Saturday, 27 February 2016

Magnum - Sacred Blood, Divine...chart position?

All sales figures in the below ramble are sourced from

Yesterday saw the official release of Magnum’s umpteenth album Sacred Blood, “Divine” Lies. As it’s mysteriously absent from Amazon’s Auto-rip service, and the physical CD has yet to deign to pop through the door I’m left not to wonder how great it will be (that’s a given, it will be amazing – certainly all the reviews point to this, as if there was any doubt), but…where will it end up in the charts? Their last effort, 2014’s superb Escape From the Shadow Garden, entered at #38, seeing them back in the UK top 40 for the first time since 1992’s Sleepwalking reached #27, and continued their well-deserved upward trajectory of recent years.  Indeed, in an era of declining album sales Magnum are bucking the trend. Looking at their efforts so far this decade, 2011’s The Visitation reached #55, with the following years On the 13th Day bettering it by a margin and reaching #43. The interesting bit to me is that 12-spot jump was based on only 25 extra first week sales (3098 vs 3073), while Shadow Garden’s extra 5-spot climb required a much larger increase – 3683 sales, to be precise. So while that top 40 placement was cause for celebration, subsequent weeks have suggested they were a little unlucky not to do even better, a fact which has had me confidently predicting a top 30 entry for the new album. Then I saw this week’s charts sales figures…

Goodness, what a slow week. Buzzjack doesn’t provide the individual sales figures for all albums, but in at #25 is Australian band Wolfmother’s 4th album Victorious with sales of…3089 – yep, a full 30 places higher than The Visitation managed 5 years ago with almost identical sales. On that basis, top 30 seems assured…but let’s go crazy and ask…how about top 20? I wouldn’t have previously thought that a possibility, but this week Sia only needed to shift 4139 copies (of her previous album, not her latest effort that’s residing in the top 10) to sit at #19 and that is not an impossible target for Magnum to reach, especially when you consider that Shadow Garden almost managed a second week in the top 100, with second week sales of 943 consigning it to #105 (a fact I only discovered last night - I’d always assumed the second week drop-off would be far more pronounced).

Now, I have to stress again that this week is unusually slow – last week Taylor Swift was at #20 with sales of around 5100, while a few weeks earlier Steven Wilson’s 4 ½ made #21 with over 6000 sales – though he did have to contend with the major revival in the Bowie back-catalogue spurred by his shock passing – so it really will need to be a ‘perfect storm’ scenario comprised of a further week of slow sales, no further sudden deaths of rock icons, and mothers across the land waking up next Sunday to receive copies of current top 5-perennials Adele, Coldplay or the Best of Bowie, alongside their flowers and chocolates.

A common view I see expressed these days is that the charts don’t matter anymore, but as long as there is a chart anyone will want to be as high up it as possible (if there’s a chart you might as well be at the top of it, as Noel Gallagher said), and a good chart position can be the difference between a promoter booking extra dates on a tour (bread and butter to a touring band of Magnum’s vintage) so I’d say, yes, it does matter – and that’s where the fans come in. Obviously 95% of the dedicated fanbase will have pre-ordered anyway, but assuming you’ve done so…were you planning to buy in multiple formats? If so, don’t wait to add that vinyl edition to your collection, buy it this week alongside your special edition CD/DVD package. Similarly, what do you mean you’ve bought a copy for yourself, but not a spare for a friend or close family member (the ideal – if alternative -  gift for Mother’s day? Erm, yeah, go on then!) who may have been missing out all these years? Literally every sale achieved this week counts.

With a bit of effort, and a lot of luck maybe, just maybe, we could help see Magnum land only their 4th top 20 album. Got to admit that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Album review: 'Now - Chicago XXXVI'


With gazillion’s of hit songs and albums to their name, and one of the most consistently busy touring schedules of any band, Chicago certainly function admirably as the money-making entity Lamm laments in the above quote. As is their right, frankly. But both Lamm and long-term fans of the band have been increasingly frustrated in recent decades with the lack of new output. When it has come, it has usually been in the form of Christmas albums (three to date – even Neil Diamond stopped after two!), while their sole original studio album of recent years, 2006’s tepid Chicago XXX, managed to be almost as disappointing as no new album at all, and many, myself included, had written the band off as a creatively spent force, finding solace only in Lamm’s excellent, but largely ignored, solo output. Until (and it’s impossible to get around the pun, sorry about that…) Now.

