MAGNUM – The Monster Roars

Following the release of their ‘Princess Alice & The Broken Arrow’ album in 2007, Magnum settled into a vein of huge, sometimes bombastic melodic rock that carried a little more of a European flavour than the sounds of their eighties peak. The songs became bigger, longer, even more narrative, and although the hooks weren’t always as immediate as the best parts of the beloved ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’ or ‘Vigilante’, at their heart, there was always something “distinctively Magnum”. Obviously, this had much to do with Tony Clarkin’s song writing, having written the lion’s share of everything since the 70s, but Bob Catley’s friendly vocal presence could never be undervalued. Over the years, other band members came and went – each one bringing something great and different to the Magnum sound – but it was often the work of these two creative friends that kept the heart of the band pumping, much to the delight of fans.

2022’s eagerly awaited ‘The Monster Roars’ follows fan favourite ‘The Serpent Rings’, and has plenty in common with a few other semi-recent Magnum albums, but there are a few times when the material takes as much of a detour as the artwork itself (marking the first time in almost two decades that a new Magnum work hasn’t been adorned by the work of acclaimed fantasy artist Rodney Matthews). Regardless of any changes, though, there’s a lot to enjoy.

From the moment the title track begins to emerge from the speakers, there’s a feeling that this ‘Monster’ might be a little more direct and commercial than its predecessor, but not necessarily the worse for that. As a gentle piano melody takes shape, Catley’s distinctive, semi-theatrical tones immediately signal this as a Magnum opus, before Tony Clarkin steps forth with a really chunky riff. In just a few seconds, it sounds like one of the heaviest within the band’s canon to date, although this might be due to its juxtaposition with the piano. As the track progresses, the push and pull between the light and heavy sounds more natural and, by eventually, sliding into a swaggering melodic rock groove to allow Tony room to deliver a really tasteful solo, the number sounds very full. A second solo where multi-layered guitars sound like bagpipes will be more of an acquired taste, but this cheeky little twist suggests ‘The Monster Roars’ will be full of little quirks along the way. Catley, meanwhile, gets to apply his voice to a more buoyant melody to finish; this reinforces the track’s most melodic elements, and via the addition of a few synthesised strings and a tune hinting at a similar melody to that which underscored TC’s lead break, this sounds like so much more than three ideas glued together. Whatever the rest of this record brings, the title track certainly sets it off with best foot forward.

Released as a single ahead of the album ‘No Steppin’ Stones’ is, perhaps, the most dramatic left turn on the album, kicking off with a bluster of synth brass paying tribute to 80s soul numbers before drifting into a spirited rocker that sounds more like an old Eddie Money tribute than traditional Magnum. The rhythm section (comprising drummer Lee Morris and Khymera/Pink Cream 69 bassist Dennis Ward, now very much part of the Magnum family) drives everything forward with a great punchiness, and the whole band sounds as if they’re having a great time. Again, hats off to Tony for being bold, musically; he knows he’s always got Bob to fall back on to lend everything a familiar touch, and in this case, Bob does a top job in reawakening some of the older Magnum spirit (no pun intended). The main hook overshadows any soloing, posturing, or needless musical flash, but keyboard player Rick Benton and bassist Ward aren’t to be outdone: by teasing with fluid, almost jazz influenced bass and circus melodies on a very unexpected interlude, they add plenty of their own character. The brass and almost pop-like flair certainly won’t sit well with the traditionalists, but it’s easy to see why this would have been earmarked as a single; it’s bright enough to suggest that Magnum are far from past it, and chirpy enough to, just maybe, attract the ears of an unsuspecting listener who might have lost track of the band some years ago. ‘The Day After The Night Before’ values a great riff over any unnecessary bombast, and in many ways, sounds like a natural update to something from ‘Storyteller’s Night’ or ‘Vigilante’. The main riff powers forward right from the get go; Catley immediately latches onto a strong melody and Magnum show why they’ve often been considered one of the UK’s greatest melodic rock acts. With a selection of deep toms and retro synths filling the pre-chorus, there’s the briefest frisson of excitement as the band appear to be on the cusp of revisiting their past more directly. Even if the burgeoning chorus melodies come a little closer to ‘Sleepwalking’ or ‘Rock Art’ territory, it still sounds good – and Benton steering the middle section of the track even closer to Magnum’s formative prog rock years by throwing out the kind of squirly noises that would make Richard Bailey raise an eyebrow, there’s a knowing edge to the performance that older fans will love. You’ll have heard this kind of thing from the Magnum stable time and again, of course, but it’s none the worse for that. A few listens makes the chorus – one of the album’s most shamelessly AOR influenced – really stick, and its great to hear Bob really going for it, vocally speaking.

