When We Open Our Mouths to Hate
380 · 9 May 02
Magnum: Breath of Life
It says it quite clearly in the bottom right corner of the front cover of my copy of The Last Dance, Magnum's 1996 farewell concert album: "The last ever recordings from Magnum." By 1997's Stronghold, the same live album redone by another label to have a better middle and a worse end, the cover blurb has been amended to "Last ever live recording", but the band themselves expressed no official ambiguity. Magnum's story was complete. I hadn't stopped enjoying their albums, so I wouldn't have minded if it wasn't, but conversely the last of their albums I could imagine making a case for, if we were attempting to identify their finest moment, was 1988's Wings of Heaven, and my personal choice would be either 1985's On a Storyteller's Night or 1986's Vigilante. So maybe it was time. Magnum left behind a catalog anybody without an allergy to bombast could be very proud of, and walked off in search of sunsets.
Or, more accurately, at least in Tony Clarkin and Bob Catley's cases, they walked off in search of other bands. For a while they worked together in a new one called Hard Rain, but while the new material might have been good withdrawal therapy for its performers, I didn't find listening to it particularly satisfying. Catley did some solo work, too, but since "work", for Catley, consists of showing up and singing what he's told to sing, that seemed even less relevant to me. Mentally, I closed the book. How many epilogues do I need? I quit buying Christopher Tolkien's endless trawls through his late father's papers after a while, too.
But what art lays down, commerce will raise up again, and Magnum's old agent prevailed on them where necessity and proportion had failed. Clarkin and Catley said yes, Mark Stanway signed back on. Mickey Barker was previously engaged, and nobody could remember where they'd left Wally Lowe, but Hard Rain bassist Al Barrow was both employable and, apparently, not why Catley left the group. Thus was Magnum reformed, and the gracefully-ended story ungracefully reanimated. Breath of Life is the eleventh Magnum studio album, and the first in eight years. A lot has happened in the world, and in music, since 1994.
Or maybe it hasn't. Crushed in Magnum's fondly majestic embrace, I could just as easily be thirty-five or twenty-five or fifteen. This album doesn't merely ignore the passage of time so much as it offers forgiveness for it. Whatever we regret about how we've changed our world since "Kingdom of Madness", Magnum are the standard bearers for every essential emotion that has remained stolidly unchanged. These square, clomping rhythms are how heartbeats used to thump before we invented anxiety and its medicine. Clarkin's guitars are the heirs of landscape-painters' sunsets, Catley's bellow the echo of Socrates and Shakespeare and every armored king who ever marshaled an army without field radios. Magnum were Romantics, lords of calm in the face of storms, grizzled flag carriers silhouetted against a culture of constantly morphing insignia.
So here, where we thought there wouldn't be, are twelve new Magnum songs. There are a few new production touches, things Clarkin picked up from spending most of the intervening time closeted in the studio, but very few bands in all of rock history have had a stronger sense of their own identity than Magnum, and the new songs could be mistaken for nobody else. "On these cruel seas we get tossed", Catley murmurs near the beginning of "Cry", and I forget I ever thought they wouldn't keep making records forever. "This Heart"'s chorus cannons into night skies. "Everyday" decelerates towards power-ballad grind. "Still" lets rattling electric-piano cascades criss-cross over the verses before easing into a reverent slow-motion chorus surge as open-hearted as anything they've done. "Dream About You" is treacly and sentimental, but "Breath of Life" itself is Arthurian-epic movie-soundtrack material, mixing Yes's extravagance with Dire Straits' (comparative) restraint. "After the Rain"'s chorus is harlequin-bright, but the bass, given the chance to transform the song into a monolith, turns out to be tragically risk-averse. The verses of "That Holy Touch" flirt with gruff blues, hardly Magnum's strength, but the choruses, with battering kick-drums and a sawing melody, are exactly what they do best. "Let Somebody In" is a full-scale lighters-aloft ballad, and the "blood", in "Before your blood turns to water", echoes the timeless substitution of "blood" for the expected "head" in "The Flood"'s "There was a price on your blood". The stern exhortation "Empty the room!", in "The Face of an Enemy", sounds just as classic, and I have to check some old track listings to be totally convinced it isn't actually a reprise of one of the old songs. Similarly "Just Like February", whose crashing "Wolf cries by the river" chorus, guitars slashing across the grain of both the beat and the melody, might as well be the template for Magnum's version of rock and roll drama. "Night After Night" stretches out towards eight minutes, but Magnum's long songs are always more patient than complex, sustained glories rather than twisted paths. If this is what a new decade of Magnum is going to sound like, I doubt it will come any closer to surpassing their Eighties than their Nineties did, but I'm with them until the end, however many times it arrives.