Quite simply, this is the sort of album Chicago should have been making on a regular basis since the late 90s. Let’s be clear – they haven’t reinvented the wheel, and if you’re looking for an album that takes them back to the avant-garde/counterculture origins of their first three albums, you won’t find it here, but they have discovered a mature pop sound that befits their veteran status, but is much more satisfying than much of the bland material they were having hits with in the late 80s. A major part of that is the return to prominence of the horn section; if the horns were used at all in the 80s it usually felt like an afterthought, but here the horn arrangements are built into the songs – just like they were in the old days (sorry, was that another pun? Whoops…) and for the first time in what feels like centuries it’s blatantly obvious that they are making music that they want to make, not music to be played on the radio (though plenty of it is still accessible and radio friendly). 

The album is sufficiently varied stylistically to render any attempted catch-all label redundant, but to me, overall it most strongly recalls the poppier material of Chicago VII, which is no bad thing. There are shifts between tempos and moods across the album and even within individual songs, and interesting and inventive arrangements, though without much in the way of instrumental soloing. Each and every song is memorable and contains a strong hook – it’s telling that I’ve had every song playing randomly in my head at some point in the past few weeks, and have had some difficulty in deciding favourites!

To the delight of old-school Chicago fans everywhere, seven of the eleven cuts have Lamm’s name in the writing credits - the highest ratio since Chicago V, though such a comparison is slightly misleading, given that these are all co-writes, some with other band members, and others with regular collaborators from Phil Galdston and America’s Gerry Beckley to John Van Eps and the project’s ‘coordinating producer’ Hank Linderman. It’s hard to fathom that it was actually Lamm who was the most skeptical about adopting Loughnane’s ‘rig’ as their travelling recording studio! Jason Scheff also contributes several excellent tracks, making this a fine return to form for him after the hit and miss affair that was XXX. His bass playing on the album is also superb throughout and is the best I’ve heard from him to date.

The album kicks off with a brilliant one-two punch in the form of Scheff’s title track and Lamm’s exquisite More Will Be Revealed, an excellent example of what Chicago fans who haven’t delved into his solo albums are missing out on! (My review of his last album can be found HERE).

Trumpeter Lee Loughnane criticises the US government in America, a track which has been amusingly misunderstood as overly and embarrassingly patriotic by some commentators. For me it’s the one near-miss of the album. I can’t decide whether the lyrics are a little overworked or underworked (‘If we work together at a steady pace/We will make the land we love a better place’ being it’s clunkiest couplet) but it’s refreshing to have political commentary back in the mix, the horn arrangement would fit on any mid-70s Chicago album and new member Lou Pardini’s vocal is strong, so it almost comes off.

Pardini also shines in his collaboration with Lamm on Watching All the Colors (Ah for the days when, despite being American, Chicago could spell ‘colour’ correctly!) and overall he is just a much better fit for the band than his predecessor Bill Champlin (though it should never be forgotten that Champlin was one of the best things about the band in the 80s, back in the days before he became bored). Pardini isn’t the only ‘new’ member to make his mark here - despite being in the band for two decades this is guitarist Keith Howland’s first real chance to show what he can do on record and he grabs the opportunity with both hands. His co-writing and production on the smooth Nice Girl and Free at Last, which starts low but builds up to a more frenetic pace in the choruses and end section (and is really the only song here that recalls (very) early Chicago, with Howland’s chugging rhythm guitar bringing Terry Kath firmly to mind), are very strong indeed.

Elsewhere Scheff’s Love Lives On finds the band in more familiar ballad territory, but this is one of the finest they’ve recorded – which is saying something - and Scheff’s vocal is sublime, while Lamm’s own political commentary track – a more successful one than America it has to be said – Naked in the Garden of Allah has the most adventurous arrangement of the set, with diverse elements from a programed middle-eastern sound to guest Doobie Brother John McFee on fiddle. The horns make a comparatively brief appearance in this mix, but when they do come in they are again there in full force. This should really have been the album closer, with ‘bonus track’ Another Trippy Day included earlier in the album (probably between America and Crazy Happy), but this is about as big a quibble I have with this release.

