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We build the dream; stay true to the fight. - 85%

Diamhea, June 20th, 2015

Having stagnated somewhat with the ambitious but clearly flawed Middle Earth, Bob Catley found himself at an impasse; one of great potential if he played his cards right. With Magnum having reformed a few years earlier along with the expected dissolution of the Hard Rain project, he could have easily shoved his solo act on the back burner never to be heard from again. The cadre of journeymen musicians assembled for the task is perhaps the strongest ever, right up there with the Uwe Reitenauer and Magnus Karlsson-led Immortal. Paul Hodson and Al Barrow came directly from Hard Rain, and their extended track record working alongside Catley himself exudes synergistic caliber and strengthens the backbone of When Empires Burn, one of Catley's strongest solo efforts and a pioneering dip into truly heavy waters.

So while Middle Earth made impressive use of its subject matter, it musically failed to invoke the grandeur initiated by Catley's caterwauling. The equally long track lengths on When Empires Burn might summon analogous irrepressible vibes, but the absence of Gary Hughes behind the keys ends up being one of the more refreshing lineup changes. I'm just totally digging Paul Hodson's style here, which sounds far more endearingly '80s, what with heavy use of atmospheric pads and striking string ensembles. His piano is what makes ballads like "Meaning of Love" so potent, in vibrant lockstep with Catley's husky pipes. While Bob's voice started to lose some of its punch in later years, becoming more nasal for some reason, When Empires Burn sounds right out of the Wings of Heaven playbook at times, albeit with heavier riffs and less progressive inclination.

On a song-by-song basis, this is also functioning on a very high level. Variation is commendable, featuring a bevy of AOR rockers, a few mellower ballad-esque numbers and a couple of true epics later in the procession. One of those true epics is definitely "My America," which features bagpipes and powerful, emotive melodies that come to a head with a folk-infused romp interval near the end that sounds like Skyclad or something. "Someday Utopia" is a more high-octane melodic rock rager with a searing chorus and simple, yet burly rhythm work. "This Is the Day" is another strong keyboard-driven song, pulsing to the heartbeat of that cheesy but memorable keyboard riff alongside some of the individually heaviest riffs on the entire record. There are virtually zero songs that fail to deliver here, and even the bonus track "Heaven Can Wait" embodies one of the stronger ballads Catley has ever written outside of Magnum. Sadly just like Magnum themselves, this project has the proclivity to lean a bit too much on schmaltzy balladry, and some of the middle of the record can get on a bit if you aren't in the mood. This hardly means that the songs are weak in isolation, however.

The driving percussive patterns courtesy of Jamie Little serve as a concrete support to the polished leadwork and borderline-symphonic overtures that pervade throughout. The sweeping bombast present on Middle Earth is lost somewhat in the transition, but I enjoy the cleaner and more focused songwriting present on When Empires Burn. This might be the most consistent record Bob Catley has ever performed on, which while not quite the compliment it could be (Magnum has always been somewhat inconsistent, even on their greatest albums), When Empires Burn is a testament to the positive changes invoked by reconfiguring the songwriting around heavier riffs and a more spartan compositional palette. These songs hardly feel as long as they truly are, which speaks a lot toward their compact quality. Bob Catley sounds determined and reborn, backed by some of the best musicians to ever represent the project. All of this makes When Empires Burn more than just a great melodic rock/AOR release, it is a truly great metal album, and the first Catley release to check out whether you are a fledgling Magnum fan looking to expand your horizons, or a metal fan curious of this legendary frontman's body of work. Gonna live forever, indeed.

The first metal album for a 50+ singer? Hell yeah! - 94%

Warmaster, March 21st, 2004

Well, After the terrible “Middle earth” Bob got his keyboard player, Paul, to write his new album. What he came up was the single best piece of work Bob has ever sung on. THIS is a Metal album. True, it can be very melodic, and it does have a couple of ballads, but this is a true metal album. It is a surprise it took him nearly 30 years to get to this point, especially as Magnum toured with Judas Priest way back in 1977! Well, onto the album.

Starting with the intro “the torment” we are led onto “the Children of the Circle” Bloddy Hell! That one really did take me by surprise! This is full blown power metal! True there are a lot of Keyboards on this track, but they are all background, it is the vocals and the guitar solos that take the lead, and Heck, there are some real guitar solos on this album! Bob’s vocals handle these higher ranges very well indeed considering he is in his fifties now! A very heavy track indeed, and one of the best he has ever sung on. With at least ten guitar solos – go figure if that is good or not!

