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Progressive Rock CD Reviews


Chase The Dragon

Review by John Pierpoint

Magnum’s third album was a breakthrough of sorts. In the early 80s, many new fans found the group through this record (myself included), drawn in no doubt by the superb Rodney Matthews cover art, (featuring one of the artist’s recurring subjects: the mythical city of Tanelorn from Michael Moorcock’s books). It was the first of a series of collaborations between the band and the artist, which has endured (with occasional gaps) to this day.

This was the first studio album to feature keyboard player Mark Stanway, who had replaced Richard Bailey two years earlier. In fact, the album was recorded soon after he joined in 1980, but had to wait until 1982 before its release. The group were in the process of moving towards a heavier, yet more commercial, style, yet still retaining the dramatic prog-rock touches that characterised the band’s earlier music. Some journalists and DJs at the time dubbed this style “pomp rock," which probably didn’t help! As with other Magnum albums, all the music is written by founder and guitarist Tony Clarkin, who still heads the band to this day, alongside singer Bob Catley. Completing the line-up on this album were Wally Lowe on bass and Kex Gorin on drums.

While many fans rate later albums as their finest, for my money, this is their best album – certainly the one I play most often, all these years later. I’d go even further and say that side one (on the original vinyl edition) is one of the greatest sides of rock music ever recorded. It’s packed with punchy tunes, well-produced, and not a single filler track to be heard. Some of these songs have remained in Magnum’s live set ever since, and with good reason.

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Track by Track Review
Soldier of the Line
The opener is a grim but exciting song about how warfare is experienced by a common foot-soldier. It begins with ominous clanking and clattering sound effects that signal preparation for battle. Clarkin’s guitar crashes in with powerful Who-like opening chords. As these fade out, Stanway’s synth chords sustain on, forming a moody backdrop for Catley’s low-register vocals on the first verse. Clarkin’s guitar crashes come in again – no release from the tension that is building. Gorin’s drums come in on the second verse. The third verse follows immediately, ratcheting up the tension still further, now with Lowe’s bass adding smoothness to the piece. The tension suddenly breaks when the band finally – some two minutes into the track! – go into the first chorus, where backing vocals act as a sort of Greek Chorus to lament the events going on: “Wargames on a castle wall. Crossed out if you dare to fall.” This is followed by a short, melodic guitar break. The last verses have doubled-up rhythm to emphasise the sense of careering towards some calamitous climax. It’s not going to end well for this soldier. . . The song is only just over four minutes long (and those sound effects take up most of the first minute), yet it seems to pack so much in: a miniature – almost operatic – masterpiece.
On the Edge of the World
While this second track would probably not be on the radar of most fans, it’s an absolute jewel, and it fulfils its role of cementing the more famous tunes into a coherent whole side. Perhaps the evocative title helps (which immediately brings to mind the paintings of Rodney Matthews and Roger Dean). Stanway’s synth opening does initially resemble the fade-in of Yes’s “Close to the Edge," but the song itself is a motoring rocker, punctuated with bright, double-tracked guitar flourishes and reedy synth fills. It has an exuberant, upbeat feel that makes it a light relief from the heavier themes in the other tracks.
The Spirit

Tony Clarkin writes many songs about the human condition: emotions, motivations, the challenges of life, the best and the worst of humanity. This is one such – almost a manifesto for his world-view. It certainly contains some of his most memorable lyrics - at times reminiscent of those of Rush’s Neil Peart

Clarkin’s acoustic guitar accompanies Catley’s vocals for the first two verses. As the chorus comes in, the whole band kicks in and Clarkin shifts to electric. On the next verse, it mellows somewhat, with Stanway playing arpeggios on a harpsichord. A middle-eight is over almost as soon as it starts. Then there’s a breakdown into guitar riffing with Gorin pummeling the drums Bonham-style. This seems like a cue for a big guitar solo, but no! It goes into another verse, albeit one with heavier treatment including a more prominent bass. A guitar solo finally appears right at the end, but it is well worth the wait.

