Please indulge me for a moment as I reflect back on a nostalgic moment in time when the LP was King and the independent Mom and Pop Record Store was the primo source for serious music collectors. I could literally spend hours flipping through the import record racks soaking in all the gorgeous art work – and unlike today’s jewel case CD’s - could actually read the legible typesetting on the back cover. I can’t begin to calculate how many albums in my collection were impulse buys purchased solely on the artwork and the inclusion of words like Mellotron and Moog Synthesizer listed in the keyboard player’s arsenal.
There was no pre-screening the material beforehand, no sample downloads, or MySpace pages to research – my new musical discoveries were a sonic gut instinct gamble, influenced by visual stimulus.
The Prog/rock album covers usually distinguished themselves from the mainstream pop artists with picturesque Tolkien fantasy images or cosmic landscapes by artists like Roger Dean. If there were gnomes, elves, or dragons on the album cover you could bet the music on the platter reflected those images with gothic Mellotron chord washes, soaring synthesizers leads, a Rickenbacker 4001 Bass, the subsonic rumble of a Moog Taurus Bass Pedal, a nimble-fingered guitarist moving up and down the fret board at warp speed, and fanciful fables and about Moonlight Kings and walking vegetation.
It was on one such musical foray back in 1984 that I happened upon my first Magnum album “On A Storyteller’s Night”. The Rodney Matthews artwork had all those great visual trappings encapsulated on the cover – a medieval fantasy setting with a roomful of gnomes and elves feasting around a massive table. To this day it’s still one of my favorite album covers. And thankfully the music was just as compelling as the artwork.
To the uninitiated, Magnum is a British melodic progressive rock band with a sound like Enchant, Styx , Demon, or Saga yet heavy enough to be comparable to arena bands such as Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Blue Oyster Cult.
“On A Storyteller’s Night” proved to be Magnum’s breakthrough Gold Certified album, scoring a hit single “Just Like An Arrow”. Each track was an absolute gem.
After listening to the entire album I was so impressed I immediately went back to the store that day and purchased their first album “Chase The Dragon”.
A succession of moderately successful albums followed including “Vigilante” (1986), “Wings Of Heaven” (1988), and “Goodnight LA (1990) before the group split in 1995.
Magnum founders Tony Clarkin and Bob Catley re-formed the band in 2002 to release the album “Breath Of Life” and followed up with “Brand New Morning” (2004), and “Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow” (2007).
To be perfectly honest, the last Magnum CD I purchased was “Wings Of Heaven” and much of the magic that made “On A Storyteller’s Night” a true classic had dissipated by then. The music was good – but nothing really stayed with you. The hooks missed their mark – and the energy level seemed to ebb.
So I feared Magnum ‘Mark 2’ might suffer the same fate as many re-formed prog/metal bands hoping to recapture the magic, or those aging metal icons who have lingered well past their expiration date.
A good analogy would be to compare the original Uriah Heep line-up who produced such classic albums as “Look at Yourself”, “Demons And Wizards” and “The Magician’s Birthday” to the later day line-up who churned-out such mediocre releases as “Conquest”, “Innocent Victim”, and “Fallen Angel”. No comparison!
“Into The Valley Of The Moonking” opens with a foreboding 1:30 instrumental keyboard dirge before kicking off the track “Cry To Yourself”. As an opening track the tune was less than stellar, and Catley’s vocals seemed a bit strained and weaker than I remember, so maybe my fears had merit.
Then to my surprise the speakers seemingly ignite as the next track “All My Bridges” marks a return to Magnum’s raucous glory days. The hooks have been honed to a fine edge in this rocking tune. And Catley’s voice is back to form. Making me wonder why the band didn’t open the album with this track.
But it doesn’t stop there. The album picks up steam with each new track. When Magnum is firing on all eight cylinders there is no one better.
The energy level intensifies with tunes like “Take Me To The Edge” and “Blood On Your Barbed Wire Thorns”, taking on a hard driving AC/DC edge. This is not weak-kneed melodic progressive rock – this is balls-to-the-wall metallic rock and roll.
Guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin channels the spirit of Jimi Hendrix in the bluesy fantasy epic “Moon King”. The composition and guitar work brings to mind the Robin Trower album “ Bridge Of Sighs ”.
“A Face In The Crowd” is a sensitive melodic ballad augmented by Catley’s gritty soulful voice.
“If I Ever Loose My Mind” is a true highlight of the album and among their best … ever.
But “Into The Valley Of The Moonking” is not a perfect album. Although the band is at the top of their game instrumentally, Catley’s vocals seem to waiver a bit showing slight signs of wear and tear on tunes like “Feels Like Treason” and “Cry To Yourself”. Nothing too concerning – just an observation. After all, 30 years can take a toll; but on the whole Catley’s vocals, and the album in general ranks a strong 8 out of 10.
The 2009 Edition of Magnum includes: Tony Clarkin (guitars), Bob Catley (vocals), Mark Stanway (keyboards), Al Barrow (Bass), and Harry James (Drums).
Another plus - when the band looked for someone to design their CD they returned to the talents of Rodney Matthews who created “Chase The Dragon” and “On A Storyteller’s Night”.
The band has released “Into The Valley Of The Moonking” as both a regular jewel case CD, and a vinyl format featuring two LPs and a fold-out cover which brings out the album’s atmospheric cover artwork by Rodney Matthews.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on July 10th, 2009