Next is “Gonna live forever” this is slightly more mellow, with a slightly hard rockish vein to it at least to start with, but then we launch into a solo, it is rather up beat, some keyboards going on, but the riffage is constantly there. One cannot fault this track, it is up beat, catchy, crunchy on the riffs and all in all, a great song!

Then we come to “The Prohecy” (that’s the seconds song he’s done with an iron maiden song title, strange that) This is much heavier! Really deep, an almost Black Sabbath main riff with solos going off all over the place. Very dark this one, really doomy, The keyboards take a back seat on this one. A great chorus of “My angel, be my guardian now!!!!!” An amazing track which still surprises me at how god damn heavy it is! It is also one second shy of being the longest song on the album, which works to its advantage. The lyrics are also very dark, and there are a multitude of solos going on at almost all times. A brilliant track, very different from anything Bob has ever done (in fact, that can be said about much on this album)

“I’ll be your fool” is next. This is perhaps the first song that goes back slightly to the hard rock vein. The solos are melodic and not dark. But the main riff is far to crunchy to be simply written off as hard rock. It does remind me of some of the stuff on “the tower” at times, but it is still much heavier, and the vocals are more power metalish, not hard rock like. Its full of solos still, I don’t think the writer understands that he is solo mad! They are everywhere. Perhaps not quite as great as the preceding songs, but I can’t really put anything against it at all.

“Every beat of my heart” is next. This is the hard rocker in many ways. Its still stuffed with solos, and the main riff keeps things heavy with a slow, crunching drone. That’s the beauty of the mellower songs on this album. They may be mellower with all the lead instruments, but the rhythm is metal all the time, making something which is totally unique, I can’t recall anything which sounds like this album anywhere. This song is very catchy, and despite its slightly more mellow nature, is a bloody brilliant song!

The title track follows, and this is a really heavy track. Quite symphonic this one, the solos however are as usual, all over the place. The verses are dark and heavy, while the choruses are soaring, this reminds me a lot of Blind guardian this one, With its choruses and backing vocals. Christ, listening to it now, those leads are everywhere, I don’t think there is more than five seconds in this song where a lead is being played! A totally amazing song, brilliant in basically all ways.

“Meaning of love” is next. This is a ballad through and through, with little metal about it in truth. However, it is a very good ballad, with some very good solos on the verses at time, which makes it rather strange. The Keyboards are used very well here as well. A very good song, perhaps the weakest of the album, but if this is the weakest, wait until you see the strongest!

“This is the day” is next. A very deep heavy as hell song with the trademark manic solos. Very heavy riffs indeed, reasonably slow and crushing, but they do pick up at some points. The keyboards let loose here as well, and this song slays, a totally memorable chorus as well. Christ, how does that guitarist manage those solos? Yet another brilliant track on this album, unmissable.

Then, “Someday Utopia” The best song of 2003 and I am not kidding, for this is fucking speed metal! Where the fucking hell did that come from?????? This album has been heavy, technical and a midpaced power metal with dark vibes so far, then we get this fast as fuck piece of music which is twice the speed of anything this guy has ever done ever! Best song on the album without a doubt. The soaring chorus works even better at a fast pace, and the lyrics are something you would expect on a ballad, but they absolutely slay at this speed. The solos are everywhere again, and the keyboards keep up the pace as well, with some frantic as hell double bass drumming. Christ, never did I expect this guy to achieve greatness like this song. IF there is one song of this man that you ever need to hear, make it this one, for it is the very best thing he has ever done in 30 years of music. Totally killer stuff! Don’t miss the duelling guitars in the middle!

As the final song we have “My America” This is a midpaced/half ballad number. Its got a funny, bag pipe intro, and then the guitars explode. It can’t follow “someday utopia” so it doesn’t try. Its catchy as hell, with the leads all over the place again. A great ending song to a great album.

This is the definititive Bob Catley album, and that includes all his time with Magnum, Hard Rain, and any other bands if he had any. I admire a guy who has been playing hard rock for 30 years to release this behemoth. He said in an interview that this album was to him “a huge risk” well, his huge risk has been a huge success, one of the very best albums from 2003, and probably in my top ten of all time. Go listen, you will not be disappointed.