In later live performances, this became an acoustic guitar/vocals affair (and a later live album was even entitled “The Spirit” – a testament to this song’s popularity and longevity), which works very well. However, this original version is far better in my opinion – one of the band’s greatest recordings.

Sacred Hour
And following hard on the heels of “The Spirit” is this cut – which has also become a live favourite. The fact that this tune celebrates the pact between musician and audience is undoubtedly one reason why it has endured over the years: “I hear the voice of the crowd; it will last forever / Locked in my heart; kept away like a stolen treasure.”

Is this the best thing Magnum have ever done? It’s quite possible. It’s almost perfect in its writing, its arrangement and its delivery. It’s a grand work, but it’s possible to hear all the instruments in the mix, clear and sharp, and everyone’s playing is spot-on.

Stanway’s gorgeous piano opening to this song is almost a piece on its own, beginning with the song’s main chord sequence but soon shifting into a second, answering theme and then building up with additional synth layers. It hangs on a discord for a while before the main theme fades in again with heavy reverb that diminishes as the piano approaches, as though the listener is walking through a deserted concert hall towards a lone pianist.

Catley’s vocals are initially restrained and a little reminiscent of early David Bowie on the opening verse, but he soon regains his normal, almost-operatic, power with some sustained notes once the rest of the band comes in. The piano re-enters in with choppy chords that sound a little ABBA-like, punctuated by drums and guitar stabs. A short synth solo uses effective pitch-bend on the note tails. This is reprised at the end of the song. The ending is huge and bombastic – a perfect closer to side one.

In later years, the band re-arranged this song for live performances, giving it a very different feel. That version is also excellent, but I think I prefer this original version, which brings out goose-flesh even after all these years.

Walking the Straight Line
Side two begins with this strutting, early Zeppelin-style rocker. The guitar kicks off with a sparse riff, with bass notes punctuating and Catley grunting before beginning the lyrics. It has a raw, energetic feel, but with lots of space around the instruments. Lowe’s pedaled bass on the chorus nicely balances out the trebly tone on Clarkin’s guitar. The beat breaks for a short, meditative guitar solo, which spills over into an instrumental verse.  During the instrumental break, a little piano comes in behind the guitar, but for most of this tune Stanway holds a single synth chord, changing to ascending chords only right at the end. It all works well: less is more!
We All Play the Game
The intensity is turned down on this song, with reedy, vibratoed synth melody over double-tracked bright 12-string acoustic chords which have a Jimmy Page (circa Led Zeppelin III) feel. The piece is melancholy, yet also uplifting in the final verses (as more instruments come in). The bridges have a Spanish feel, but the choruses don’t seem to add much. The keyboards join in the guitar chords on the last verse. The final piano chords have a Wakeman-like piano accompaniment.
The Teacher
This one starts with a southern blues-rock feel: fast-paced, energetic, with choppy, hand-damped rhythm chords and wailing lead guitar and precise staccato fills. But equally, it harks back to the sort of music Magnum were making on their first album, with a slight folky edge and organ coming in on the chorus. A brief, slow-paced interlude has Catley doing his Bowie impersonation again, with more of that Wakeman piano feel. But then the pace picks up again with stirring synth riffs. Clarkin’s solo is short but effective, with that unmistakeable sound that only he seems to be able to get. Catley’s post-song “Yeah-hoo!” (followed by the sound of a studio door slamming) underlines the American feel of this track.
The Lights Burned Out
This is the only ballad on the album, and was strangely selected as a single, rather than any of the more upbeat rockers. It’s a foretaste of what the band would do more of later in their career: a slow-paced love song, full of melancholy and regret. Catley’s vocals are accompanied only by the piano, initially. On the first chorus the whole band come in. The other instruments remain in on the second chorus, but the intensity drops back again. It now sounds smoother. The guitar solo is restrained and mellow – a comforting balm. The power ratchets up as the final chorus is reached, with keyboards blasting away.
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