My faith wavers only once. There are twelve songs listed on the back cover, but early copies, at least, have three more bonus tracks, and Magnum make a mistake so endemic to reunions and new beginnings that I'm tempted to believe they thought they had no choice. At just the moment when I inhale to consider which of Magnum's old standards Breath of Life lives up to, they undermine any benefit of the doubt I might have extended by throwing in live versions of three old songs to remind me exactly how high those old standards were. They have the sense, at least, not to reprise anything with the irresistible weight of "Great Adventure" or "Soldier of the Line", but "The Flood", from 1992's Sleepwalking, is one of that era's clear highlights, and "Back Street Kid" was the grand finale to Vigilante. As the crowd sings along, hoarsely and ecstatically, with Magnum's ode to teenage dreams, it's way too hard for me to pretend that we can take this new album on its own terms. Yes, taken apart and measured, some of these new choruses are as good as anything in Magnum's arsenal. The band still sounds great. But I still have the old songs, can hum them without even getting out the discs. Magnum has made great albums, and this is a good album. On a Storyteller's Night and Vigilante are great albums, breathtaking in their bombastic goofiness. Kingdom of Madness and Magnum II are great albums, defiantly oblivious pomp emerging from the heartland of sneering, reductionist punk. Sleepwalking and Rock Art are good. Breath of Life is good. As the loose, acoustic version of "We All Need to Be Loved" re-reminds us, just before the album belatedly ends, there are human beings hiding inside these songs, not mythic heroes after all. I don't want to be reminded. I don't want to tug on a curtain and find Sauron crouching behind it with a shadow-puppet machine and a vocoder. I came here to hear ancient stories retold in resonant voices, and instead we are reminiscing about having once told them. If it's all I can have, I'll take it. The past is glad to be shut of us, and loath to take us back. And, of course, if I'd rather hear the old albums, I can play them instead. But Magnum have the power to make new old albums, I'm convinced, and to thus entwine an idealization of the past into the threads of the present. They have the power to restore to us things we have lost, and once this conviction grips me, it's hard to watch them edging carefully around the spaces where those lost things could again be standing.
Blind Guardian: A Night at the Opera
"Blind Guardian", a sticker on the cover helpfully clarifies, are "the most musically significant band since Iron Maiden". If you wish to pause, at this juncture, to spend a happy hour compiling lists of gleeful rejoinders to this selfless straight-line, I will still be here when you're done. The assertion is credited to the magazine Metal Maniacs, and if you can't imagine caring what they think, you're unlikely to care what anybody else thinks of this record, either. A Night at the Opera is an old-school progressive-metal concept album about imperiled faith and violent divine retribution. The cover looks so much like a Hieronymus Bosch painting redone by MAD that I'm half-convinced the bald guy next to the guy in the purple mask is supposed to be Ed Asner. If invocations of Christian dogma, fear of science, neo-Medieval morality and wildly overblown performances by all players can't combine into anything charming in your equations, this record is not likely to force you to restructure them. Blind Guardian make Queen sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Dream Theater sound like Soundgarden.