The album’s liner notes state that Chicago are ‘already working on their next collection of music’ and if they manage even one or two more albums of this quality (with perhaps just a little more room for them to stretch out and display their instrumental prowess) they will have created a rare late-career comeback of real significance to their legacy. And this time I believe they can do it. But if only they'd be brave enough to play more than one new track per concert...!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Gig Review: Magnum, Neonfly at the Islington Assembly Hall, 04 May 2014

Barring a cameo appearance from Lord Robert of Catley at Firefest, 2013 was my first Magnum-less year since arriving in the UK - and it's strange how quickly withdrawal symptoms can kick in! Thankfully 2014 has seen them back with yet another brand-new (and brilliant) album in the form of Escape from the Shadow Garden and an obligatory accompanying tour. The UK leg concluded with last night's gig at London's Islington Assembly Hall - fast becoming one of my favourite venues, especially when downstairs is left (as downstairs should always be if you ask me!) as a standing area and the best possible use can be made of the somewhat bouncy floor.

Despite being in the middle of a Bank Holiday weekend the venue was almost full to capacity - as full as I've seen it, in fact - and with the exception of poor old (yet mercifully ejected - twice) WAT-FORD!!!! (you had to be there...) up for it in the way that you can always rely on a Magnum audience to be.

Of course it never hurts to be touring in support of an instant classic and Shadow Garden, which saw the band earn their first UK top 40 album in two decades and,  for me, ranks alongside Princess Alice and The Visitation as the very best of their post-reformation albums (and indeed sits comfortably alongside those, Chase the Dragon, Storyteller and Wings of Heaven as one of the best albums in their entire discography), has certainly been embraced as such by the fanbase.

The fact that the catalogue is stuffed with such an embarrassment of riches meant that, despite being weighted very slightly towards recent material over the old favourites, there was only room in the set for 4 songs from the new album (so no Crying in the Rain  - boo!), kicking off with album and show opener Live 'Til You Die, with Unwritten Sacrifice and Falling for the Big Plan also featuring in the main set. Elsewhere, the early part of the show saw a welcome return to the set of two of the best Visitation tracks - Black Skies and Freedom Day -  and a couple from previous album On the 13th Day. This included the fabulous Dance of the Black Tattoo, which has now had an extra layer of grit applied to it that has seen it come into its own on stage, after being the mildest of mild disappointments last tour.

As the evening went on the old favourites (The Spirit, All England's Eyes and Vigilante amongst them) started to appear with increasing regularity, beginning with an even more extended than usual How Far Jerusalem, as Bob used his usual mid-set loo/tea break to sort out the problems he was having with his battery pack. Being the pro he is whatever the issue was it didn't affect his performance, which was as powerful and imbued with emotion as ever, but he did look a touch happier and more relaxed once it was sorted.

Also appearing, as it has in every Magnum gig I've been to, was possibly the greatest song ever written - Les Morts Dansant. This song, which deals with the policy of executing first World War deserters and other 'cowards', should be on the national curriculum as far as I'm concerned. Certainly nothing the BBC can or will come up with in their in-depth WWI commemoration programming will match this 6-minute song for emotion, depth or craft and I will never ever tire of hearing it (or manage to get through it with both eyes remaining dry, for that matter!).

The encores brought us back to the new album with the rocking Too Many Clowns (with red noses appearing in bulk down the front, and not due to an excess of alcohol consumption during the show!) before setting off some air-keyboarding in the crowd as Mark Stanway began the majestic intro to Sacred Hour, another of the all-time Magnum classics, but one I hadn't heard live before this tour. And well worth the wait it was too - an absolutely perfect end to a perfect gig.

The band never seem to have an off-night and they were firing on all cylinders throughout. A special mention for Tony Clarkin who's playing was the best I've heard from him. He's never been  the rock posturing guitar hero sort, he just gets on with the job and does it beautifully. Sometimes I think he's even more underrated as a guitarist than he is as a songwriter, and that's saying something!

I'll leave it to those who were lucky enough to see the 85-95 line-up to decide whether the band as we have it now are, as claimed by some, the best they've ever been, though that's got to be a close call. To be honest it doesn't even matter; they're certainly as good as the current incarnation of any other band you'd care to name - of any vintage - and should be more widely heralded as one of Britain's greatest bands.

In support were the best opening act I've seen with Magnum - Neonfly. Their brand of catchy, yet substantial,  melodic rock swiftly had an appreciative crowd in party mode. Lead vocalist Willy Norton particularly impressed with his powerful tenor voice and stage presence. The rest of the band were also very tight, as you might expect given that they've been playing these songs for years, but they also previewed two songs from their (hopefully) forthcoming second album and these sounded just as polished.

