By Martin Popoff
THE SERPENT RINGS
Steamhammer/SPV (CD, LP)
Nearing 50 years as a band and over 40 since their Kingdom of Madness debut in ’78, Birmingham’s Magnum have admirably been hard to categorize. Essentially they are at the tough, heavy metal end of prog, but then also welled-up with loads of melody, emanating from prodigious synths and keys—call them a “pomp rock” version of Uriah Heep if you must, or Queen crossed with Journey. It’s an interesting dynamic: guitarist Tony Clarkin is overwhelmingly the writer of the band’s material as well as producer, but the main stamp besides the keys—longtime keyboardist Mark Stanway bowed out in 2017, replaced by Rick Benton—comes from singer Bob Catley, who is thespian in the extreme. New bassist in the band is Dennis Ward who no doubt brought extra production ideas to the table as well, given his long resume tucked into a drawer behind the mixing desk.
Lyrically, The Serpent Rings offers everything we love about Magnum, namely, science fiction and fantasy as well as societal commentary (most notably on climate change), all delivered with this sense of over-spilling emotion and joy that feels like enlightenment or wisdom personified. Hard to explain, but every song sounds like a lesson learned and then desperately disseminated after years of attuned living, urgently, as if things have to get said before it’s too late. In line with that, Catley is sounding gruff and aged and growly, which suits the harder-hitting, stadium rock panorama of the sonic picture, framed upon a huge drum sound from Lee Morris, who’s not afraid to open the high-hat or bash cymbals.
The Serpent Rings sees issue in three formats: digipak CD, 2-LP vinyl and deluxe box set, all the better to enjoy the album’s lush Rodney Matthews-illustrated cover art, impressionistic lyrics and painterly melodies.