ALBUM OF THE DAY: MAGNA-FI, BURN OUT THE STARS
Mid ’00s Las Vegas hard rock outfit Magna-Fi were pretty much doomed from the start. Too smart for hard rock radio and too light for acceptance in fickle metal crowds, Magna-Fi were yet another example of a band who learned the hard way that there’s no money to be made or career to be had in smart, well-written hard rock; there simply isn’t a place for it in the modern heavy music landscape.
But Magna-Fi were a fucking fantastic band and Burn Out the Stars is their magnificent hour. Smart hard rock isn’t easy to come by; all too often hard rock is dominated by lowest common denominator mooks writing lowest common denominator riffs for lowest common denominator, knuckle-dragging fans. Magna-Fi took a different approach with songs that had musical substance and merit and had hooks for the ages. Mike Szuter’s less-than-perfect, slightly gravelly voice was the perfect match for the band’s saturated, crunchy double mid-range guitar attack and powerful, hard-hitting, snugly in-the-pocket drums. Listening back to Burn Out the Stars some years later, I’m still impressed; every single fucking song is a winner.
Led by singer/guitarist Mike Szuter and his brother CJ, the Cleveland-born brothers took their band to Las Vegas in search of success and found it in drummer Charlie Smaldino and bassist Rob Kley, eventually landing a record deal with Gold Circle. When that deal eventually fell through, the EMI-distributed Aezra Records came to the rescue and ended up spending a gargantuan amount of cash on the band. That spot on the second stage of Ozzfest 2004 couldn’t have come cheap, nor could the tour support for that run with Sevendust later that year (where I first saw the band) or the disappointing headline run that followed.
Magna-Fi split with Aezra after Burn out the Stars and followed it up with the self-released VerseChorusKillMe in 2006, which I downloaded through SnoCap (!). Around this time I interviewed Mike Szuter in one of my first-ever interviews for MetalSucks and he gave me the skinny on why the band and label parted ways. Sample:
And the president [of the label] came to us… and I have a non-disclosure thing so I can’t really say what happened, but I’ll try and get around that… I’ll give you a “for instance” that explains why we’re not on that label anymore. We’re on our tour bus in Florida, and the president of the label gets on the tour bus and says “We need to have a meeting,” so we’re like “Cool.” So we start talking, and he goes, “Instead of doing a full length album I’m thinking about doing an acoustic EP,” and we all look at him like what the hell are you talking about? Cause it was these songs, the songs for VerseChorusKillMe, that he heard. And he goes “Well, you know, it’s worked for a lot of other bands. Angels in Chains was very successful with it.” And I say “Excuse me? Do you mean Alice in Chains?” and he goes “Oh yeah, yeah, Alice in Chains.” So I said “Give us a moment.” So we all went in the back lounge of the bus and said “Let’s get the hell outta here!” (laughs)
VerseChorusKillMe was another phenomenal album, though, good in all the same ways as its predecessor (fitting seeing as it was written by M. Szuter directly after Burn Out The Stars was completed). But without any financial backing the band wasn’t able to do much to support the album. Mike Szuter toured as Paul Gilbert’s bass player on that year’s G3 tour while his brother CJ, who had since left the band, wrote an album of ridiculously catchy Journey-style guitar pop.
Burn Out the Stars album-opener and first single “Where Did We Go Wrong;” big ol’ sturdy hard rock riffs! This video probably got played on MTV2 at 2am once and was seen by all of 10 people.
More sick hard rock Drop-D riffage, and, the band’s specialty, a stupidly epic chorus. “Down In It” was the 2nd and final single from Burn Out the Stars, methinks:
If Magna-Fi blew up, “Drown” surely would’ve been the 3rd single and giant crossover smash. Even at mid-tempo, Magna-Fi can swing and rock with the best of ’em:
“This Life,” kinda power-ballady with a ridiculously epic bridge section:
OK, so the delayed-guitar intro is all like “Heyo, 2004!” and the heavy main/intro riff in “TV Killed Me” is slightly generic but still quite powerful and headbang-worthy, and the weirdly atmospheric and non-standard verse progression more than makes up for it:
The synth and drum samples quietly buried beneath most of “Beautiful” and heard more prominently in the breaks are also like “Heyo, 2004!” but man, this song is just perfect in every fucking way. The modulation in the final chorus is perfectly executed; ONLY BONAFIDE SONGWRITING MASTERS KNOW HOW TO DO THIS PROPERLY! I dare you not to sing along.
Towards the end of Burn Out the Stars Magna-Fi got a little more experimental and weird. “Seconds, Minutes, Hours,” “My Heaven” and “Bradbury Heights” are all sorts of catchy even if a bit bizarre, and show where these guys’ minds wandered when they allowed them to:
Burn Out the Stars is so damn good that I just posted the entire fucking thing without even meaning to. Hopefully the Szuter brothers won’t mind. The one track I left I left off, “When I Leave You,” is pretty slammin’ too but doesn’t necessarily do anything the others don’t.
I have no idea what the members of Magna-Fi are up to these days. Wikipedia tells me the band broke up last year but not before playing a final show in Las Vegas. Mike Szuter’s Facebook page says he enjoys the fine pursuits of hiking and gardening; he last logged into his MySpace page in August of 2009. CJ is keeping up with his MySpace page and has some tracks from the aforementioned pop rock gem of a solo album, but no useful current information. Charlie Smaldino is a fan of MetalSucks faves Graveyard BBQ on Facebook, so things are probably aight in his world. I can’t find any info on Rob Kley but hopefully he’s still rockin’ it.
In any case, the Szuters would surely appreciate it if you purchase Burn Out The Stars (and follow-up VerseChorusKillMe) at Amazon MP3; they’re available for just $8 and $9, respectively. A total bargain given all the rocking you’ll be doing to their music.