|Magnum – ‘The Valley Of Tears – The Ballads’ (Steamhammer/SPV)|
|Written by Mark Ashby|
|Wednesday, 11 January 2017 04:30|
For almost four decades, Mark Stanway’s towering stack of keyboards was very much the centrepiece of Magnum’s sound, powering both the bombastic pomp rock anthems for which they Midlanders are best known and the huge ballads of which they are equally, and justifiably, acknowledged as masters. In fact, it could be argued that it was his recruitment that helped shape the sound of the band we know today, taking them away from a more simple hard rock approach and sending them down the more dramatic musical route which they pursued from 1982’s ‘Chase The Dragon’ album onwards. Then, at the beginning of December, after 36 years and 17 albums – and midway through a five-date tour, Stanway sensationally announced that he had left the band with whom he had carved his musical career. No explanation was given, with the keyboard player simply stating that he was gone.
Ironically, Stanway’s decision came shortly after the release of this latest Magnum project was announced. It’s a compilation, but one with a difference: no mere “best of…” throw together, but a collection focussed on one aspect of the band’s distinctive sound – those aforementioned ballads. The project was actually the brainchild of not the band or their management – but that of guitarist/composer Tony Clarkin’s daughter, Dionne, as the man himself explained: “A few months ago she asked me: ‘Magnum have so many beautiful quiet numbers, why don’t you put together a compilation highlighting some of the most powerful tracks?’ … So I sat down to work on it.”
Clarkin and vocalist Bob Catley then spent months painstaking tearing their back catalogue apart, remastering, remixing and, in the case of three of the songs, re-recording what turned into this collection of ten ballads from nine of their 19 studio albums.
It’s an impressive piece of work, it has to be said, although in places you do find yourself questioning things and especially some of the song choices: for example, why remaster ‘Your Dreams Don’t Die’ from last year’s ‘Sacred Blood “Divine” Lies’? Surely, there were plenty of other songs equally if not more deserving of restoration (off the top of my head, I can think of the likes of ‘The Word’ from ‘The Eleventh Hour’)? But, then Mr Clarkin has always been a man very much in charge of his own destiny… and it is hard to argue with the songs that he has chosen to include.
(NOTE: This is not the version contained on the album)
Two of the album highlights are the two oldest songs on here – both taken from 1986’s ‘Vigilante’ album (released at a time when Magnum were at the height of their commercial powers): a new, acoustic version of the magnificent ‘Lonely Night’, which draws on the song’s dark pathos, and a superb live rendition of ‘When The World Comes Down’, which closes off the collection in truly passionate and rousing style, with Catley’s voice once again hugely impressive.
As I mentioned earlier, three of the songs have been completely re-recorded. ‘Lonely Nights’ I’ve already touched upon. The first one on the running order is ‘Back In Your Arms’ (from 1994’s ‘Rock Art’), which sees Catley’s voice as rich and suggestive as ever: if you close your eyes, you can virtually see his characteristic hand gestures, as he pulls every ounce of expression from Clarkin’s poignant and emotive lyrics. The other “new” song is ‘Broken Wheel’, one of the standout tracks from what, for me, is one of Magnum’s most overlooked albums – ‘Sleepwalking’ – which sounds fresh and modern yet retains its classic early-90s melodic rock sensibilities.
Elsewhere, we have a remastered ‘Dream About You’, which kicks the album off in beautiful style, and remixed and remastered versions of tracks that will be familiar to, and hopefully loved by, every Magnum fan: ‘The Valley Of Tears’ itself, ‘A Face In The Crowd’, ‘The Last Frontier’ and ‘Putting Things In Place’. As I mooted above, there are lots of other songs about which arguments no doubt are already raging as to why they weren’t included, but Clarkin and Catley obviously had to make some difficult choices, and it no doubt was an unenviable task coming up with the final listing.
Whatever the merits or demerits of this exercise, ‘The Valley Of Tears’ is a virtually essential purchase for all but the most cynical of Magnum purists. For those who may be coming to the band for the first time, it may well be a confusing and even “meh” sort of introduction (certainly, if I was wanting to introduce someone to the true majesty of which Magnum are capable I would hand them a copy of ‘Vigilante’ or ‘Sleepwalking’. It certainly, with the events which unfolded between its completion and release, is something of a landmark in Magnum’s career. How they will fill Mark Stanway’s big boots remains to be seen: it the meantime, this is a fitting tribute to the man’s time with the band and the contribution he made to some of the most finely crafted rock ballads you’re ever likely to hear.