Friday, 2 February 2018

Magnum's 'Lost on the Road to Eternity' - Album Review

Magnum have been stalwarts of the British rock scene for over 40 years now, and have always proven to be a reliable and prolific band. Since forming in 1972, the Birmingham-based five-piece have now released twenty studio albums; the vast majority of while are memorable and enjoyable for one reason for another. Despite a brief hiatus during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band have been churning albums out at a fairly regular basis and last month saw the release of their twentieth studio album Lost on the Road to Eternity. Since their reunion in 2001 Magnum's sound has toughened up somewhat, with guitarist and songwriter Tony Clarkin's guitar riffs often driving the songs. He has always been the band's beating heart, having single-handedly written all but a handful of the band's songs, but the past decade or so of the band's existence has definitely seen them place more emphasis on his riffing. That being said, the melodic rock sound that helped Magnum to become very successful during the 1980s has remained intact, but the AOR and pomp rock influences have sometimes taken a backseat to focus on a sound that has altogether more crunch. If Clarkin is the band's heart, then frontman Bob Catley is its soul. Catley, who along with Clarkin are the band's only remaining original members, has breathed life in Clarkin's songs since the band's 1978 debut album Kingdom of Madness. Despite his age however, he still sounds strong and he sings Clarkin's lyrics with his emotionally-driven delivery. While he may not be as reliable live as he has been in the past, on record he still sounds excellent. The duo of Catley and Clarkin help to make Lost on the Road to Eternity feel like a classic Magnum album, which is key as this is the band's first effort following a fairly major line-up change. Long-time fans of the band were shocked in 2016 when long-time keyboardist Mark Stanway abruptly left the band midway through a short Christmas tour. Considering that Stanway had been in the band since 1980, and had contributed his majestic keyboards to the band's most classic albums, this seemed a rather sad way to end things. This, coupled with the fact that drummer Harry James left the band the following year to dedicate more time to his main band Thunder, meant that the Magnum line-up that had performed on five consecutive studio albums was no more. Many fans were worried what the band would sound like with Stanway's signature keyboard sounds, but it seems that any fears were unfounded as Lost in the Road to Eternity sounds every bit as 'Magnum' as their other recent works. Joining Catley, Clarkin, and bassist Al Barrow is keyboardist Rick Benton and drummer Lee Morris (Paradise Lost). Both Benton and Morris are seasoned musicians, and have brought their considerable talents and experience to this latest Magnum opus.

The band waste little time in getting down to business, and opening number Peaches and Cream starts with a mid-paced guitar riff backed up by Morris' hollow-sounding drums. Those familiar with the more muscular sound the band have been forging on recent albums will immediately recognise the style used here, but the fairly simple nature of the song makes for a fairly lacklustre opener. Magnum's album-opening tracks are usually more majestic, but this one feels like a bit of a plodder despite a strong rhythmic feel. There are moments that shine however, and Benton immediately impresses with some varied keyboard work throughout the piece. His pulsing rock organ and melodic piano lines help to bring the song to life. While certainly not a bad song, I feel it would be far better placed elsewhere in the album, as it does not really start the album with the bang that is required. Show Me Your Hands takes things up a notch, and gives Benton even more space to shine with a prominent piano performance throughout. His twinkling leads during the song's introductory instrumental passage are great, and similar melodies continue to crop up throughout the piece. In contrast to the album's opener, this song feels more anthemic overall and features the first of many strong choruses on the album. Catley turns in a battle cry-esque performance during the chorus, which is enhanced by Morris' swing-filled drumming. Morris has been a great addition to Magnum on this album, and his drumming style is more varied and fluid than that of the departed James - whose leaden style was often a detriment the Magnum really sounding their best. Storm Baby is another great track, and it opens slowly with Benton's atmospheric piano melodies creating a perfect backdrop for Catley's husky crooned vocal lines. These days, Catley excels more during the band's slower songs than the more upbeat rockers and songs like this prove he still has plenty to offer as a singer. This is not a simple ballad however, as it is not too long before the band crashes in for the chorus and work together well to create an-almost symphonic sound. Clarkin's guitar sounds huge during this song, and it works as a great contrast to the slower, piano-led sections. Songs like this are what Magnum have continued to cement their reputation with over the past decade or so, and their large fanbase is sure to lap it up!

