listed as ‘Lords of Chaos’ on some issues of the LP) is another of ‘Kingdom’s more disposable offerings. It has a strong disco bent, mirroring the era in which it was recorded, but if you can make it past that, there’s possible enjoyment to be had. Yes, the rhythm guitars quickly adopt a funky disco shuffling and a few of the keyboards are a little “of their time”, but dig a little deeper and it gets better. Clarkin’s multi-tracked twin leads are as decent here as anywhere else on the record and a few falsetto backing vocals add to the chaos with their brief appearances. A huge tip of the hat must be given to Bob Catley, who turns in a rather commendable performance, even though the whole thing could be written off as ridiculous. [This was the second song in the early Magnum repertoire influenced by the work of fantasy writer Michael Moorcock. The first, ‘Stormbringer’, was recorded a couple of years prior to this album’s earliest recording sessions.]
The most adventurous arrangement on the original LP’s second side, ‘All Come Together’ begins with a world of stringed keyboards, mellotron drones and a wistful piano motif before crashing in with falsetto voices and prog-rock synths. Over this theatrical arrangement, Catley sounds a little wobbly, but in many ways his completely naturalistic delivery is one of his best here. With the addition of an upbeat drum line, the tune extends the funk grooves from the previous track, although uses them in a vastly superior way. The interplay between the guitar and electric piano (responsible for most of the funkiness) is incredibly tight, while the lead guitar breaks rely on some familiar twin lead sounds. Overall, while Magnum should have played more to their pomp strengths on the album’s second half, ‘All Come Together’ is extraordinarily satisfying – it’s exceptionally tight arrangement pushing each of the musicians about as far as they were able at the time of recording.
‘Kingdom of Madness’ was not the hit it deserved to be, peaking at #58 on the UK album chart. It would be too easy to blame the changing musical landscape for this relative flop, since revisionist history would have everyone believe punk and its subgenres were the dominant musical force by 1978. Since the bigger prog and pomp bands of the era – Pink Floyd, Genesis and ELO – were still shifting millions of albums, Magnum weren’t exactly going against the musical tide (or even fashion). It is highly likely, therefore, that it was not punk that led to this album’s relative failure, but instead, a lack of promotion.
Although by the time of its release, Magnum had become a stronger musical unit and Clarkin a better songwriter [as evidenced on 1979’s hugely superior ‘Magnum II’], ‘Kingdom of Madness’ remains a commendable first effort, despite a couple of really obvious clunkers. While various reissues on different labels have kept the album in circulation for huge chunks of its lifespan, the expanded edition from 2005 remains the definitive release. [In addition to the original album, it includes all of the shelved tracks from the ’76 sessions, a handful of tracks recorded in 1974 prior to receiving a recording contract and – of most interest to the hardcore Magnum fan – the two recordings released by CBS on the ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ single.]