MAGNUM – Magnum II

Magnum’s debut album ‘Kingdom of Madness’ had a long and somewhat difficult birth. An album had been completed by the end of 1976, but for reasons best known to themselves, the Jet Records label sat on the tapes. Magnum continued to write new material and gig constantly, and subsequently, the album was given an overhaul. A few older tracks were sidelined for newer songs and a rejigged long-player eventually appeared on record shop shelves in August 1978. This possibly didn’t help the album’s fortunes in the short term; instead of being released at a time when the record’s prog and pomp styles were still in vogue, Magnum were left with a fantasy themed album drifting in the unsure waters of punk and new wave bands. It only scraped the UK album chart’s top 60.

Undeterred, Bob Catley, Tony Clarkin and the rest of the band went back into the studio to record a follow up. Released in November 1979, the prosaically titled ‘Magnum II’ continued down a musical path of pomp and light prog rock, but in many ways featured much more accessible songs. Decades on, it is little more than a fan curio in relation to the bigger picture of a career spanning so many years, but as a stand-alone listen it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable record. An under-appreciated forty minutes, it’s very much the kind of album that deserves to be revisited by so many fans of melodic and progressive rock.

As is the case with so many second albums from the late 70s and early 80s, most of the material had already been performed in front of an audience before recording. Two of the album’s best songs had even been present in live shows as far back as 1976, but that didn’t mean that either had become stale; far from it, in fact. The early set closer ‘All of My Life’ became the second album’s closer, showcasing more of Magnum’s straight melodic rock charm. The song comes much closer to a sound that would eventually make their fortune and it’s one of those numbers where you can hear Magnum branching out right from the opening notes. A pumping bass is joined by a jaunty piano melody that owes more to Billy Joel than Kansas and the slow tune that grows from just these two elements is both melodic and charming. Catley is in fine voice from the outset; the sparse tune gives him plenty of space to show off his vocal strengths while Clarkin takes a backseat with a few power chords. Moving into the second verse, the band really hit their stride and approaching a harmony filled chorus, it’s a case of simplicity over flashiness. A bridge section ushers in more of the expected pomp, revisiting the kind of melodies that filled the ‘Kingdom of Madness’ LP, but this doesn’t really lead to anything grander – or, indeed, with grandeur. Using this as a springboard, Magnum launch into the song’s second half and some much faster hard rock, allowing Clarkin to flex a little more muscle and for drummer Kex Gorin to explore his kit. For Catley, meanwhile, it’s a much less interesting exercise: he’s still in good voice, but his insistence on dropping into various Robert Plant-isms doesn’t really show him at his most flamboyant. Returning to the pomp tune that was teased midway, a slightly prog-rock inflected coda gives the track a more dramatic closure and a feeling of confidence, but it doesn’t stop ‘All of My Life’ feeling like a number that’s been glued together from several pieces, despite having had years of being road-tested. ‘Magnum II’ arguably features a few better songs, but this manages to show off the band’s musical chops with plenty of gusto.

Another older song, ‘The Battle’ draws more of an influence from a busy style of fantasy themed prog rock, but even so, it’s hard to find fault with the performance captured here. From the outset, the proggier intents are clear, as Richard Bailey throws out a widdly keyboard refrain that, although brief, manages to upstage Clarkin’s chunky riff. For the next two minutes, the prog Magnum can be heard on full power: Clarkin has a presence thanks to some huge power chords; Catley’s vocals are multi-tracked as he delivers the lyrical narrative apace and soon enough, Bailey fills a now dated few bars with a really squirly and squelchy keyboard solo – the kind that would make fans of 70s pomp soil themselves. Despite its brevity, its more than memorable; the way the verse is taken and then made to feel like a main hook is especially inspired, although in ending the track by having Catley ask “where do we go from here…?”, it does seem a little abrupt. It’s almost as if this were written with a larger concept piece or suite in mind. Still, as a standalone tune, in pomp terms, there’s plenty to clear the cobwebs.