Welcome to the Cosmic Cabaret is the album's longest cut at just over eight minutes in length. The band occasionally display some more progressive influences, and this is a song does this despite sticking fairly closely to the band's established formula. At it's heart this is another mid-paced rocker, but there are a few little tweaks that help things to sound fresh. Benton's keyboards are given plenty of room to breathe, with his atmospheric soundscapes often dictating the song's direction while the guitar and bass providing the rhythm beneath. There is even an excellent guitar solo from Clarkin that allows him to show off more than usual. He will never be listened among the World's greatest guitarists, but his playing here is smooth and melodic. The solo leads into an equally interesting, progressive instrumental break featuring guitar swirls and heavy-handed keyboard playing that recalls some of Pink Floyd's more abrasive moments. The album's title track follows and easily takes the title of the best song here with majestic melodies and a little more urgency in the overall presentation. A bonus here comes in the form of Tobias Sammet (Edguy; Avantasia) who provides some vocals to the song. Catley and Sammet's voices have always sounded great on the Avantasia albums so having them sing a duet on a Magnum album is a treat. The song is really powerful, and stands up alongside some of their best anthems of the 1980s. The chorus is easily the best here, with soaring choruses that see the two vocalists pushing their voices to the limit. Elsewhere, symphonic keyboards fill the speakers and add to excitement. This is easily one of the best songs the Clarkin has ever written, and probably my favourite thing Magnum have done since their 2001 reunion. The lead single Without Love is always going to struggle to follow the title track, but it is still a strong song in it's own right and reassured me that Magnum was going to be fine following their line-up changes when I first heard it a couple of months ago. It opens interestingly with a weaving bass and drum pattern, which is not something that is often heard from Magnum, and continues to incorporate strong elements of groove throughout. Morris' drums are easily the dominant sound here, with Clarkin's ringing chords and the keyboards providing a simple backing. This works well however, and shows Morris' ability to bring new drum sounds to the Magnum canon. The chorus returns to the band's traditional sound however, with the keyboards dancing in the background and Catley harmonising well with himself to deliver some big speaker-filling melodies.

After a run of strong songs, the album takes a bit of dip in quality over the next few songs. Tell Me What You've Got to Say, while feeling like a classic Magnum track, just never really feels to get going. I feel that part of the problem is the band's modern tendency to push songs further than necessary; turning what would be a great four minute song into an enjoyable but bloated six minute piece. In fairness this criticism could be levelled at some of the preceding songs that I have been more positive about, but it feels more apparent here and on the following couple of numbers. Magnum are certainly not the only band to be guilty of bloating out some of their songs unnecessarily, as it seems to be a fairly common thing these days and I am not sure why. There are some good moments here though, and the chorus in particular shines with some excellent keyboards from Benton. Ya Wanna be Someone is similar, but somewhat more catchy due to a decent chorus and a slightly more upbeat nature. While the chorus is packed full of 'yeah yeah'-type vocal clich├ęs, it is hard to not be taken into the strong melodies. The rest of the song is fairly unremarkable, but the chorus and overall energy of piece stops it falling by the wayside. Forbidden Masquerade starts out as a bit of a ballad, but some beefs up again with some of Clarkin's crunchy guitar chords. I feel that this album lacks a true ballad, and this is the closest thing to one to be found here along with Storm Baby and the next song. This song could have been re-worked as a proper ballad, and I think that would have benefited the album and provided a genuine moment of quiet. I feel that Clarkin's guitar playing is often quite unsubtle, with crunching guitar chords being his default playing style, and I feel that taking more of a backseat here might have been more appropriate. After a handful of slightly weaker songs, the album's next number helps to get things back on track. Glory to Ashes is another majestic piece that opens with a strong instrumental section which sees Clarkin's smooth guitar leads mixing in well with Benton's keyboards, before a slower verse takes over with Barrow's pulsing bass driving everything. Again there is a hint of a ballad here, but the melodies are too powerful to really have the necessary impact in that respect. Instead, the song is another strong mid-paced rocker that is full of the band's hallmarks. The album's final number, King of the World, is another similar song that focuses on slower tempos and a strong keyboard presence. Despite being an overall enjoyable song however, this is another one that could have really done with some trimming. There is no need for this song to be over seven minutes long and by the end it does drag. This is a shame as it ends the album on a somewhat turgid note, despite some good melodies and keyboard playing. Overall, Lost on the Road to Eternity is another solid album from the British rock band, but is one that definitely feels weaker the further it moves along. The first half is packed full of excellent songs, including one of my all-time favourite Magnum tracks, but is let down at the end by some overlong mid-paced plodders.

The album was released on 19th January 2018 via Steamhammer/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Without Love.

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