Friday, 25 March 2016

Magnum's 'Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies' - Album Review

England's Magnum are one of the most reliable and consistent of the veteran rock bands that are still out there recording new music and touring. Founding member and guitarist Tony Clarkin must spend his entire life devoted to the band, as there always seems to be a new Magnum album and tour on the horizon. Two years have passed since Escape from the Shadow Garden (which I reviewed here) and, like clockwork, the Magnum machine have hit us with their latest release Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies (I am not sure what purpose the double quotation marks serve..), which is their eighth album since reforming in 2001. The fact that Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies is the band's nineteenth studio album overall shows that the band have an expansive and plentiful discography to their name. While nothing released since their 2001 reformation has been as good or as successful as anything released during their 1980s heyday, Magnum still release enjoyable pieces of work. Since the reunion, the quality of their work has been, largely, very strong. 2007's Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow and 2012's On the 13th Day are the two albums that instantly stand out as being the pick of the bunch however, and these watermarks are what I compare other new Magnum releases to. While Scared Blood "Divine" Lies does not quite reach these heights, it is definitely a step-up from Escape from the Shadow Garden - an album I enjoyed at the time of release but have reached for very little since. For starters, this new album is much more instantly melodic than the previous work, using more overt melodies that, at times, bring back memories of 1986's Vigilante which is one of the band's best works. The mix of British-style pomp rock with sprinklings of American-style AOR that the band use to their advantage was at it's strongest on Vigilante and Sacred Bood "Divine" Lies does emulate that style to some extent. Mark Stanway's keyboards play a greater role this time around, after sitting more in the background on Escape from the Shadow Garden. In my opinion, Magnum are at their best when Stanway has a greater role, as his striking keyboard leads and thoughtful piano lines are part of what makes the band so special. After all, Clarkin has never been an explosive guitarist (he is an amazing songwriter though!) and it is Stanway's playing that usually brings the band to life. The rest of the band do their bit too. Legendary frontman Bob Catley still sounds fantastic, and delivers another effortless vocal display throughout. I recently saw him hold his own with a handful of metal frontmen on the Avantasia tour, which reaffirmed my belief that he is one of the best rock singers out there. Bassist Al Barrow and drummer Harry James are as solid as ever on this album, but definitely remain the background compared to the other three musicians.

The album opens with the anthemic title track. A simple, classic Clarkin riff forms the basis of the song, as Catley's aging, but still powerful, voice croons over the top. This song is easily one of the best songs on the album, and by the time the huge chorus arrives, the album is in full swing. The previous album lacked many real stand-out choruses, so to be hit with a strong one right away is a great thing. The melodies used throughout this song definitely have that classic Magnum feel, and the piano-led bridge section later in the song has the majesty of the band's early work. Clarkin's guitar solos are never as interesting as many of his peers, but his effort in this song is very memorable, and fits with the rest of the melodies perfectly. The next song, Crazy Old Mothers, has an accompanying video. Stanway's keyboards drive the song initially, with pomp-inspired keyboard run, and his piano during the gentle verses is trademark Magnum. The chorus has some real crunch to it, as both Clarkin's guitar and Barrow's bass lock in nicely for a rhythmic chug. The keyboards are forever present however, and really bring out the best in Catley's vocals. This song is very typical of the band's modern sound, but the amount of keyboards used does hark back to the band's classic period. There is even a bit of a keyboard solo! Gypsy Queen opens very subtly, with delicate keyboards and Catley's vocals leading the verse on their own. Passages like this highlight what a great singer Catley still is, and how much emotion he can put into his delivery. The rest of the band join in for the crunchy chorus, led by some loose drumming from James. The contrast between the low-key verses and the heavier chorus works well, and there is another enjoyable guitar solo from Clarkin. The slight symphonic edge to the chorus really adds something to the album too. Princess in Rags (The Cult) is more upbeat, and really brings back memories of the band's glory days with a bouncy, keyboard-led intro. Stanway really shows what he brings to the band here, with plenty of different playing styles. His washes of atmosphere in the verses give the song real depth, and elsewhere his melodic leads help to liven up the crunch of Clarkin's guitar chugs. That being said, Clarkin's effects-heavy playing in the pre-chorus is excellent, and something different from the norm for Magnum. This is one of the album's best songs, and I hope the band play it live on their upcoming tour. With a ballad feel, Your Dreams Won't Die is another song that really sums up the band's modern sound. Stanway's subtle organ playing, and the steady beat laid by James for the basis of the song. The verses are very stripped back, but things pick up during the chorus. The subtle orchestral arrangement provides a grand backing, and the layers of backing vocals make the song seem much bigger than it is.

Those who are a fan of Magnum's more pomp-rock sound will love Afraid of the Night. Stanway's stark keyboard runs add stabs of overt melody, and Barrow's rumbling bass guitar throughout provides a really strong rhythm. Speaking of rhythm, the overall feel of the song changes throughout. The intro and choruses are quite dramatic, with lots of crashing drum rolls and Stanway's keyboards. The rest of the song is quite laid back, with plenty of atmosphere and excellent vocals. Another real highlight comes in the form of A Forgotten Conversation which builds up slowly over time with Stanway's keyboards always taking the lead. It really comes into it's own with the chorus however, with has some really powerful James drumming and some excellent wordless vocal sections that will surely go down well live. This is another song with the power and feel of the band's glory days, and is definitely one of the best songs the band have recorded since their reunion. Clarkin even outdoes himself as a guitarist, with lots of really strong and melodic lead breaks between vocal lines, something which is pretty flashy by his standards. After the majestic previous number, Magnum move back to more standard territory with Quiet Rhapsody. Modern Magnum can be described as having a crunchy sound, and this song highlights that perfectly. Clarkin's guitar work is quite prominent here, although some strange (almost African percussion) keyboard sounds during some sections spark interest. The song is still quiet strong however, with a keyboard-heavy section later in the song really standing out, before Clarkin embarks on another guitar solo. Twelve Men Wise and Just is another really memorable song. The interesting song title helps, but Catley's smooth vocal performance throughout really makes this song. Songs like this always highlight just how effortlessly grand Magnum can sound. Catley's voice is a big part of this feeling, and Stanway's piano playing throughout this song is excellent. The song does not really have any standout melodies, but it just oozes class throughout. The album comes to and end with the ballad Don't Cry Baby which is another keyboard-led number, although the song's chorus does rock out somewhat. It is certainly not the album's best moment, but the overall feeling of the piece makes it suitable for a closing number. Overall, Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies is another enjoyable album from Magnum that breaks no new ground for the band. Having said that however, no-one is expecting Magnum to break any new ground at this stage in their career, and their identity is strong enough to keep making albums in the same vein. Fans of the band will no doubt enjoy this.

The album was released on 26th February 2016 via Steamhammer/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for Crazy Old Mothers.

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