Elsewhere, ‘If I Could Live Forever’ mines more of an AOR feel – something that looks a little more towards the band’s future and its great. That’s not clear at first, since Bailey opens the number with a huge sythesized choir, huge piano chords and proggy synths, before dropping into neo-classical piano flourishes to underscore an overwrought vocal. However, pretty much at the point Magnum sound like they might implode with their own self-belief, the chorus appears. Mixing the 70s pop feel from a couple of their earlier tunes with a huge pomp rock riff, a two tiered hook works excellently. Bridging the very distinctly different moods, there are other fine musical experiments including a driving riff where Clarkin shows off his knack for straight-up hard rock, a few twin leads and even a brief moment or two that sounds a lot like Kansas. With at least four different ideas stitched together this really deserved to be a mess but, if anything, it shows Clarkin growing a little more confident in his writing. Between a huge chorus and equally big harmonies, it sometimes sounds as if the band were vying for a role in a future Jeff Wayne production, but for Catley, especially, it’s very much a vocal highlight.

An instant classic, ‘Changes’ dispenses with a lot of Magnum’s early pomp and instead relies on a massive hooky chorus. A cross between AOR and 70s pop/rock, this allows Bob room for some fantastic vocals which, set against a tough but easy guitar riff, represents another of his best performances this time out. While its closer ties with the likes of Foreigner mightn’t have as much appeal for those who still wanted a kingdom of dragons and fantasy, this is a huge and important step to Magnum’s future endeavours, while the piano-heavy bounce of ‘Reborn’ goes just a little further to securing a melodic rock future. A great showcase for Bailey, the track features a strident piano as a basis for the main part of the song and between the buoyant rhythms and a fantastic, crunchy riff it’s first part manages to keep a foot in both the prog and AOR camps. Nods to Thin Lizzy and other great 70s hard rock are also present, before everything does an about turn for a folk interlude with acoustic guitars and flutes. Catley takes the floaty lyric and complete change of mood completely in his stride. Perhaps the closest this album comes to revisiting ‘Kingdom of Madness’, it’s nice to hear a little folk/fantasy prog, but the track would have worked just as well without it. When the rockier elements finally return, things feel different again, with keyboard riffs that sound like variants on 70s TV themes and a busy solo or two thrown into the bargain. Clocking up almost six minutes, it’s ‘Magnum II’s most “epic” track, but thanks to a couple of musical detours it really doesn’t drag.

Working around a few big chords and Wally Lowe’s punchy bass, ‘Foolish Heart’ brings everything back to earth with a pleasing hard rocker that feels very natural. Chorus wise, you’ll find much better on the album and even melody wise, it doesn’t really match ‘Changes’, but between a few stabbed pianos and a terrific twin lead guitar break it offers more than enough entertainment, especially if played loudly. By comparison, ‘Staying Alive’ sounds a little more of its time since the bulk of the music fits squarely within the melodic pop of the era. That said, for fans of the style, it’s an almost perfect three minute gem; a fantastic Magnum deep cut. The use of acoustic guitar set against a warm bass and punchy piano sounds lovely and given something that sounds far more “stage” to work with, Catley sounds as if he’s in his element.

