They might not have ever made it as big as Thin Lizzy or Whitesnake, and they never cracked the American market, but few rock bands have ever been quite as reliable as Magnum. Their journey to becoming one of Europe’s best and most treasured bands wasn’t always smooth, but after years of hard graft, they eventually found fame in the early to mid 80s, becoming a fan favourite both in the live setting and on record. Perhaps more impressive is the band’s consistency in the songwriting department. Guitarist Tony Clarkin (1946-2024) had an ability to write both rousing rockers and thoughtful narratives with equal skill, and his gifts for writing songs with huge, sweeping melodies made him a true giant of melodic rock. Their vast catalogue contains relatively few weak releases, and in many ways, shows why Magnum albums have often felt like one of rock music’s greatest comforts. But…if you’ve never taken the plunge, or perhaps only ever bought the ‘Marauder’ live album and ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’, what have you missed? Here’s the Real Gone guide to the Magnum essentials!
The Prog Classic: MAGNUM II (1979)
Magnum’s debut album, 1978’s ‘Kingdom of Madness’, introduced the band as a fantasy themed, prog rock outfit with pomp leanings and a few commercial edges. ‘Magnum II’ took that blueprint and refined it. Although the title cut from the debut would be a mainstay of the band’s live set for years to come, the more commercial aspects of this second album (‘If I Could Live Forever’, ‘Changes’, ‘Stayin’ Alive’) suggested that guitarist Tony Clarkin was not only constantly honing the band’s sound, but growing as a songwriter. The record doesn’t skim on big, prog-ish excess, of course, and tunes like ‘Great Adventure’ and ‘So Cold The Night’ are an easy match for the debut’s brilliant bombast.
The Big 80s Album: ON A STORYTELLER’S NIGHT (1985)
Despite Magnum’s fifth studio album boasting a classic sleeve by renowned artist Rodney Matthews depicting a Tolkein inspired scene, by the mid 80s, the fantasy themes within Magnum’s work had subsided. Clarkin was fully embracing AOR choruses to lift his grand arrangements, and numbers like ‘Just Like An Arrow’ and ‘Les Morts Dansant’ not only conveyed a more commercial style, they gave vocalist Bob Catley some massive melodies with which to work. It’s arguably here that all of the promise, and all of the sometimes fractured earlier ideas come together. The best tracks have the pomp of ‘Magnum II’ and the huge rock heart displayed on its follow up [1982’s enjoyable ‘Chase The Dragon’], except here, it’s no longer a case of either/or – the styles are fused perfectly. This record sets the template for everything to come and is absolutely essential listening.
The AOR Classic: WINGS OF HEAVEN (1989)
Signing with Polydor Records in 1986 brought a bigger budget and a more commercial sound to Magnum’s work, and the ‘Vigilante’ album (produced by Queen’s Roger Taylor) featured a few MTV-friendly AOR tunes that would be an equal match for anything on FM’s ‘Indiscreet’ released that same year. In many ways, ‘Vigilante’ can be held up as the AOR essential in the Magnum canon, but 1988’s ‘Wings of Heaven’ is just a little more…interesting. It has the big radio friendly rockers (‘Days of No Trust’, ‘Different Worlds’) and the further bid to crack America with massive AOR sounds (‘Start Talkin’ Love’, ‘It Must Have Been Love’), but the fantastic ‘Wild Swan’ breaks from the partly formulaic rock to bring a really emotive middle eight calling back to the brilliant grandiosity of ‘On A Storytellers Night’, and the epic ‘Don’t Wake The Lion’ is unafraid to add a couple of prog leanings to the band’s sound once again. Commercial it may be, but there isn’t a time when this Magnum album doesn’t hit the spot.