In fact, it's more than a little difficult to disentangle what I find so compelling about this record. Its theses are repugnant to me, its aesthetics largely laughable. It opens with a blazing anthem about Jerusalem, which is not currently a very effective emblem of spiritual truth and resilient peace. Blind Guardian are not much more self-aware than Helloween, and an order of magnitude more serious, and an integral part of my approach to appreciating Helloween is a ruefully affectionate realization that they are basically ludicrous. Blind Guardian are ludicrous, too, but not in any way designed to engender affection, rueful or otherwise. They are preachy, stentorian and overwrought.
But then, I don't process Bosch and Vermeer the same way, either. Bosch's paintings fascinate me by their maniacal attention to cryptic detail, and some similar intrigue is at work here. If we trace the evolution of metal subgenres through their progenitors, we might step from the macabre menace of Black Sabbath to the faster, shriller and obliquely more upbeat proto-speed-metal of Judas Priest, to Iron Maiden's confrontational complexity, and from there, spiraling off towards increasing intricacy from somewhere before Iron Maiden devolved to "Bring Your Daughter...To the Slaughter", to the vein of neo-New Wave of British Heavy Metal excess which, in a bit of convergent evolution that recapitulates much of the parallel lines through Metallica and Queensrÿche, eventually produces Blind Guardian. I'm mesmerized by this morbidly convoluted and under-thought record the same way, I think, I'm grimly captivated by Scientology and Mormonism. A part of me can't understand how people with what seem to me like obviously false beliefs can pour lives' worth of energy into them without noticing their errors, and begrudgingly admires them for their surety of purpose and monumental dedication.
A part of me, too, recognizes that my instinctive predilection for melody is going to be a constant distracting force as I try to keep up with black- and death-metal, and in a way it's easier for me to enjoy an ostentatious rock-opera that directly contradicts my own principles than a grimmer and more musically-elusive record that runs at tangents to them. Fortunately, there is currently a thriving subgenre of melodic metal re-derived from Black Sabbath without the NWOBH digression, some of the most interesting bits of it reclaiming melody from the depths of Scandinavian gothic metal. To/Die/For are another of the many Finnish metal bands on Spinefarm, home of Nightwish and Stratovarius, and although I started buying their records on the misapprehension that they, like Nightwish, had a female lead singer (scattered female backing vocals only, in fact), I've grown much fonder of them than I initially expected. They fall somewhere into the space between the raspy thrash of In Flames, the less diabolical Bathory records, the symphonic flourish of Stratovarius and the more metallic Skyclad periods. Vocalist Jape Perätalo is a rare metal singer with both a melodic delivery and a low range, and combined with the band's quick, muscular arrangements, sparked by producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Tonmi Lillman's twittering keyboards, this produces an unnerving effect like we've just discovered that Solitude Aeturnus becomes pop if you speed it up just right. In places To/Die/For verge, like Lullacry, on straight-ahead hard rock; in others they are lumbering and ominous; in a few, most notably the opening minute of "Chains", only their choice of timbres keeps them from skidding clear through industrial into synth pop. The backing vocalists supply gauzy hints of Nightwish, and every once in a while a word gets endearingly snarled in Perätalo's usually-unnoticeable accent. This is a deliberate and unapologetic genre record, not equipped with anything that's intended to convert outsiders, and while on one hand that means that you're well within your rights to ignore it if you aren't already a fan of the style, I'll note that to me records like this are the reward for learning the internal logic of subgenres. I might even go one step farther: there is no such thing as an intelligent casual fan; until you find your way to the center of a genre, you don't know what the edges (leading and trailing alike) really signify. If that's right (and I can't prove it is, but it seems to accord with my experience), it still has no bearing on whether you should care, but if you decide to try to, it gives you what might be a useful way to measure your progress.