An odd return to prog indulgence, ‘Firebird’ is another track that – like ‘Reborn’ – sounds as if it were created for a concept piece, especially in the way an unaccompanied vocal opens the track, interspersed with odd guitar twiddles. With a bass drum used as a heartbeat and the appearance of a mellotron, it’s an intro that seems torn between folk-rock and prog, but ultimately gives no clue as to what may lie ahead. At the point you might suspect something vaguely Jethro Tull influenced, Clarkin ushers in the electric sounds and a riff that draws from a dirty blues sound and Bailey underscores everything with a little Keith Emerson-esque pomp. So far so good, but a big AOR chorus steers everything upon a much clearer and simpler path. Already a great track, it takes another detour with a weird medieval interlude with dancing flutes, lutes and even a harpsichord, all firmly suggesting that Magnum aren’t about to give up prog just yet. Clarkin returns with a fantastic electric guitar groove and Bailey lends a distinctly prog slant via a very 70s keyboard solo, very much a melting pot of ideas…but its another one that works, which gives it the edge over ‘So Cold The Night’, a track that attempts a similar level of complexity but ends up feeling rather incomplete. At best, though, it lends the album another tune with a more theatrical quality. Looking forward to material from 1983’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ it’s a track that bridges the gulf between the fantasy/pomp laden beginnings and the more streamlined AOR sound of the 80s. Opening with battle drums adorned by stabbed keys and followed by a faintly doomy riff, it hardly announces its arrival in the most subtle manner. Only Clarkin really knows why it was a good idea to punctuate such moodiness with a jaunty tinkling keyboard riff and it shouldn’t work, but by the time the verse arrives, though, things begin to make sense. Bob quickly adopts one of his more show tune styled vocals and a chugging hard rock guitar sound is complimented by a hard struck piano. Bringing in various harmonies for the main hook, Magnum sound bigger than ever. If anything lets this down – and a case could certainly be made for it being ‘Magnum II’s most skippable track – it’s that for all the bravado, it doesn’t seem to have a clear middle and end. Somewhere in an alternate universe – maybe even the one Magnum mused upon their debut – this is part of a grand concept album, or (god forbid) a rock musical, with ‘The Battle’ and ‘If I Could Live Forever’ filling in other parts of a hugely inventive story. As part of this album, it seems like a collection of strong ideas without a clear purpose. That doesn’t stop it being enjoyable as it plays, of course, but it doesn’t hold up so well under close scrutiny.

‘Magnum II’ is a record that is full of superb tunes and surprisingly filler free for a second outing, but there’s one track that provides an even stronger link with the band’s previous record. While the AOR choruses of ‘Changes’ and ‘Foolish Heart’ are catchy, on a purely musical level, ‘Great Adventure’ is an easy stand-out for lovers of Magnum’s fantasy themed epics. Although Magnum had made a slight shift towards more chorus-oriented material, for fans of the debut, this is easily a contender for one of the record’s best tunes, working each member of the band hard to create a complex backdrop across a very confident five minutes. Bailey sets the scene with a world of then-futuristic synth sounds, before a staccatto riff punches through with a hard edge. Filling the space, Catley reaches for the more extreme end of his voice, but on this early recording, he reaches the fuller notes with ease. Changing rhythm to allow Tony to bring in a busier riff, there’s very much a feeling of something theatrical being set up. Odd bell noises briefly unsettle the groove, but upon the main riff’s return, that groove sounds better than ever. Across the rest of the number, there’s some great music to be heard – and so much harking back to ‘Kingdom’. The fusion of electric and acoustic guitars is lovely; Wally’s bass dancing beneath the main riff during the closing bars is even lovelier (he’s too low in the mix on so much of the record) and Bob’s vocal is fantastic throughout. He really seems to take all of the theatrical silliness in his stride on all of ‘Magnum II’ but here, he sounds like a man truly in command of his voice. Just brilliant.

Despite marking a step forward for the band, ‘Magnum II’ was not a commercial success. Failing to reach the album chart at all, it made ‘Kingdom of Madness’ seem like ELO‘s ‘Out of The Blue’ in the purchasing stakes. In a more modern age where quick financial gain is king, Magnum would have surely been dropped like a brick after this, but label boss Don Arden obviously saw the long term potential and made up for the album’s failure by rush releasing a live recording capturing one of the early ‘Magnum II’ shows at London’s Marquee. That recording, ‘Marauder’, appeared within five months and finally gave Magnum some chart success, ending the first chapter of their long history on a high.

[Further reading:  Magnum – Kingdom of Madness]

June/September 2019