Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Magnum is a band of the people without a shadow of doubt. Evergreen high-quality pomp-rockers they retain an unwaveringly loyal fanbase to this day even though criminally underrated by the music industry at large.
With a close affinity to their fanbase it’s actions such as diligence, where practically and logistically possible, to the re-organisation of postponed dates that engender allegiance within the ranks.
This evening, the Midlanders embark on a pre-Christmas set of four dates; tonight, is a rescheduled date from September’s tour which was, most sensibly, postponed following the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Sandwiched in between this and Saturday’s 50th anniversary festive show in Wolverhampton are two further dates that have been re-arranged from April when a band member tested positive for Covid. A band of the people indeed.
Tonight, we’re within historical walls here at The Fleece. Housed in a grade II listed building first utilised as a sheep trading market, hence the name, in the 1830s this venue must have a strong claim to the most uprights per square metre in the industry. Its downright quirkiness makes for its quasi-industrial charm. Within Bristol’s multitudinous music scene, The Fleece holds a lofty reputation as the city’s largest independent venue. Since it opened its doors in 1982 the likes of Radiohead, Muse, Jeff Buckley, Queens Of The Stone Age and Status Quo have played here.
The Fleece broke out of lockdown having undergone a redesign including an increased stage area and a new PA. A kind of parallel to this evening’s support act Theia. A period that they entered as a trio and emerged as a pairing with a bassist significantly reduced in size. “We keep him in a small box” faux-laments guitarist / vocalist Kyle Lamley with an ironic glint in his eye. A stark change in musical for Kyle and his drumming brother Ash has meant a great deal of graft but it’s certainly paying dividends, the Lamley brothers are clearly loving life.
A firm alliance has been forged between Magnum and themselves. In fact, it’s the 17th time that this Staffordshire duo have supported Magnum over a connection founded well over three years ago. The two brothers are all about having fun and entertaining. From the off they’re in the faces of the Fleece crowd; exploding onto stage to Reel 2 Real’s ‘I Like To Move It’, beloved of the Madagascar film franchise, Kyle lifts an ‘Applause’ board. The crowd, with a loud cheer, are firmly on board. ‘Manic Scream’ anyone?
Beaming wider than the Avon Gorge itself Theia despatch a full-on square in the face tubthumper in ‘Fire’ taken this year’s EP ‘The Day.’ The entirety of this five-tracker forms the bulk of this evening’s 40-minute set and shows a clear line of focus. Stepping away from the likes of their one-time signature track ‘Whoop-Dee-Fucking-Doo’ was a brave move but one that has proven to be an astute one.
A viscous molten blend of gritty, dirty rock with latter day electro elements represents quite the bold evolution. Written during the pandemic ‘Blue Heart’ Kyle dedicates this evocative track to “Every single person who works for the NHS.” Deeply resonant it’s deservedly very well received.
The metalliferous incisors of ‘No Crisis’ sink into Bristol’s fleshy quarters with a savage blow as Kyle explains that it’s “About saying see that sand over there? I’m gonna put my head in it and play some rock n’ roll!” Sentiments that The Fleece approve raucously.
Although spread apart on the stage Theia appear to fill its spaces with their amiable personas. There’s time for Ash to emerge from behind his kit to ‘work’ the crowd alongside his brother before the chopping power chordage of ‘Electric Witness’ cannonades. Relating to his horrific experiences as a four-year old diagnosed with type 1 diabetes Kyle introduces the soulful ‘There’s A Boy.’ Singing sat atop his brother’s bass drum it’s a beautiful moment.
It’s a family affair within Theia as Kyle takes time to introduce their father Keith, over on the merch desk, after the infectious strains of ‘Hoo Woo.’ An unsung hero at grass roots level Keith, via his WDFD record label, has lent his assistance to the likes of Fallen Mafia, Hell’s Addiction, Verity White and Electric Black.
Offering assistance to get folks’ backsides moving Theia wrap up their set with the predatory, prowling instincts of ‘Back In Line.’ Teeth fully bared this has been an animated experience that sets a precedent for the brothers going forward. Utterly joyous!
Back in 1972 what was to become Magnum began life as the house band at the legendary Rum Runner club on Birmingham’s Broad Street. 50 years on and Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin, the ever-present nucleus, are still together and still producing top-end rock with a modern-day resonance.
Throughout the crowd inside The Fleece there’s a clamorousness appetite for a wide swathe of the back catalogue. However, with a discography of studio-recorded long players increased to 22 with this year’s excellent ‘The Monster Roars’ joining the fabled ranks not everyone is going to be completely satiated.
With two pairs of arms reaching skywards arcing before hands touch as one so beneath metaphorical slate grey skies Magnum slickly get underway with their 1988 top 40 single ‘Days Of No Trust.’ Beating his chest as he sings “For his selfish career” Bob is fine fettle. With the power of hindsight one can be forgiven in finding more than a touch of irony in these lyrics as just a few short years later matters imploded behind the scenes and Magnum found themselves cruelly discarded by the industry and by 1994 playing to small crowds in pubs and clubs.
Whilst a good number of those venues have passed into history Magnum, via a hiatus of just over five years, have mercifully endured with half their studio output being released since their 2001 reformation. Come set end a balanced, pragmatic will have been presented.
Fantastical, colourful characters, larger than life denizens of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Frank Baum’s Land of Oz, set upon the never-ending road seeking guidance during the title track of 2018’s ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity.’ The band cut shadowy figure up and stage permitting their music to do the ‘talking.’ Captivation levels reach capacity, Bob takes a bow and Tony gives the thumbs up. One the expressive, theatrical frontman and the other the quiet man in the shadows driving the engine they are the perfect compliments to one another.
