Magnum are a Birmingham born AOR/Progressive/Melodic Hard Rock band formed by guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin and vocalist Bob Catley in 1972. They have gone through a myriad of line-up changes over the years with founding members Clarkin and Catley being the only remaining and consistent members throughout the bands career. The current line-up also features Rick Benton on keyboards, Dennis Ward on bass and Lee Morris on drums.
Magnum released their new rare live and special radio edits compilation album ‘Dance Of The Black Tattoo’ on 8th January 2021 through Steamhammer/SPV as a Digipak CD, double gatefold 140 gram magenta vinyl (with printed inner sleeves) album, download and stream. This set is a companion piece to 2017’s ‘The Valley Of Tears – The Ballads’, a compilation that focused on their quiet, more otherworldly and dreamy side. ‘Dance Of The Black Tattoo’, alternatively highlights the band’s anthemic, harder rocking side. The album contains fourteen rare live tracks and special radio edits carefully chosen and diligently remastered by Magnum’s leader and primary creative force Tony Clarkin. The strikingly dramatic fantasy artwork featuring a rather large dragon and a dragon slayer surrounded by castles was designed by Magnum‘s long time, tried-and-tested cover artist Rodney Matthews.
Magnum got their first break as the house band at Birmingham's Rum Runner nightclub. Joining Clarkin and Catley were drummer Kex Gorin (Died December 2007) and bassist Bob Doyle, shortly to be replaced by Dave Morgan in late 1972 and then by Colin "Wally" Lowe in 1975. The band picked up another pivotal residency at Birmingham’s Railway Inn in 1976 where they met Kim Holmes who asked Clarkin and Morgan to help him construct a recording studio, rather than being paid with money, Clarkin requested to be paid with studio time. Much of Magnum's early demo material was recorded at Nest Studios in Birmingham. These demo recordings subsequently helped them secure a recording contract with David Arden of Jet Records. It was around this time that the Magnum sound started to take shape, solely down to the writing and musical vision of guitarist Tony Clarkin.
By 1977 the band was expanded to a five-piece with the addition of Richard Bailey on keyboards. Another fortuitous turn of events happened at this point when the they were asked to support Judas Priest on their ‘Sin After Sin’ UK tour. By 1978 the band got signed to Jet Records and released their debut album ‘Kingdom of Madness’, which reached number fifty-eight in the UK Album Charts. This exposure lead to further several high profile support slots with the likes of Whitesnake, Blue Oyster Cult and Def Leppard. Leo Lyons, ex-bassist with Ten Years After, produced the follow-up album ‘Magnum II’ in 1979. Unfortunately it failed to chart. Soon after the 1979 live release ‘Marauder’ keyboard player Bailey departed and was replaced by long-time member Mark Stanway.
By 1980 the Magnum profile was on the ascent with an appearance at that years Reading Festival followed by a high profile support slot with Tygers of Pan Tang on their 1981 ‘Spellbound’ UK tour. Magnum’s significant early success came with the release of their third studio album ‘Chase the Dragon’ in 1982, reaching number seventeen in the UK Album Charts. This album was the first of many Magnum releases to feature the striking artwork of fantasy artist Rodney Matthews. Due to budgetary constraints and subsequent poor sales of 1983’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ album, Jet dropped the band from their roster. This change in fortunes saw drummer Gorin depart to be replaced by Jim Simpson. In 1984, Magnum signed a one-off deal with FM Records and in 1985 they released their pivotal album ‘On a Storyteller's Night’, which reached number twenty-four in the UK charts. Importantly it launched them in Europe.
By 1986 the band signed a major label deal with Polydor Records, and went on to the most commercially successful period of their career. For their sixth studio album, ‘Vigilante’, drummer Simpsons was gone and replaced by Mickey Barker. The album signalled their move to the mainstream market with glossy 80’s production provided by Queen Drummer Roger Taylor and David Richards. By the seventh studio album ‘Wings of Heaven’, Magnum were riding the crest of a wave and could do no wrong, reaching number five in the UK and containing three hit singles, ‘Days of No Trust’, ‘Start Talking Love’ and ‘It Must Have Been Love’, which all entered the UK top forty.
For the next album ‘Goodnight L.A.’, released in 1990, the record company forced the band to bring in outside writers and also decamp to America to have the album produced by Keith Olsen. The album reached number nine in the UK and contained another Top 40 single ‘Rockin' Chair’. Despite this respectable chart placing the critics slammed the album, and following a major disagreement with the record company, the band parted ways with Polydor. Over the next few years the band started to lose direction musically, releasing three further albums on various smaller labels, ‘Sleepwalking’ (1992), ‘Keeping the Nite Light Burning’ (1993) and ‘Rock Art’ (1994), before disbanding in 1995.