They fit in nicely stylistically with the headliners and there were more (if superficial!) comparisons you could easily draw between the two, not least having a guitarist (Frederick Thunder in this case) writing the bulk of the material or an image 'problem' (which I've always taken to be media speak for 'they don't all wear the same clothes and have fancy haircuts'). Whatever, it's the music that matters and I've had The Enemy buzzing incessantly inside my head all day. Definitely a band to watch (starting with the below 'musical video' - Norton's suggested use of any downtime at work...for those who have such a thing!) and a nice bunch of guys, only too happy to sign the healthy number of CDs they were shifting after the gig.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Gig Review: Heaven's Basement, Electric Ballroom 27 March

If you’ve so much as glanced at a few posts on this blog you might have gleaned that it’s rare for me to get excited about bands who formed after I was born (which was quite a long time ago now, if truth be told) but Heaven’s Basement are a definite exception. I first stumbled upon them within a couple of months of landing in the UK in 2010 (at a time when they were between lead vocalists) and became an instant fan.

By the second time I saw them (at the second and, seemingly, last High Voltage festival) they had found that elusive permanent frontman in the slight, but energetic, form of Aaron Buchannan and since then it's been fun to watch them developing from support band to headliner, particularly following last year's release of their full-length debut Filthy Empire (officially my most played album of 2013, as it happens). Thursday's gig at the Electric Ballroom seemed to confirm that this transition is on the ascendant - the last time they headlined in London was a sold out gig at the 100 club, but this time they were in a much bigger venue and it was pretty packed, to the delight (and apparent surprise) of the band.

I would guesstimate that the average age of the crowd last night was a good 15 years younger than that at that 100 club gig last July, so either the band's continued commitment to play wherever and whenever anyone will have them is paying off - or perhaps they'd gained these 'new' young fans already and they were just a bit slow to book tickets last time! A small, selfish, part of me is hoping that they don't get too much bigger, though somehow I've a feeling we won't be seeing Aaron as the token rock coach on The Voice too soon. Phew.

The setlist was pretty similar to shows from last year, comprising most, but not all of Filthy Empire (bizarrely there was no Lights Out in London in London. Criminal!), as well as a couple of favourites from the old days, namely Paranoia (guitarist Sid Glover's chance to take the lead vocal demonstrating again that if they hadn't found Buchanan they could quite credibly have carried on with Glover fronting the band as a 3-piece) and Reign on My Parade. They also threw in Straight to Hell, which was new to me, but turns out to have been the b-side of Nothing Left to Lose (so a download is imminent).

(still) My personal favourite Can't Let Go (which has finally been granted an official video - see below) was an early highlight as always, but even I Am Electric - the only song of theirs that I'm not so keen on - is incredible in a live setting, so there were only highs and more highs throughout. Uncharacteristic ballad The Price We Pay provided a lighter's (and phone/camera lights) aloft moment, but the rest of the set was comprised of full on hard rock energy from start to finish.

Aaron's always had a reputation as a chronic crowd-surfer, and he's recently developed a new hobby - the crowd-surfing handstand, which he took the chance to try out again during Jump Back. For a moment it didn't look as though it would be successful this time, but it happened and it was pretty impressive.

Executioner's Day provided the obligatory 'suitable ending' to the night's entertainment. All that was missing was new material, so hopefully there will be some of that on the next tour. Despite the familiarity of the set, this was definitely the best I've seen them - and that's saying something. They've never been short of energy or confidence but both qualities seem to have gone through the roof in recent months. Drummer Chris Rivers continues to thrill and Glover and bass guitarist Rob Ellershaw also only continue to impress - make no mistake, these guys can really play.

Earlier on South Wales-based band The Dirty Youth had gotten the evening off to a fine start. Featuring, amongst other benefits, a fantastic rhythm section, and an excellent (female, no less) vocalist - not to mention some cracking songs, their set was god enough for me to part with some cash and grab their album from the merch desk before the end of the night.

Glamour of the Kill were up next, and while they were just that bit too heavy for my tastes, they did have some solid songs, with Second Chance and The Only One standing out mid-set. They also managed to swiftly incite some serious moshing. Despite my ongoing campaign against the dreaded, yet increasingly common, *shudder* all-seated gig, I have to admit I've never seen full-on moshers close up in their natural environment before - it was quite an eye-opener! While managing to keep out of harm's/mosh way in the front corner of the crowd, I've a feeling I might be inclined to stand a little further back than usual at future HB gigs (damn young people enjoying themselves and ruining things for us old farts - ah, for the days where I was always the youngest person at a gig!).

Overall then, we got three fantastic bands in one night for a tenner (value for money if ever I saw it) - seems only fair to rate the evening a 10/10.