From Aural Innovations #41 (October 2010)
Christian Vander, drums, voice; Stella Vander, voice; Isabelle Feuillebois, voice; Hervé Aknin, voice; Bruno Ruder, keyboards; Benoît Alziary, vibraphone, keyboards; James Mac Gaw, guitar; Philippe Bussonnet, bass.
Most musicians can claim a certain level of originality and uniqueness, some can declare they are masters of a particular instrument or genre. However, few musicians are responsible for inventing an original language to give voice to their music. Over forty years have passed since Christian Vander formed Magma and created a wholly unique experience in the realm of Rock. Magma's music combines elements of jazz and progressive rock with its own exceptional and singular music to create a form that has come to be termed Zeuhl. The vocals that make up the music are sung in one of Earth's most recently developed languages, "Kobaïan"; sounding like a cross between French and German and something completely alien. Briefly, the music is telling an epic tale of Earthlings traveling through space looking for a new home world after the demise of Earth.
I first became acquainted with this music about 15 years ago, and beyond any other band I find this to be some of the most transcendent and rewarding music. Every time I listen or see the band perform live I discover new elements and sounds - this is complex music at its best.
For the last two years the group has performed virtually the same live set - largely based around the group's latest and only their eleventh original album, Ëmëhntëtt-Ré - but it would be a great misnomer to label this as repetitive or redundant. The compositions for this record have been shaped over the last 30 years. This is music that is growing and evolving.
Onstage the band is currently comprised of eight members and comparing them to a massive Octopus would not be a mistake. The instrumentalists and three vocalists often weave an intricate blend of music that has all the parts creating a larger whole. The two nights I saw had all musicians performing almost 75% of the time.
The venue was surprisingly small - it held maybe three hundred people, about twenty to thirty whom, like myself, found ourselves standing - no problem at all. My expectations were quite high as these would be the seventh and eighth times I witnessed the group live, and the previous six times rank high in my all time favorite concerts. The site lines were great and from the very first notes that emitted from the stage I was more than pleased with the warm sound system.
Leader, Christian Vander sits smack in the center of the stage behind a large drum set and can bash or play with intricate subtleties that makes one question why even in some specialty record shops in France the band name is met with an odd quizzical look. His symbol touches are astounding. One cymbal sits to his right and is often slapped with a quick nonchalant touch, adding a beautiful nuance (as do his facial expressions).
The two performances were broken into two sets which allowed for a nice 15 minute set break to catch one's breath, grab a smoke, and chat with fellow Magma freaks. The first set was highlighted by Benoît Alziary vibraphone work and the vocals alternated between chanting and forceful declamatory spooky passages. Fe´licite´ Thösz the second piece saw the group raging like the eight-armed cephalopod I refer to above. The second set was highlighted by most if not the entire title suite from the new album. Part III contains a very quick paced passage where Stella Vander takes on the majority of the vocals and the rhythm pounds behind her. I feel that this is as beautiful and creative as anything from the past and a true highlight of the group's career. One of the other great developments within the group, as highlighted in the second set, is that Christian Vander has been taking on some more vocal duties as well. Rising from his drum stool he will grab a microphone and belt out his "Kobaïan" in the first speakers' own exclusive way. At times he would finger the microphone as if it were a soprano saxophone seeming to conjure the ghost of late period John Coltrane. I should note here that Coltrane is near and dear to Vander and Magma's music. It took me a very long time listening to this music to hear these elements. For those big Magma fans and those looking to take some further steps into this music I would mention the fact again that the group has only produced 11 albums of original music. Over the years the group's concerts feature more theme-oriented passages of past compositions and healthy doses of improvisation - very similar to the performance style of veteran jazz players. Also at times, as members have changed, a saxophone passage might be played on violin or with vocals.
I have listened to this group for a good portion of my life but still do not consider myself an expert on the music. Most of the Internet documents are in French so I can't relate what the scholars say. But I can tell you that over the course of the group's 40-plus years they are currently riding another high point. They have been touring constantly, venturing to further destinations like Japan and the U.S.A somewhat irregularly. The group had not performed in the U.S. until 1999 since some point in the 70's. Even some of the French fans I met said back in the early to mid 90's when the playing picked up they couldn't believe it and ravenously attended as many shows as possible. When the band played that first show in New York City, we fans felt a dream had come true.
In 2009 I had the great fortune to witness my first two Magma concerts on French soil. In preparation for this I inundated myself with the music. I think for three months I listened to an album a day, including the numerous collectible bootlegs of concerts that exist. A great revelation came in some concerts from early 2005. Over a three-night run the group performed three distinctly different shows, showing the development of their compositions. First with piano, vocals and some tambourine on "Les Voix" "The Voice" second night "La Rythmique" "The Music" - the vocals are now removed and the guitars and full drums and keyboards brought in. Third night: La Totale where we now have everyone and the bands full sound. Sadly, this has not been released officially. The band seems to be okay with bootlegs and you can check this out here: http://zeuhlmusic.blogspot.com/2009/04/magma-la-genese-lhabillage-la-totale.html
I felt after having listened to so much of this music to hear it dissected and inspected and explored was wonderful and the first part Les Voix is something I return to often and highly recommend to any Magma veterans that might not have heard this. Others with no knowledge should get the 1975 Live album - that is where I began, and have just continued to grow with this amazing group that has developed lyrical content in rock music further than any of its predecessors.
Magma will return to The U.S. in September playing the 18th in Washington D.C. and the 20th in New York City. These are not to be missed! Magma official site: http://www.seventhrecords.com
A quick guide to Magma's Recorded Works:
Kobaïa - First album lots of great Jazzy passages and not a bad place to begin.
1001 Centigrades - This is where they first began to truly develop the whole mythos that is Magma. 3 tracks at just over 45 minutes.
Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh - Another classic and one of the authors faves full Kobaïan assault.
Wurdah Ïtah - Officially a Vander solo album but generally accepted as a Magma album had they made a video for track 7 "Waïnsaht!!!" Beavis would've gone nuts for it!
Köhntarkösz - Also regarded as a classic Julian Cope even made this album of the month.
Live - Also known as Hhaï this live album was my first introduction and where I send all novices.
Üdü Wüdü - The second part of this album can be seen as the early concept for the groups latest.
Attahk - Magma makes an album attempting to appeal to a larger audience and it works pretty well and not a bad place for beginners.
Merci - Trust me stay away. All bands have one this is it - avoid!
K.A. Kohntarkosz Anteria - 2005 the band returns and delivers its first album of new material in years happily it sounds as good as anything from the bands previous highs.
Ëmëhntëhtt-Re´ - Most recent release and also not a bad place to start.
Reviewed by Adam Strider