The Magnificents MySpace page helpfully suggests that if you’re too cheap to buy Year of Explorers and too law-abiding to download a torrent, you can try playing Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in one speaker, Abba’s The Visitors in another. It’s not a bad idea, though you might also hazard a mix of Gang of Four and Human League, PiL and Flock of Seagulls… and still not get it quite right.
The Magnificents, out of Scotland, are as slyly ambitious as their name suggests, hitching glistening synths to straight up post-punk beats, room-shaking soccer chants to jaundiced bouts of pessimism. Huge fist-in-the-air choruses ride flashy, self-mocking flourishes of glam, nonsensical verses get explosive, exclamation-pointed delivery. The band has two synthesizers in play at all times, yet feels nonetheless gritty, live and unpremeditated.
Year of Explorers is the Magnificents’ second full-length, following the 2003 EP Four Claws of the Underground and the 2004 self-titled debut. Recorded in 2005 and 2006, with Mogwai’s John Cummings producing, the album has been out in Europe since late 2007. Although relatively unknown in the States, the band has garnered some recognition in the UK. One of its songs, “Get It Boy”, was selected for the EA Euro Sports 2008 game, and the NME has hailed them with typical enthusiasm (calling them “a wonder to behold” among other things).
“Ring Ring Oo Oo” sets the formula right away, a slurpy synthetic bass hedged in by sharp snare and cymbal rhythms. The guitars, when they crash through, have a clean plasticine lines of classic 1980s new wave, evoking Flock of Seagulls or A-Ha. And the chorus is enormous, anthemic, stadium-ready, if lyrically opaque (“Said I wanted to depend now / Gonna make another end now” etc.) But no matter, this is a band that can make its “oos” and “ba-ba-bas” as communally uniting as words. Even alone, with headphones on, their choruses feel like a shoulder-to-shoulder concert experience.
Like many of the post-punk bands they reference, the Magnificents have a desperate sort of hedonism. Their songs celebrate transient good times with the last gasp party-hearty-ness of mill town dead-enders. Their youth may end in factory shifts. Their girls may lose their looks by 30 to cigarettes and trans fats. But right now, there’s a beat shaking the walls and a half-winking blast of synthesizer and a hard rain of guitar notes. “Get It Boy”, is one of the best of these songs, with its clamped down, palm muted strums. The chorus captures the unstoppable optimism of youth meeting the immovable object of the way things are. It starts with the inevitable (“They live in fear from day to day”), but transcending it in a chant of “I want to see some heart” that crescendos in “ba bas” and “oh ohs” to a non-verbal release.
Year of Explorers sometimes edges a little too close to new wave silliness for comfort, and its best songs overcome, rather than benefit from, fairly low-rent production. Still, songs like “Ring Oo Oo”, “Get it Boy” and, towards the end, “Learn One Thing” fairly explode off the disc, creating a large-scale rock experience out of two synths, a guitar, drums and raucous energy. It’s Franz Ferdinand with sharper teeth and cheaper haircuts, and a determination to celebrate now, while everyone still can.