Timo Tolkki: Hymn to Life
Next week Stratovarius return to the studio, after their year off, to begin work on their next album. I haven't tried to keep tabs on what all five members have done with the year, but singer Timo Kotipelto's solo album is due out imminently, and guitarist Timo Tolkki's came out in January. If genre records are already an arcane joy, then Hymn to Life is two levels less accessible still. I believe you will not enjoy this record unless a) you are already a dedicated Stratovarius fan, and b) you are not a metal purist. These two things ought not to be inherently incompatible, since Stratovarius' hyper-melodic metal could easily appeal to people who wouldn't normally think they'd like such a thing, but logistically speaking, at least here in the US, I'm not sure how many people other than me follow metal closely enough to know Stratovarius, but aren't exclusively metal fans. Taken totally out of its metal context, or totally within it, I think this album is fatally flawed. As an ersatz Stratovarius record it is heavily burdened by unsteady singing, mundane lyrics, rudimentary and nuance-less drumming, stylistic uncertainty and some dubious structural decisions. As a self-sufficient rock record it is strangely thin in parts, treacherously plaintive in others. In its sound and stiffness much of it reminds me more than a little of the early Michael Schenker Group records, which to me are some of the most totemic examples of a brilliant band player totally floundering as a creative leader.
But take it as it actually comes, a year-off solo record by the guitarist of a band known for their technical and compositional abilities, and I think it's downright brilliant. The things "wrong" with it, technically, form such striking contrasts with Stratovarius' normal modes that I assume most or all of them were deliberate choices for precisely that reason. Even more than band demos would, these recordings reveal the gawky stages of what might, any other year, have grown up into a dozen more glittering "Hunting High and Low"s. "Primal" is a twenty-second scream that might easily open a Devin Townsend album, but it segues into the elegant half-piano-ballad "Key to the Universe", sung in three successive octaves (although the first one may actually be Tolkki) by post-Hansen pre-Deris Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske without, at least until the third octave, his usual histrionic fervor. "We are the same everywhere", a simple sentiment Stratovarius would almost certainly have felt obliged to aggrandize. "Now I Understand" is a spare mid-tempo rock song with only token metal touches, the most startling component of the spareness being the near-absence of guitar, nominally Tolkki's main instrument, from the accompaniment in the bass-pulse-driven verses. "Divine" is stripped down even further, the verses mostly synth-bass and a methodical kick-snare rhythm, and the "chorus" little more than a single sighed word and a synth-pad crescendo that ends up going nowhere. Only after the lyrics are all done does the song appear to awaken, lurching into motion for an animated coda crammed with drum fills and a slow guitar solo. "Little Boy I Miss You" is back to balladry, and juxtaposed with "Key to the Universe" it demonstrates both why Tolkki got Kiske to help with the other song (Tolkki's voice barely holds together on what should be the most moving parts of this one), and, to me, why he shouldn't have bothered. The unsteadiness is far more compelling that Kiske's bland competence, I think, and on "Little Boy I Miss You", which is a song sung to the narrator's own younger self, it arguably has diagetic significance, betraying some of the very innocence the adult is searching for.
The point where the record ascends to a higher plane, though, for me, is "I Believe", right in the middle. This song, too, is plagued, in objective terms, by its limitations. The drumming is firm but totally without flair, the accompaniment consists of little more than quarter-note bass runs and major-key guitar chords at the ends of lines, and the vocals are supposed to soar but are pressing the limits of their capabilities just to stay aloft. It's easy to imagine that Tolkki set out to make a Midge Ure song, or maybe "Biko", and ended up just as lost as Ure or Gabriel would be trying to write Finnish metal. In getting lost, though, I think he finds something quite remarkable, something that could end up on my top-ten list somewhere. This is, in its big, crunching, sweeping rock way, the same kind of effortless pop song as the Arrogants' "Lovesick" or School of Fish's "Three Strange Days", and the little tendrils of synthesizer that enliven it are brilliantly understated, as I would never expect anything remotely associated with Stratovarius to be. The little hitch when the chorus kicks in (jump-modulation, fake trumpets) tosses it into a marvelous temporary suspension that it has only to drop lightly out of again on the other side, and to me the guitar hook and wordless howl in the coda are as electrifying, in their own rough way, as Gabriel's "Biko" repetitions. I shudder excitedly, imagining what it could do for Stratovarius if this means they now understand small songs as well as they understand big ones.