From 1996 through 1999 Catley and Clarkin continued working together as ‘Hard Rain’ - essentially Magnum under another name. They released two albums ‘Hard Rain’ (1997) and ‘When the Good Times Come’ (1999) before calling it a day. Clarkin decided to take a well-deserved rest for a couple of years while Catley pursued a solo career, releasing two studio albums ‘The Tower’ (1998) followed by ‘Legends’ (1999). Catley would continue to release solo albums in parallel with Magnum albums over the ensuing years.
Creatively refreshed and with renewed enthusiasm, Clarkin, along with Catley and Stanway, reformed Magnum in 2001. They signed with Steamhammer and released their 2002 comeback album ‘Breath of Life’. This creative rejuvenation kick started a steady stream of quality album releases over the next eighteen years, including ‘Brand New Morning’ (2004), ‘Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow’ (2007), ‘Into the Valley of the Moonking’ (2009), ‘The Visitation (2011), ‘On the 13th Day’ (2012), ‘Escape from the Shadow Garden’ (2014), ‘Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies’ (2016), ‘Lost on the Road to Eternity’ (2018) and ‘The Serpent Rings’ (2020).
‘Dance Of The Black Tattoo’ opens with a storming live version of ‘Black Skies’, previously available exclusively as a DVD bonus track on ‘Escape From The Shadow Garden – Live 2014’, and originally featured on their 2011 'The Visitation' album. This track has a thunderous growling guitar riff with heavy chugging power chords reminiscent of Dio era Sabbath, darkly brooding and doom laden with powerfully intoxicating melodic vocals from Catley. “Black skies draw near, Waiting for me, Captured and running through life, There's no escape, Crimson the blood of us all, Make no mistake.” A compellingly intense track, full of foreboding atmosphere. One of latter day Magnum’s stronger songs and an excellent opening track.
‘Freedom Day’ is also originally from their 2011 album 'The Visitation', but the version featured on this collection is from the ‘Escape From The Shadow Garden – Live 2014’ DVD. Another high energy driving rocker that weaves with intensity and swaggering bravado. Weighty guitar power chords anchor ardent snarly vocals during the rousing chorus adding to the dramatic ferocity of the track. “Sing for the human race, Louder than oceans roar, Sing till your voices break, Till you can't sing no more, Dark thoughts will fly, Into the clouds passing us by.”
Originally on the 2009 'Into the Valley of the Moonking' album, “the subsequent ‘All My Bridges’ is a little different in that the music is still heavy, but the lyrics are more poetic,” explains Clarkin. Nippy piano arpeggios usher in the intro before defiant gritty guitar power chords drive the groove stridently onwards. Enthusiastic tambourine tapping accompanies the gutsy chorus. “All my bridges are broken, My direction is lost, Yesterday's caught in the past, Yeah I'm stuck here I can't get across.” Another hard driving track with tasteful messianic guitar riffing from Clarkin!
‘On A Storyteller’s Night’, the title track of their 1985 masterpiece, is a rare live track from the bonus section of ‘Escape From The Shadow Garden – Live 2014’ album. This is one of Magnum's best loved songs with its vehement anthemic chorus leading to a collective sing along, delighting the bands faithful following all over the world. A spine-chilling and impassioned performance. “There's a storm lamp on the table, throwing shadows to the gable, And you swallow if you're able, on a storyteller's night, From the poorhouse, chimes indifferent, seven towers, seven sisters, Every black heart walks the distance, on a storyteller's night.”
The title track ‘Dance Of The Black Tattoo’ was originally on the 2012 studio album 'On the 13th Day', but the version on this collection is taken from on the ‘Escape From The Shadow Garden - Live 2014’ album. A heavy solid groove with a defiant audacious riff and gallantly expressive vocals. “Now every day the quiet dead, Will follow in your footsteps, They fill your dreams with awful dread, And walk in silence through”.
‘On Christmas Day’ is a radio edit of their seasonal anti-war song originally from the 1994 'Rock Art' album. An emotive track with poignant lyrics “Not a tree on the skyline, Nor a bird in the wing, Whispers frozen for all time, No man's land will be king, On Christmas day, There'll be no killing or fighting, On Christmas day, There'll be no thunder and lightning.” Affecting delicately sustained guitar chords add to the heartfelt mood.
‘Born To Be King’ is from their classic 1990 ‘Goodnight L.A.’ album and was previously only available on vinyl or for digital download. A solid opening intro with a four on the floor mid-tempo rhythm, intermittent changes in tempo shape the dynamic as the song progresses. Anthemic Dio sounding vocals rise in intensity as the track speeds up towards the high-octane climax, with a pounding kick drum driving the track to its final conclusion. “He was born to be king, Alone in peace he'd bring, He was born to be king, Look down to teach and sing.”
