As Magnum closes in on their fifty year anniversary, they release a remarkably good 21st album. Let’s investigate.
There are few bands as dependable as UK’s Magnum. Seemingly incapable of releasing a bad album, especially since the reformation back in 2001, they have been going strong for almost fifty years if we don’t count the six year long hiatus. And with the last few albums all having been released in the first few months of the year, there frequently is something good to look forward to in what usually is a quiet time when it comes to new music. And fans of classic, bombastic rock can rejoice because The Serpent Rings is another home run for the English band.
Magnum is one of those bands who release albums that are instantly recognisable and familiar after one spin, giving you the feeling that you’ve known that brand-new album for years already. This is of course mainly due to Tony Clarkin’s songwriting, which is of course formulaic but also damn effective when it comes to writing enormously catchy melodic rockers. It also results in a discography that can feel same-y and have you end up being burnt out quickly on new releases even when there’s nothing wrong with them. For example, I have no desire to return to The Visitation (2011) or On the 13th Day (2012) any time soon, even though I enjoyed them at the time. What makes me revisit a Magnum album is the inclusion of two or three standout tracks, and for me, those albums lack moments like that. They’re not bad albums, but 2018’s Lost on the Road to Eternity has a couple of stunning songs on it that elevate the entire album to a higher level and give the impression of a return to form where there objectively is none.
The Serpent Rings, building on its predecessor, is stunning from beginning to end and already well on its way to being my favourite Magnum album since 2009’s Into the Valley of the Moonking. The songs are top-notch with only one or two tracks I could have done without. The most skippable song for me is the strangely ethereal Man, which somehow sounds more like a Steve Hackett B-side than a proper Magnum song. The star of the show is apparent from the very start and that’s vocalist Bob Catley who at 72 turns in a spectacularly driven performance throughout. There is an energy and aggression to his delivery on songs like Where Are You Eden? or You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets that really works wonders on heavier tracks like that, whilst his harmonies and more melodic vocals on more bombastic stuff like Not Forgiven or the title track still sound as soothing and warm as ever. Of course, the high notes and the variation of the eighties are gone, but at his age Catley still sounds more than fine.
The songs on The Serpent Rings are as wonderful as Rodney Matthews’ cover art. Clarkin can probably write a good rock tune in his sleep by now, but most of the material here is a step up from the last few efforts, with great melodies, deft solos and memorable choruses all over the place. It’s hard to really point out highlights this time round as most songs have something going for them. The first three songs alone deliver in spades and I can’t remember the last Magnum album that opened this confidently, House of Kings surprises with some great brass work making it a fun counterpart to the brilliant title track before it. The quality never really dips until we get to the aforementioned Man. It’s not a bad song by any measure but it stands out like a sore thumb amongst the rest because it’s so different from them, being more proggy and experimental. The other song that’s not quite up to snuff is the good but ultimately unremarkable album closer Crimson on the White Sand. The brilliantly piano-driven The Last One on Earth would have been a better song to end things on.
Still, The Serpent Kings breezes past, making the running time of nearly an hour feel shorter than it actually is. For a band this far into their career to release an album this good is truly exceptional and it’s admirable to see Clarkin, Catley and company still put in the effort to deliver a quality rock album. Magnum’s 21st record is a triumph and sure to earn itself a spot in the lists when we review the highlights at the end of the year.
Label: SPV Steamhammer, 2020
- Where Are You Eden? (5:37)
- You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets (5:40)
- Madman or Messiah (5:18)
- The Archway of Tears (6:21)
- Not Forgiven (5:48)
- The Serpent Rings (6:47)
- House of Kings (4:46)
- The Great Unknown (5:27)
- Man (5:31)
- The Last One on Earth (5:35)
- Crimson on the White Sand (4:53)
- Bob Catley – vocals
- Tony Clarkin – guitar
- Dennis Ward – bass guitar
- Rick Benton – keyboards
- Lee Morris – drums
Review by Ralph Plug