Credit is due when it comes to Birmingham rockers Magnum, for not resting on their laurels.
The band broke big almost 30 years ago with 1988’s Wings of Love and follow-up Goodbye L.A. two years later. Yet the prog five-piece have, save the odd track or anniversary tour, never seen fit to revisit those commercial glory years, instead determinedly forging a post-2002-reunion identity strongly dissociated from their chart-scaling heyday.
At Wakefield’s Warehouse 23, warming up for a slot at Hard Rock Hell Prog in North Wales over the weekend, they stretch back across the full length of their catalogue in a career-spanning set; but conspicuously shy away from their handful of late-80s hits.
Ostensibly still supporting last year’s Sacred Blood ‘Divine’ Lies, the newer cuts chosen throw some intriguing musical cues into the mix; Crazy Old Mothers sprinkles baroque piano over a stomping, sweeping six-string-and-orchestra riff, like some brilliantly bastardised Bond theme, whilst Your Dreams Won’t Die mournfully waltzes in on a bed of Wurlitzer flourishes before slowly ebbing and flowing to a wistful power-ballad conclusion.
It’s testament to the melodic strengths, at least, of guitarist Tony Clarkin’s output that despite the frontloading of modern material, it only occasionally drags across the first half.
It’s also where founding vocalist Bob Catley fairs best, for better and worse. Seventy this year, the Hampshire-born frontman cuts a chipper, if croaky, grizzled figure, and gives it the gusto when called for. But when called to reach back in time, he just doesn’t cut it convincingly enough; the quasi-theatrics of How Far Jerusalem are frustratingly tepid.
He does have an old ace up the sleeve in the shape of Les Morts Dansant though; a tale of execution by firing squad paradoxically a sing-along eulogy.
The cracks aren’t strictly papered over though, and the obtuse avoidance of Wings of Heaven seems even more glaring given they pluck a few numbers from its predecessor/primary influence Vigilante. Here, the AOR sheen that propelled Start Talking Love to a Top of the Pops appearance is plain; the title track bursts in on Van Halen-style synth stabs, whilst closer When the World Comes Down is a raised-fist canticle of a song accompanied by the occasional electro-panpipe.
Over four decades into their career, Magnum should be praised for refusing to adhere to expectations; but there’s something to be said for playing it straight every once in a little while too.