Magnum are one of the most criminally underrated bands in the canon of British rock. From the melodic, almost progressive roots of 1978’s Kingdom of Madness through mainstream, AOR delights of Vigilante and Wings of Heaven to their 21st century metal masterpieces, Magnum are a band who have endured, despite fading into relative obscurity.
They seem forever fated to be one of those bands your parents remember a track or two from, nod their heads somewhat nonchalantly and then forget for another twenty years. Indeed, their recent 2022 European tour – in support of their latest release, The Monster Roars – doesn’t find the group in arenas or stadiums. They’re not playing to sold-out crowds of thousands anymore.
But that doesn’t mean the beast is relenting. Like the name suggests, the chugging, pulsing monster of founders Bob Catley (vocals) and Tony Clarkin (guitar) still roars, and rocked the town of Southampton to the ground on the 6th December 2022.
After a slew of rescheduling earlier in the year thanks to Covid, Magnum finally came to Southampton’s shores, bringing their treasures of melodic hard rock and soaring, quintessential ‘80s ballads with them. Backed by two incredibly talented, latter-day rock acts – Theia and Vega – the night was bound for big-permed glory from the start.
Theia were an energetic mix of party music and Crüe-esque riffs, banishing the winter’s chill from all our hearts with genuinely ambitious licks. Vega, meanwhile, proved the bastard love child of H.E.A.T. and Def Leppard, even invoking the latter’s legendary ‘Animal’ for their set closer.
Then the fog rolled in, the lights dimmed, and an orchestral score boomed from the speakers. A cheer billowed from the crowd, and Magnum took to the stage. Frontman Bob Catley stuck to his guns, with shoulder-length hair, silver nail polish and enough energy to rival Jagger. Guitarist and principal songwriter, Tony Clarkin, was the polar opposite, static throughout, strumming in silence. But he has every right to. When you’ve written and performed so many sprawling, battle-rock epics, you can sit back like Beethoven, dwelling on your latest symphony.
The night began in earnest with ‘Days of No Trust’, a blistering rock track from 1988’s Wings of Heaven, before barrelling into a string of headbang-worthy numbers from the group’s more recent output. ‘Lost on the Road to Eternity’, ‘The Archway of Tears’ and ‘Dance of the Black Tattoo’ – a particularly heavy piece from 2013’s On the 13th Day – proved as spellbinding live as the lyrics would suggest, conjuring onstage images of kings, quests and evil villains.
‘The Day After the Night Before’, a delightfully mainstream rocker from The Monster Roars followed, a testament to the enduring sound of a band like Magnum, a band who – after half a century – are still up for some good old-fashioned riffing. Then, like a white-hot blade thrown into the cooling water, the band treated us to six-minute, odyssean epic, ‘Wild Swan’, a highlight of any Magnum gig.
On A Storyteller’s Night helped cement the group’s standing as a British rock group who could carry a symphony as well as headbang, and though the title track is perhaps their signature, it’s anthems like the haunting ‘Le Morts Dansant’ which establish it as an underrated masterpiece. The endlessly fist-pump-worthy ‘Rockin’ Chair’ ensued, ‘All England’s Eyes’ (another selection from On A Storyteller’s Night), before closing with the title track from sixth studio album, Vigilante. This one has always been a favourite for me, and it was all the swaggering, gun-slinging rhapsody it should have been.
The group were rewarded a minute to collect their bearings before a battle cry rose from the shadows. ‘Magnum! Magnum! Magnum!’. The Engine Rooms may have a capacity of sub-one thousand, but you’d have sworn there was a legion of double that night.
When the band reappeared to triumphant bellows, they went straight for the jugular with ‘Kingdom of Madness’ – their earliest hark back of the night, and a lovably progressive track with soaring bridges and bestial riff. But there’s only so long you can sate the hunger of a monster, and the band knew it was time to bring out ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’ in proper. ‘Keep your night light burning/ I’ll come through wind and rain…’ Catley howled, and at once we were in the presence of wise, mystical sages; prophets touched by divine inspiration.
‘Sacred Hour’, the band’s typical closer, was every inch the melodic masterpiece, hailing from Magnum’s breakthrough record, Chase the Dragon. At sixteen tracks strong, the group (whose principal founders are now in their mid-seventies) hammered through two hours of AOR and infectious hard rock. Catley managed every high note, every scream, every fantastical flourish with ease, and Clarkin proved once more that you don’t need spandex and splendour to be a master of your craft. He hung back in the shadows, a red six-string the only real indulgence of his outfit, and was master over all.
I’m sure Magnum will go down in current history as one of those many, ‘80s rock groups who are ‘over the hill’, or not worth seeing. Any such critics could not be more wrong. I wasn’t even born when they were hitting the Top 40 and playing to thousands, and I felt blinded by brilliance all the same. In 2022, fifty years on, they’re at the top of their game, and still weaving tales like star-touched sorcerers.