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Magnum

On A Storyteller’s Night

Review by John Pierpoint

For many fans, this 1985 offering is Magnum’s greatest album. I personally preferred “Chase the Dragon” back in the day, but on listening to this one again after a gap of several years I can now understand the reverence in which this album is held. It was a game-changer, building on the band’s established sound but adding new ideas and embracing different styles. Guitarist Tony Clarkin’s songwriting skills – already at a high level – soared to new heights. The lyrics are deep, the melodies infectious, and the arrangements. . . oh, just magnificent! It must have gained them many new followers.

It was an album forged in adversity: the band faced a bleak future when they were dropped by former label Jet. In the process, they lost original sticksman Kex Gorin and keyboardist Mark Stanway. But the band bounced back, recruiting Jim Simpson on drums and Eddie George on keyboards. They continued gigging and recording, honing their new material, despite not having a record deal. This meant that when they finally landed a deal with FM Records, they had a batch of road-tested songs ready. Stanway had by this time returned. Simpson brought precision and power to the drums, but as this was the 80s, the drum sound is a bit intense compared to that in earlier recordings. Stanway embraced 80s' tech too – with a wider palette of sounds to play with, although he still plays plenty of piano on this disc.

As with their previous two albums, renowned fantasy artist Rodney Matthews provided the cover. It’s one of his most popular paintings, and has become an iconic image. The “Storyteller” character has reappeared on several Magnum covers since.

This review is available in book (paperback and hardcover) form in Music Street Journal: 2021  Volume 6. More information and purchase links can be found at: garyhillauthor.com/Music-Street-Journal-2021.

Track by Track Review
How Far Jerusalem

One thing Magnum excels at is creating powerful introductions to their songs, and they don’t come more powerful than this atmospheric, synth-laden intro. Brooding low tones fade in. A slow fanfare sounds. There’s no hurry to get the cut started: it takes a good minute before Catley’s voice is reverse-echoed in with the haunting opening phrases “They are the victims of the night. Ride against the wind. Born to lose the fight. . .” The drums kick in at the end of this verse, introducing Clarkin’s fat, chopping guitar power chords which never fail to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. For the most part, the guitar pedals a single chord, to impressive effect.

The intensity relents a bit on the bridge, but then the chorus bangs in with a vengeance: “How far Jerusalem? Until the heart breaks down. No kings among them. Cold feet in London Town.” Again, the tension relaxes as the song descends into synth swirls and a short, introspective guitar section (which in live renditions becomes a full-blown long solo) that introduces the second verse. There’s a last instrumental flourish before the final guitar chords. The number feels like a prog epic, yet it’s a mere six-and-a-half-minutes long!

Just Like An Arrow

This was selected as a single and it certainly seems crafted to work as such, with punchy drums, crunchy guitars and melodic keyboard line (and when they played it live on the album’s tour, a pair of female backing singers suddenly appeared on stage just for this piece – possibly for a video shoot). It’s a pure, honest love song, spiced up with a tasty guitar solo at the end. It’s an upbeat and stirring tune, yet possibly the least interesting number on the album – but that says more about the quality of the other cuts than anything else.

On a Storyteller’s Night
The pace slows for this song, with electric piano chiming over eerie synth wails. This minimal backing continues behind Catley’s voice through the first verses and bridge. The whole band comes in on the chorus, but this is over almost as soon as it starts (teasers!), reverting to the low-key instruments of the next verse – albeit with ominous kick-drum beats.

An instrumental section with the guitar taking the melody line follows the second chorus, taking it to a new level which is maintained right to the end of the number. The final instrumental flourish is reminiscent of Yes (including an organ fill). The album cover echoes the atmosphere of this piece very well. Strangely, this was chosen as a single. It’s a superb cut but, with its low-key demeanour, perhaps not single material.

Before First Light
This is another love song, but this time filled with anguish, frustration and impatience. A strong drum fill brings in this track, which pairs guitar and keyboards in the main riff to good effect. The ticking rim-shot beat on the otherwise laid-back choruses adds a feeling of urgency. Clarkin’s brief solo here reminds me a bit of Blue Oyster Cult’s Buck Dharma. The power builds up on the last chorus, driving headlong to the end.
Les Morts Dansants
Some very 80s-sounding keyboards introduce the song. It’s a melancholy, yet also stirring, piece about the futility and horror of The Great War, as witnessed by the men in the trenches – a theme Clarkin would revisit. The music is largely the same chords throughout, but the arrangement of it is stunningly executed, teasing every last drop of emotion from the track’s lyrics.

It takes a long time to build up the instrumentation from the initial sparse forces, letting the atmosphere do its work. Catley’s vocals on this song are particularly dynamic, being rather restrained until he suddenly belts out “Ooh - gather round, reluctant marksmen!” After this point he opens out, with the subsequent chorus replete with backing vocals. The instrumentation has also built up by this time, with the guitars having come in quietly earlier, but ramping in volume and distortion towards the end. By the time the final chorus comes in, the band is firing on all cylinders, with the synths providing most of the power.

Endless Love
A tribal-sounding drum pattern brings this in. Over that, guitars play the main riff, while the bass pedals a single damped note. But it’s the keyboards (which appear in the second verse) that are most notable on this song: their sequencer-like nature is quite unlike those in any previous Magnum arrangement, but they work well, partnered with the heavy guitar. On the second verse, bright echoing keyboard arpeggios pick out a counter-melody. Later, there’s a breakdown with the synths bubbling and chattering in chaotic disarray, followed by a short instrumental section. It’s one of the album’s heavier tracks, establishing a mood and sticking to it.
Two Hearts
This song about unrequited love is also an exercise in getting into an infectious groove and taking it all the way. It starts with a smooth, acoustic guitar intro. Synth swoops mimic birds circling overhead. Then the drums kick in and we’re in an urgent, damped guitar riff, spiced with occasional Mark Knopfler-like clean guitar phrases.


The chorus appears briefly for the first time halfway through the tune, leading into an extended guitar solo (Clarkin once again reminding me of Buck Dharma here), then back into the simple but quite addictive chorus, which is repeated to the end - fantastic!

Steal Your Heart
This piece has another keyboard-heavy arrangement that attests to the 80s. It begins with a keyboard fanfare over chugging guitars. There’s a cowbell on the anthemic chorus. Clarkin’s solo halfway through starts like it’s going to go off into Alex Lifeson territory, but he turns it round with one of his characteristic double-tracked filigree flourishes. Then there’s a change to a new, descending set of chords that acts as a middle-eight before the last verse.
All England’s Eyes
For me, this is one of the most memorable cuts on this album. It’s one of those “less is more” tracks, where the band plays around with a very simple tune and transforms it into something incredibly powerful. It belts in with sustained guitar notes (with a very 70s tone), but it’s the sequenced keyboards (perhaps emulating the sound of helicopter rotors) and pounding toms that propel this song. The piece is about warfare again – loss and grief, and the inevitability of it all, and the characteristically English metaphor used to signify a nation’s collective grief. The chorus has the memorable lines: “All England’s skies turn black as she cries – wet again. All England’s eyes turn black as they cry – yet again.” These are sung almost acapella by multiple voices at one point (with just the drums pounding on, relentlessly), as though by a crowd of people, screaming their anguish. A keyboard melody near the end sounds militaristic and triumphant, but this does nothing to dilute the message.
The Last Dance
This one is just Catley and Stanway, playing one of those melancholy ballads that Magnum did increasingly throughout the 80s. A piano initially takes the tune. Catley’s vocals are rich and deep, and backed by soaring multi-part harmonies in the chorus. On the second verse, additional layered keyboards come in, but no other instruments.

 

 
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