The Return To Form: PRINCESS ALICE & THE BROKEN ARROW (2007)
In the mid 90s, Magnum took a well earned break. Bob and Tony explored new musical avenues as Hard Rain – with no real commercial success – and Bob embarked on a solo career which, although appreciated by fans, didn’t always yield the same levels of enjoyment as the classic Magnum discs. Magnum subsequently reformed in 2001 and released two albums (‘Breath of Life’ in 2002 and ‘Brand New Morning’ in 2004) which were well received, but didn’t always sound like “typical Magnum”. It wasn’t until the release of ‘Princess Alice’ three years later that the revitalised band really found their mojo. Housed in a beautiful Rodney Matthews sleeve, the album set a precedent for a lot of the band’s later albums, with the chunky ‘Out of The Shadows’ providing a great, rocky backdrop for Catley’s voice but tempering the rock with a mature feel, ‘Your Lies’ sounding as strong as any of the band’s rock sounds circa 1982, and the piano driven ‘Inside Your Head’ showing how the fragility of ‘The Lights Burned Out’ and ‘The Spirit’ could still be summoned, no matter how many years had passed. In terms of its place in the Magnum universe, ‘Princess Alice’ is outshone by a fair few of the other albums, but this has always felt like an important release – above all else, it proved that the reformed Magnum would have staying power.
The Live Treat: LIVE AT THE SYMPHONY HALL (2019)
In fairness, most Magnum live albums are worth picking up. 1980’s ‘Marauder’ is an excellent recording capturing the early band at their best, and 1991’s ‘The Spirit’ provides a handy overview of the AOR years, but this release shows how well the band could still work an audience as rock’s elder statesmen. Bob’s voice is a little looser in places and the recording is rawer than those earlier efforts, but the Magnum line up featuring keys man Rick Benton and drummer Lee Morris comes with plenty of punch. Clarkin’s guitar work shares a whole world of emotion, and the set list, in mixing contemporary material with several cast iron classics, proves how Magnum were never a lazy nostalgia act. Highlights include a really rocky ‘Sacred Blood “Divine” Lies’ and rousing renditions of ‘All England’s Eyes’ and ‘Vigilante’.
The Late Period Fan Favourite: THE SERPENT RINGS (2020)
By 2020, there was a feeling that Magnum’s albums had become a little formulaic. That isn’t by any way a criticism; most bands over forty years into a career are likely to have settled into a comfort zone, but the arrival of ‘The Serpent Rings’ gave fans exactly what they wanted…only better. Its best tunes retread the huge rock sounds set up on the previous ‘Sacred Blood “Divine Lies” (2016) and ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’ (2018), but dresses a familiar sound with arguably better production and Clarkin sharing a few much bigger guitar parts. Highlights ‘You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets’ and ‘Not Forgiven’ capture the veteran band in powerhouse mode, and although the rockier ‘House of Kings’ tests Bob Catley’s mature voice a little more than should be ideal, that track’s middle section with flowing jazzy piano and sax infused coda bring a welcome variety to the fold. …And for those who’d always felt big ballads were the band’s forte, the very measured ‘The Great Unknown’ tips the hat to ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’ with ease. ‘The Serpent Rings’ isn’t necessarily the kind of record that first time listeners should reach for, but for those who’ve been familiar with the band in the past and have, perhaps, lost touch, it’s a record that bristles with life and a strong melodic interest.
The Last Hurrah: HERE COMES THE RAIN (2024)
As good as ‘The Serpent Rings’ and its follow up, 2022’s ‘The Monster Roars’ had been, few would have predicted that Magnum’s twenty second studio album would be one of their finest. ‘Here Comes The Rain’ has the rockier aspects of the previous albums post-2007, but also shows that the band weren’t afraid of trying different things. ‘The Seventh Darkness’ is loaded with horns; ‘Blue Tango’ finds Magnum losing themselves completely in the kind of stomping rock usually reserved for UFO and Status Quo; a couple of tracks even look back at the band’s late 80s AOR for inspiration, and in ‘Broken City’, Clarkin delivered a heart wrenching lyric about the casualties – and the futility – of war. In terms of a late career bloom, this album really sets a high benchmark.