Within Temptation's ethereal soprano Sharon Den Adel takes over lead-vocals for "Are You the One?", with the result that it sounds almost completely out of place, but this turns out to be another inspired touch, as it makes the transition even more jarring when the mangled muttering and howling of the brutal "Father" starts up. Imagine Trent Reznor and Art Alexakis lapsing into a drunken battle to see who can write the most disgusted damaged-son rant, and you haven't quite got the unornamented ugliness of the first half of this song (Art would turn some of the rage back on himself, and Trent would let it warp into the perverse somehow), and nothing at all like the hushed spoken farewell of the second half. Tolkki reins the album back in again, briefly, for the calmly expansive "Fresh Blue Waters" (like a forgotten twangy demo for Marillion's "Sugar Mice") and Tolkki's sinister entry in the roll of "Dear God" songs (his splits the difference between Sarah McLachlan's and XTC's for a few verses, and then flips into Operation: Mindcrime-ish metal churn).
But extrapolate from the first ten tracks all you want, you'll never deduce this album's finale. For its first two minutes, "It's Xmas Morning", track eleven, is a poignantly plain-spoken and nearly a cappella meditation on derailed priorities. "Little Tim is waiting for the evening / When Santa will bring those presents, / But more than presents he'd wish for peace", and I think Tolkki means the "him" to be Little Tim, but I like it even better if I think it's Santa. An explosive interlude of metal furor turns almost immediately into a languid guitar solo, which then reverts abruptly to the original mood for the quiet final verse ("I understand how lucky I am"). The index for track twelve slips by unobtrusively, and "Hymn to Life" itself unfolds gradually, and then folds up again almost as gradually, ocean noises repeatedly attempting to swallow the mournful piano. Just as it seems like they'll succeed, though, a voice that sounds weirdly like Robin Williams' says "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor", and I sit transfixed as Tolkki includes, for almost four minutes, the entirety of Charlie Chaplin's diatribe against fascism from The Great Dictator. Technically, of course, there's not much to this, since all Tolkki has to do is keep looping the distracted piano and the wave noises until the Chaplin recording is done, but the longer the speech runs, the more astonishing it seems to me. The "right" rock use of this speech would be to sample individual phrases of it, and scatter them among thematically related lyrics; instead this block insertion serves as an overwhelming-force response to Tolkki's own part of the song ("Armored human wrecks walking the streets, / Longing for a leader to take away their pain; / We have not learned anything"). It is a vanishingly rare album with the self-awareness to recognize that its resolution lies outside itself, and this is the only one I can think of that actually lets the external resolution have the last word. This speech will linger in my head when I finally hear the Stratovarius record Timo will start making next week. I hope it lingers in his head as he makes it. As politics it is touching, but cheap. As a sigil of the willingness to relinquish control, though, it might be incredibly powerful. If the rest of the band has spent their year this well, they will reunite a changed composite creature, and for a few seconds I entertain the fond but sadly unlikely idea that that might be enough not only to extract Stratovarius from their subgenre, but to drag the whole subgenre out with them, inverting it into the light. For a few pleasant, bizarre seconds I wonder if Charlie Chaplin will turn out to have sparked the new century's first renaissance of heavy metal. He would find it scant consolation, I fear, for headlines full of pipe-bombing, bus-bombing, pool-hall bombing, plane crashes, clerical child-abuse and the Coast Guard deployed to retrieve a yapping terrier from a derelict fuel tanker. But it is not really art's business to provide consolation for the unconscionable, or not heavy metal's business, anyway. It is heavy metal's business to continue obdurately on its way, obsessed by its own constraints and implications, co-opting the grammar of violence for its own purposes, until it finally outlives the last distraction, and when we open our mouths to hate, what comes out is song.