Boasting a great electric piano underscoring a very retro groove, there’s something about ‘Your Blood Is Violence’ that appears to echo bits of 80s Rainbow, despite not being that close stylistically. Perhaps its the elevated keys; maybe its the swaggering groove, but whatever it is, it’s there – but fleetingly – before Bob’s vocal and some eventual whoahs signify a latter day Magnum workout is underway. Across the next six minutes, a rising vocal, and pomp influenced core makes this sound like a natural successor to parts of ‘The Serpent Rings’. That said, despite its confidence and size, and despite some strong contributions from Benton, it’s the closest ‘The Monster Roars’ comes to offering filler. Even then, a perfectly delivered guitar solo set atop those retro keys lends such an obviously bloated arrangement a really charming interlude, further suggesting that this album is one of Magnum’s best in some time.

An instant stand-out, ‘All You Believe In’ offers yet more thoughtful piano work across a bed of sythesized orchestration, ushering in a massive, pomp driven rock ballad. With plenty of space allowing for a vocal to latch upon some very familiar rising and falling scales, Catley sounds more enthused than he has in a while, even if it seems to be a “bread and butter” performance in so many ways. In fact, there a lot here that could be written off as “Magnum by numbers” played against other twenty first century works, but within the instant familiarity, a strong melody, an intermittently harder riff and a great melody win out. For the more demanding listener, a bluesy guitar solo is on hand to give everything a lift just before the band takes a final bow with the pompy chorus, and everything flows into an equally melodic ‘I Won’t Let You Down’, a number which almost adopts a poppier feel during the verses as Tony teases with some very retro, muted guitar sounds. Inevitably, it slides easily into something rockier for a sizable hook, but like the best bits of ‘The Monster Roars’, Magnum are far from merely phoning in the performance. Via a pre-chorus that sounds almost like a lop-sided waltz (another great example of Clarkin being unafraid of trying new things), the tune shifts into something that puts Catley squarely out there, front and centre, as he belts his lungs in the manner of old. Looking past the slight husk, there’s so much hear that reminds us of the Bob from some two decades prior – and that, without wishing to rely too much on a rose-tint, can only be a good thing.

Harking back to more of a Magnum past, ‘Remember’ opens with a lovely, strident piano melody from Benton and a beautiful soaring guitar part from Clarkin, both of which provide the real heart of the track. The two men fill a spacious verse beneath a ballad-centric performance from Bob, and although his voice – arguably – now shows the signs of roughness that aging inevitably brings, he actually retains more of the distinctive presence here than in recent years, sounding simultaneously confident and at ease. That would be enough to secure this as a potential latter-day Magnum classic, but the track gets better as it progresses. A much rockier chorus brings a reasonable punch and an AOR heart calling back to bits of ‘Princess Alice’ and even ‘Rock Art’, before an even heavier interlude allows the band to deliver some serious rock chops – suggesting something that’ll sound great in the live set. Better yet, an instrumental break throws Benton into the spotlight, and his piano sounds especially bright – partly due to the final mix suffering a little from the same compressed sound that blighted parts of ‘The Serpent Rings’ – and an unexpected coda loaded with neo-classical flourishes shows him to be every bit the equal to the celebrated Mark Stanway.