One title track follows another with this year’s ‘The Monster Roars.’ Gnarled horns rising above its silvery hair the beast stares from one of Lee Morris’ bass drums. Bob leans upon Dennis Ward’s (Pink Cream 69 / Unisonic) shoulder as he shares harmonies with this unassuming Viking of a bassist. I’m sure I detect a touch of early Marillion within Rick Benton’s keys as they entwine with Tony’s precise fretwork; there’s sorcery afoot.
Shrouded in a rich purple cloak The Storyteller grasps the Sword of Chaos firmly in his right hand. He surveys the scene, there is striking sonority; no kings among them nor broken hearted clowns. Lifted from 2020’s ‘The Serpent Rings’ the prog-pomp splendour of ‘The Archway Of Tears’ has waited patiently for two years to be played live. A majesty of mellifluous craft.
With a pounding march the portentous ‘Dance Of The Black Tattoo’ stirs the darkened waters of the nearby former docklands. There’s a gravelly edge to Bob’s vocals and a Zeppelin feel to the overall; a deviation of sorts into less-dwelt environs.
Shadows tumble, shattering as they come crashing down with subtle phaseology. The quintet enquires ‘Where Are You Eden?’ in trademark style. Tony’s solo is imperious, beyond compare; intricate yet seemingly straightforward. A symphonic undercurrent pins as the heterochromatic eyed serpent coils upon the second bass drum of Lee’s impressive kit. A veritable percussive fortress.
Memories of the past are scattered about, like treasured easter eggs, the room. Engraved upon the dark wooden frame of the bed familiar symbology; through a mirror comes a familiar face looking, not at the past, but at the future with zeal. Making a long-awaited, this year, to the setlist ‘The Flood (Red Cloud’s War)’ is as awakening as ever. Ethereal eddies sinuously compose themselves bleeding together with strongarm six-stringing and rhythms. A rampaging Clarkin solo burns brightly amongst.
A vivacious romp ‘The Day After The Night Before’ ensures the monster roars once more before curtain fall as the spotlight readies itself to switch to more distant times. The stage darkens, quietens then explodes with a channelled fortitude as ‘Wild Swan’ soars “over mountains so high.” Blood-red clouds boil as what I consider to be the title track, in all but name, of ‘Wings Of Heaven’ enthrals. Bob the consummate frontman, at one with the crowd and music simultaneously.
The fire cracks on the damp flagstones, the chill air blows in with each opening of the tavern’s hefty door. Those inside draw closer to the roaring hearth; straining to hear the words of the traveller. Veiled in a shroud of lilac hues his identity is secreted in the cowled shades. He foretells of a war, one that will be the undoing of mankind itself. Heralded by Benton’s sparking keys Magnum light up the night with the anti-war sentiments of ‘Les Morts Dansant.’
Two fingers to his lips Bob emotes “What a night to be called to heaven.” It’s pure prog-theatre in all its glory and word-perfect the Fleece crowd sing as Tony and Dennis pack in the harmonies. Timeless classic ‘Rockin’ Chair’ is, indeed, testament to the fact that, 31 years on from its release, when Bob roars “I ain’t ready for no rocking chair” he eloquently speaks for the collective. Benton introduces a neat touch of honky-tonk ivories to proceedings whilst Tony bends his shining strings with ease. The crowd are unrelenting, every word is sung, and each track is cheered increasingly louder.
Our traveller beckons the tavern patrons nearer, for there is further to be told this frosty eve. The nightlights, high in the rafters, send forth rivulets into the gloom. The tracks, like the tales, flow like the river to the sea. Never a cessation. Magnum appear unstoppable as Rick’s notes swirl atmospherically to yet another loud approving with the instantly recognisable ‘All England’s Eyes’ bursts the retaining dam.
Not content to rest upon their laurels with their earlier coupling of a brace of titular tracks Magnum embark upon a grand tour with a triple salvo to lift proceedings further. 1986’s ‘Vigilante’ suddenly applies its inherent alchemy and I’m returned to the most appropriately stunning Snowdonia scenery within which I first heard this track. In his right hand, Bob raises a bottle of water to salute the crowd as they deliver the chorus.
Accompanied by Tony’s rough riffing the powered percussive force of Lee sets about laying waste to The Fleece with the glorious, road-tested insanity of ‘Kingdom Of Madness.’ Behind the backline, deep in the backstage shadows one of the crew sings along; the affection runs deep herein.
The emphatic trifecta is rounded off with the wondrous mythical overtones of ‘On A Storyteller’s Night.’ White spots catch a spinning mirror casting flecks of light across a fully immersed crowd who reply, on cue, with the track’s title as Bob tempts “What d’ya say?” This is a complementing unison, the traveller motions before dropping his hood. The Storyteller is revealed, the Sword of Chaos, his ever-faithful servant, at his side.
We have arrived at the ‘Sacred Hour’ with Rick once more adopting the role of harbinger with some fluid Wakeman-esque keys that embrace Tony’s riffage as the crowd clap in synchronised reverence. Reptilian creatures survey the reddened landscape, ahead the city gleams a futuristic white.
After a stellar 90 minutes Magnum are not done and lob in a completely unexpected swerve ball. Appearing in the set for the very first time since 2014 ‘On Christmas Day’ – a reflective upon the December 1914 truce – toasts absent friends with a genius touch. The Nitelight is burning handsomely.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM