Sunday, 13 April 2014

Magnum's 'Escape from the Shadow Garden' - Album Review

Magnum are one of Britain's premier and most consistent rock bands. Despite never hitting them heights of bands like Deep Purple and Whitesnake, Magnum have armies of dedicated fans around the world and continue to impress with solid new releases. They can never be accused of resting on their laurels either. Since getting back together in 2001, Magnum have released six studio albums. That means that Escape from the Shadow Garden is the seventh album since their reunion, and their eighteenth overall. Main songwriter and guitarist Tony Clarkin reportedly started writing this album only a month after their last album, 2012's On the 13th Day, was released. That album was very successful for the band, and fans hailed it as one of their best albums - at least since their reunion anyway. It is true that that album, along with 2007's Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow, are easily their best since coming back together. While they have all been good, those albums had a certain class and sparkle about them that the others seem to lack. Escape from the Shadow Garden does not quite reach those heights, but it certainly is as good as 2009's Into the Valley of the Moonking. It has already brought the band a fair bit of commercial success as it debuted in the Top 40 of the Official UK Album Charts, which is the band's highest chart position since 1992. Musically, this album carries on with the riff-heavy sound forged on the last two albums. Mark Stanway's keyboards are less prominent now than they were in the band's 1980s heydey, and he seems happy to play a supporting role to Clarkin's simple, yet power riffs and frontman Bob Catley's timeless voice. There is no doubt that Catley's voice is ageing, and he sounds much rougher than he used to - but the more guitar-orientated sound seems to bring out the best of his lower register. The result is a much tougher, almost heavier, sound that is not as instantly memorable as their melodic 1980s output. The trademark melodies are still there, however they are just not as blatant and in-your-face as before. It must be said too that the artwork for this album is incredible. Rodney Matthews has outdone himself here, drawing many crazy creatures and scenery to create quite a sinister looking piece of work. It would make an excellent poster!

The album kicks off with the muscular Live 'til You Die which features a riff that is characteristic of Clarkin's recent style. Flourishes of keyboards of almost orchestral quality add to the grandeur of the piece, and Catley's gritty vocal brings it all together. The chugging chorus is full of hidden melodies and Catley sounds excellent. After the second one, the song drops out, leaving a lonely guitar lead that soon evolves into a full-blown solo. Clarkin has never been a flashy player, but his simple solos are always enjoyable. Up next is Unwritten Sacrifice that begins with some understated piano playing from Stanway, with some nice retro synths and Catley's slightly strained vocals to back it up. It soon becomes a mid-paced rocker however, but the keyboards remain to add a grand edge to the material. Throughout the song, the band often return to the piano of the intro, giving it a good amount of light and shade. Modern Magnum albums to tend to be rather one-paced, so it is nice to see the band mixing things up a little on this song. It speeds up towards the end too, with a nice 'woah woah'-type vocal chant that will go down well live. Falling for the Big Plan is a little more upbeat, and sounds like something from Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow. Again, the song opens up with just piano and vocals but the rest of the band make their contributions count and the chorus is the best on the album so far. It has that 'bouncy' aesthetic that 1980s Magnum is full of, and Catley really nails the vocals. Clarkin's solo is also really good. The first half of it is backed up by some deep, ringing piano chords before the second half really rocks out. This is a really good song, and one of the album's best. Crying in the Rain follows and builds slowly around a nice drum and bass pattern while Clarkin's guitar follows in a slightly strange rhythm. The second verse has some really dirty synth breaks from Stanway to add to the almost industrial feel of the song. This is only during the verses though, as the chorus is trademark Magnum and Catley soars above the rest of the band. This song is a perfect fusion of modern and retro sounds, and shows that the band is willing to try new things to stay relevant. Too Many Clowns is the simplest song on the album. Built around a catchy riff, this slightly bluesy tune is tough and made for headbanging to. It is a real heads down rocker, which is a nice change of pace after all the more lengthy songs that precede it.

Midnight Angel is the total opposite of Too Many Clowns. It opens with some delicate acoustic guitar before things are left to Catley and Stanway once again. The latter's synths sparkle around Catley's voice. The song has a definite progressive vibe to it and, like Unwritten Sacrifice, keeps returning to the simplicity of the intro. The rest of the song has a big sound to it, but the mixture of big and small keeps it interesting despite it's length. The second half of the album is definitely not as strong as the first, but the next highlight is the moody Don't Fall Asleep. It is a slow-burning piece that focuses on some excellent piano from Stanway. It is a great ballad that is pretty moving, and the effects on the piano really work well. Of course, the chorus is another excellent one and Catley really delivers on this song. I like the fact that Stanway has lots of room to show his skills on this song - especially as he mostly plays a supporting role these days. His keyboard work has always been a big part of what makes up the Magnum sound, and his piano playing on this song is something of beauty. The next highlight is Burning River which definitely harks back to the AOR sound the band utilised a lot in the 1980s. The bouncy vibe described earlier returns here as Clarkin's guitar and Stanway's keyboards link up well to create an excellent AOR-type riff. While Catley's voice might not really be suited to this sort of material anymore, he does a sterling job. We even get treated to a short keyboard solo before Clarkin lauches in a fluid guitar solo. This song could have easily been on 1986's Vigilante, and shows that Magnum can still rock like they used to! The album comes to an end with The Valley of Tears which again features lots of excellent piano work and a reflective vocal from Catley. Despite the quiet intro, this song is actually quite uplifting and is an excellent end to an album that is not at many points. Songs like this really show that Bob Catley still has an excellent voice, even if he does not soar quite like he used to. It is all about playing to your strengths, and with this song Clarkin has written something that Catley can really own. Overall, Escape from the Shadow Garden is another album that Magnum can be proud of. It will certainly please their many fans, even if it does nothing for those who have never been convinced by the band. Magnum continue to deliver, and that is why we love them!

The album was released on 24th March 2014 via Steamhammer/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for Too Many Clowns.

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