Slowing down, ‘Walk The Silent Hours’ never really rises beyond being a fairly predictable rock ballad with pompy edges, but taking the melody at face value, Benton’s keys are very nice throughout and – much like ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ – it showcases Catley in surprisingly good voice, which will be enough for a lot of listeners to revisit the track with fondness upon each listen. An early fan favourite, ‘Come Holy Man’ opens with Catley and Clarkin in tandem as a melody unfolds beneath an ominous drum, before growing into the kind of mid-tempo rocker that – in another lifetime – might not have sounded so out of place on ‘Chase The Dragon’. Morris lends a heavy hand throughout, but his weightier performance really suits the job in hand, and although Tony’s chosen riff is one of his heavier affairs, he keeps a close ear on a strong melody throughout. It all comes together to create something instantly recognisable as a Magnum, especially when shifting keys into the chorus. With a deftly played guitar solo en route, this is definitely the most “obvious” Clarkin works this time around, so it’s not difficult to see why some fans would love it from day one.

Changing the mood, ‘The Present Not The Past’ teases the listener by suggesting a semi acoustic ballad, underscored by a sizable bass Ward, but a rockier mood soon emerges. Although something stripped back would’ve lent the record even more variety, the move into rockier climes certainly isn’t unwelcome, especially when parts of the track appear to revisit some of the huge pomp from as far back as ‘On A Storytellers Night’. From first listen, this track has an immediate impact. It’s strongly AOR inflected melodies help lift a superb chorus and with Clarkin’s guitars and Benton’s keys fighting for dominance in places, it’s a pleasure to hear a band absolutely lost in the sounds they’ve created. It’s especially great to hear Rick throwing out almost harpsicord sounds within the noise, before creating a bigger climax with thoughtful orchestration. Clarkin introduces ‘That Freedom Word’ with a blues-edged cry that calls back to late 80s Gary Moore, making the number another instant highlight. It’s a style he uses to great effect to link the track’s verses, and it would’ve been great to hear far more of this – perhaps hear him turn in a rare instrumental number – but the rest of the track is fine enough, closer yet again to 90s Magnum with its rocky drive and clarity of vocal. In many ways, if not for those soaring, beautiful guitar interludes, this would be Magnum on autopilot – something that would surely please fans, but they’re capable of more – but a decent chorus and huge drum sound help it to stand firm as part of an already strong album. Finally, ‘Can’t Buy Yourself A Heaven’ keeps up the quality threshold, and although at first, it doesn’t try so hard to bring fans anything new, it’s mix of electric and acoustic sounds are definitely very sympathetic to Bob’s current vocal abilities. Then, as part of the album’s final, unexpected twist, Tony casts aside the lilting melodies and drops a hard-edged, wah-wahed lead guitar break over a heady groove that sounds as if it were written for a completely different track! With the main melody reappearing for one final bow, despite potential for misgivings, this could still assert themselves as a strong contender in Magnum’s canon of ballads in time – a fine closer for a great album.

Overall, ‘The Monster Roars’ is very good. It’s home to some of Magnum’s finest and most user-friendly material since 2012’s ‘On The Thirteenth Day’ – and it’s often even better than that. It doesn’t have the all round sheen of the forever brilliant ‘Vigilante’ or ‘Wings of Heaven’, but to expect that this point – and especially given the style that’s provided the core of the preceding half dozen albums and the changing times – would be pointless. On its own merits, it is a hugely enjoyable work that more than builds upon the pomp and glory of ‘Sacred Blood, “Divine” Lies’ and ‘The Serpent Rings’ but is unafraid to try calling back to a more AOR-centric chorus or three along the way, suggesting these veteran rockers are able to look at their work as a whole, but still have more to give without relying on obvious repetition. For the long time fan, ‘The Monster Roars’ offers plenty of musical treats, some of which provide an immediate hit, with others promising to burrow under the skin in time. Even with a few gruffer vocals presenting themselves, this is a highly recommended listen.

Read a review of Magnum’s ‘Kingdom of Madness’ here.
Read a review of Magnum’s ‘Magnum II’ here.

January 2022