These days I’m reduced to randomly choosing new music at the bootleg CD stalls on Bangkok’s streets. I don’t bother with the music press anymore so I have no idea who’s up and coming, who to find out about, who to watch – these days I just pick albums on whether I like the sleeve or not. (I found Damien Rice that way, which was nice). It’s an interesting but fraught way to pick music. With a film the DVD cover at least corresponds to what’s inside – with a band, the album cover and even the band name gives little indication of what lurks beyond..
Case in point is Magnus. Straight off the bat, I knew I wasn’t going to like them. The name alone made me think of gawky boys with big record bags and bigger glasses. A band called Magnus must automatically be anaemic student music, REM wannabes devoid of Stipe’s charisma. (And not to be confused with, as I’ve subsequently discovered, the dance duo Magnus featuring CJ Bolland).
Imagine, then, my undisguised glee when I realised after the first five seconds that Magnus are nothing to do to with their name. Magnus for me now means white noise melodies and sonic intelligence, a band whose music oozes the supreme self-assurance of knowing their own path and following it.
There’s a definite sort of melancholy to Magnus, but not in an effete, consumptive poet confined to his bed kind of way. There’s a sense of seriousness that runs throughout the album. There is something deeper and darker conveyed here, a sadness borne of experience and loss in the world, rather than mere unattempted and unrequited longing. The colours blue and grey seem to come to mind a lot with Magnus.
This isn’t apathetic musical miserablism, however. Every track on Magnus’ album is alive and artfully put together, full of twists and surprise melodies cropping up amongst dissonant noisenik bits (hello “Transmitting”, “Behind The Eyes”). Musically, Magnus manage to cram about four song ideas into one track most times. For the inevitable comparisons, I’d have to say Slanted And Enchanted-era Pavement with Red House Painters-esque baritone vocals – Magnus manage to sound grave and playful all at once, like Blur’s moody teenage brother, a restless sensibility that’s still disciplined enough to produce actual, memorable songs. The overall effect is that thing all bands hanker after – an album that effortlessly experiments with different elements, but still hangs together as an unmistakable collective sound.
Magnus don’t quite connect everytime: “Next To Nothing”, the opener, is easily the weakest track on the album and a poor guide to what lies beyond it. Here Magnus stumble, not quite managing to keep all their ideas welded into a coherent whole. Worse, there’s a trumpet in there that just shouldn’t be. If this had been the first track of theirs I’d ever heard, I’m not sure I would have wanted to hear anymore. But that would mean missing out on the sombre delights of “Broken’s” slowburn buildup and “Inside Out”, which rocks out in a barely constrained way, pulling back and then flipping out, using the stop/start schtick to great effect.
For all the great controlled noise experiments, it’s the slow ones I love the best about Magnus. I must be getting old. Title track “Sleepwalker” has a volume-twiddlingly quiet beginning that rises to a thoroughly epic white noise fest and then abruptly metamorphosises into a completely different song whilst still being the same one. Glorious. And then it gets better. With the track “Awake”, driven by gorgeously understated piano and strings, Magnus have created a bona fide Great Song. Within seconds it pulls you into a quietly brooding atmosphere that is intoxicating and simply holds you there for the next four minutes. Michael Stipe would have been proud to have written this one. It’s the sort of song I imagine I’d be drunkenly singing along to or weeping quietly behind my hand if I saw them live. It’s that good.
Magnus, then, have created a debut album that sounds not only accomplished but driven; these are clearly people who want to be in a band for reasons beyond just getting laid and getting on TV. This makes Magnus’ music deeply rewarding – it not only grabs you on initial listening, it stands up to repeat listening too. Coupled with the brilliant stab at grasping perfection that is “Awake”, you have plenty of reasons to hunt this album down and ruthlessly beat to death anyone who gets in your way.