‘Phantom Of Paradise Circus’ and ‘No God Or Saviour’ are both bonus tracks from the 2016 album ‘Sacred Blood – Divine Lies’. “To be honest, when I started going through those old masters, I didn’t even have ‘Phantom Of Paradise Circus’ on my radar. I usually start working on new material about four weeks after the release of an album, so occasionally a song may sink into oblivion although it has a lot of substance and class. Such as ‘Phantom Of Paradise Circus’. I really love that number and am happy that it is getting the attention it deserves at last” explains Clarkin. Gently strummed acoustic guitar and mellifluous keyboard chords establish the hook allowing Catley's rapturous vocals to dip and soar. Accompanying fiery electric guitar adds spirited grit and determined drive. Catley's evocatively expressive vocals convey the intense dramatic melody which keeps the vibrant energy flowing. “Rising up on a white horse she came, Every night she would ride, Deep in touch with her Zodiac signs, And her Indian guide, There was magic in the air, Danger followed behind, She appeared in a circle of flame, And the ringmaster cried.” A formidable, well-written and skillfully constructed song.
‘No God Or Saviour’ opens with a slow tempo before a heavy crunching guitar riff steers the emotively zealous chorus to another level. Shifts in tempo build up the tension adding to the overall dramatic affect. “We spill the blood in this poisonous game, No God or Saviour should take the blame, And in our hearts we know face to face, We bring a curse on the human race.” Yet more prodigious lyrics from Clarkin, with a superlatively earnest vocal delivery from Catley. Another of Magnum's powerfully intense theatrical songs.
‘Your Dreams Won’t Die’ and ‘Twelve Men Wise And Just’, are two live bonus tracks which first appeared on the 2018 studio album ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’. ‘Your Dreams Won’t Die’ is a slow plodder with soft decorous keyboard chords setting the scene. This track is a 80’s style soft rocker with a memorable rousing chorus. “Your dreams, won't die, If you remember them each day, Sweet dreams, blue sky, They're gonna take you all the way.”
‘Twelve Men Wise And Just’ gets off to a slow start with sparse percussion, piano and vocals before driving guitars and pounding drums elevate proceedings. The intensity rises with Catley's eloquently expressive vocal delivery adding weight and propelling the track forward. The spirited chorus raises the energy with a mellifluous melody riding gracefully over the simple rhythmic structure, background synthesisers embellish the brightness and clarity of the lyrics, “So when the fortune teller said, That all the cards had been misread, And that they gave you up for dead for sure, You said you’d never compromise, But as you looked into her eyes, This really made you realize the cure.” Another top quality song.
‘Show Me Your Hands’ is a previously unreleased radio edit from the studio recording for the 2018 album ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’. Euphonious piano and lively percussion set the opening pace with sustained guitar chords setting the bedrock for Catley to let rip with his stirring storytelling vocal delivery. “Show me your hands, Let's get it on tonight, Show me your hands, Come to shine bright.” An uplifting anthemic gem of a track!
‘Not Forgiven’ and ‘Madman Or Messiah’ are previously unreleased radio edits for the 2020 album 'The Serpent Rings’. “Sometimes it’s not easy to shorten a carefully balanced composition for the radio, but in these three cases it worked really well,” reckons Clarkin. ‘Not Forgiven’ is a straight forward hard hitting mid-tempo four on the floor rocker with a powerful rousing chorus. The tempo holds back slightly on the chorus adding to the overall suspense with lingering sustained guitar chords cementing the tension building atmosphere. “Not forgiven, You wear the face of a liar, Not forgiven, You stand too close to the fire, Words are empty, To the money you're drawn, Not forgiven, You'll get lost in the storm.”
The last track on the album is ‘Madman Or Messiah’, a lyric heavy track that allows Catley's vocals to soar and dominate. A good balanced performance with moments of high drama, light and shade. “Madman or messiah, If he gets inside of your head, That house of desire, Be careful you might get misled.” Another electrifying song with interesting arrangement and top quality playing.
This album brings together a scintillating and eclectic mix of songs primarily from the more recent Magnum output. All the tracks demonstrate the continuing power and quality of Catley's vocal abilities, despite his advancing years. In many ways his seasoned voice has improved in character and expression. The album also showcases the unabated quality of compositions that Clarkin continues to write. Ultimately the overall enduring success of the band is their unrelenting creative inventiveness and their adept ability to balance the AOR Melodic side with a more Progressive Hard Rock angle. Definitely a winning formula.
Steven C. Gilbert.