Magnum haven't exactly been the most popular British rock band to devote their whole conceptual inspiration to fantasy, but they've certainly been one of the most consistent. Existing for four decades, rising to prominence at just
the right time (i.e., the mid-80s) and steamrollering their musical career with fresh material every couple of years have all proven to be positive boons for a band who some would categorise as “past their peak”. On the contrary, Magnum seem to be full of life every time a new album arrives, and this year's effort, The Serpent Rings
is no different.
With a barnstorming opener in “Where are You Eden?”, the band seem fully invigorated and plough heavy riffs into the usual bombastic pomp of wispy keyboards and Catley's slightly rough albeit still admirable vocal performance. The energy is maintained throughout, reminding the listener that Magnum really haven't lost their touch since forming in the late 70s. Unfortunately this turns out to be the album's strongest song, though only by a margin. You see, Magnum have always appreciated a bit of versatility in their songwriting, and that has also run the risk of most of the band's discography having almost as many corny tunes as they do powerful, almost game-changing epics.
Lacklustre moments are few and far between here but it's pretty obvious that certain songs suffer as a result. Whereas “Where are You Eden?” and the dramatic title track are arguably some of the best Magnum songs to have been written in the last two decades, “You Can't Run Faster than Bullets” proves it shouldn't have made the final cut on the album and “Not Forgiven” is too sickly sweet for its own good. The former initially disguises itself as a continuation of the opener's powerful punch, but instead relies on very unnecessary electronics and a length which means the song overstays its welcome, especially when the outro drones on for half a minute for no reason at all. The latter goes down the route and in spite of an obvious attempts at staying true to their chosen style, Magnum collectively let “Not Forgiven” slow down as opposed to taking on more pace and finishing on a high.
Elsewhere on the album however, Magnum take several chances of redemption and save The Serpent Rings
from being entirely forgotten about in the future. “Madman or Messiah” is focused on momentum and could well be the fastest Magnum song of recent times, indulging in bombastic keyboard performances and lifting the tone into melodious soundscapes, which by the end are dazzling and not overdone. Similarly, “Man” also indulges in its melodramatic edge, but features more focus on the rhythm section and thankfully the driving riffs lock down heavier tones, resulting in a sound which isn't exactly light years away from the successful AOR era Magnum were linked with in the 80s. Finally, some experimentation is never too far from a release by this band, and “House of Kings” certainly serves its purpose as an outstanding album highlight. Initially melodic and harmonic as you'd come to expect at this point in The Serpent Rings
, the mid-section suddenly takes a downward spiral into dark-tinged progressive rock, keyboards remaining deep and dull until a jazzy, almost electric loop takes centre stage, proving the band are still open to different approaches.
The Serpent Rings
may only be another album to appreciate from the usual Magnum fanbase, but it's pretty clear that the band are content with their comfort zone, and when the musicianship is delivered with as much freshness and integrity as on this latest full-length, it's easy to get over certain aforementioned mis-steps and concentrate on Magnum's general consistency. They may not be biggest or indeed greatest band in their field, but The Serpent Rings
renders Magnum as one of British fantasy-oriented rock's most reliable groups.