Perfect Sound Forever

Magma


by Gary Gomes
(March 2011)

Magma may be one of the oddest possible combinations ever imagined. Coming together in 1969 through a concept developed by drummer/leader Christian Vander, Magma functioned as a blend of jazz (particularly Coltrane), rock, classical (particularly German composer Carl Orff and sometimes Wagner), the group was active throughout the 1970's. This incarnation contained some of the finest French musicians of the time, particularly bassists Janick Top and Bernard Paganotti and violinist Didier Lockwood. No other group was quite like them. Most audiences' first exposure to them, the radical Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandöh, featured quasi-operatic vocals against a pounding, insistent virtuoso rhythm section, led by Vander's volcanic drumming, Top's driving, throbbing bass, a full brass section, keyboards, and a guitar. As inferred by Archie Patterson from Eurock, this was Sun Ra with focus.

Earlier incarnations of the band, which released two albums prior to Mekanïk, were more overtly jazz-ish, the only apt, but inaccurate, analogy being Soft Machine circa Third. Like Soft Machine, they also inspired a particular style of music, dubbed Zeuhl. The best known offshoots were Univers Zero and Zao, both of whom contained former members of Magma. Later albums, such as Köhntarkösz, Hhaï/Live, Üdü Wüdü or Attahk especially the last two, employed synthesizers as well. One really remarkable work is Wurdah Ïtah, recorded in 1974, but using Magma's core ensemble--bass, piano, voices, drums, and not much else. It may be the definitive essence of Magma and shows the influence of Bartok and Stravinsky clearly. The group effectively disbanded in the 1980's, but did release one album in 1984 before coming together again in the 1990's.

Magma was always a venture of dubious commercial potential, although they did tour parts of the U.S. on occasion and count numerous admirers within the musical community, the most famous being John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols). But Vander, aside from his debt to Carl Orff, made very little movement toward the mainstream. One could say with Üdü Wüdü , Vander made little effort to reach the mainstream and then later (with Attahk), he tried to make the band more commercially viable but it was too late.

Despite these later efforts to reach a wider audience, Magma has had an identifiable sound and can be recognized pretty quickly. Magma lyrics are written and sung in a language developed by Vander, called Kobaian, so they could not be lyrically recognizable, and the topics--the destruction of the world, the ascension of humanity, ancient tombs, unseen superior species--rarely make a good choice for popular success. Gaining little airplay or media exposure the group has been relegated to cult status (there apparently was a 1977 French television special devoted to them, which can be seen on You Tube- also, a version of a Janick Top composition "De Futura" is particularly engrossing, not least of which for seeing Vander play like a man literally possessed). And the unorthodox Magma style has not done them any favors with the jazz fusion audience. One Amazon.com comment on Hhaï/Liveexclaimed that this album was why no one took European jazz fusion seriously, despite some extraordinary moments from Vander, Paganotti, and the then-seventeen-year-old Didier Lockwood, who moved onto a well-respected career in jazz.

Vander has used many different musicians in the group through the years. His one consistent member has been Stella Vander, his ex-wife. The relationship with Janick Top (who moved to studio work and production, producing Celine Dion at one point) has been sporadic, but he has had a small cadre of keyboard players, and Klaus Blasquiz (his lead singer) was with him for what seemed an eternity. Blasquiz too, has left, for reasons unknown, and has worked on a book on the bass guitar. All of these shifts do not change Vander's approach, and a series of recordings, both from the 1970's and later, have come out of the Seventh Records label, which Stella co-founded. The 1970's recordings include BBC archival materials. Remember, folks, when these guys were new, they were part of the alternative music network. Punk was just emerging and the college radio market that developed in the 1980's was just in the throes of birth. College radio at that time meant playing a combination of oddball new material like Magma and some Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead--it was a long way away from the segmented approach, with extreme specialization, one hears today. Also, touring has been relatively frequent in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. However, one thing to be noticed about Magma's output is the incredible amount of material Vander and other band members wrote between 1972 and 1976. Most new material currently released focuses on this period. So does a recent live album albeit with some new members.

An example of how exciting even today's Magma can be comes from live shows in Japan with new members. Live In Toyko (available at the Seventh website) consists of two very different sides of Magma. The first disc is, as they used to say on the old records, "vocals with instrumentals"; the second CD is pared way down, with occasional tambourine and piano accompaniment--one of the first times since some BBC recordings in which Magma uses an acoustic setting. In its stripped-down approach, it harkens back to Wurdah Ïtah and even Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandöh. Despite its instrumental backing, the focus of MDK was on the vocals.

The first CD is a live version of Kohntark Anteria, a piece written by leader Christian Vander between the release of Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandöh in late 1973 and Köhntarkösz in 1974, but not recorded until 1994. The plot line (and all Magma pieces have plotlines) is not at all critical to enjoying the piece, which is sung in Kobaian. KA is, in some ways, in this arrangement at least, slicker than a lot of the very early Magma presentations, but this may be due to maturity or playing with musicians who grew up already used to the Magma school of music. It is less radical but more diverse than either MDK or other works from that period, while flowing fairly easily. Unlike some musicians with staggeringly technical command in their early years, Vander as a drummer can still startle and surprise. It would be disingenuous to claim that he plays with as much energy as he did in his earlier years. But he has a terrific ability to throw in fiery fills when least expected, and he is still a master drummer. Since so much of Magma's music has a powerful rhythmic flow, the music would seem to be dependent on a good drummer.

This is why the second CD is so startling and is really the gem of the collection. It is basically Magma unplugged--five singers (Christian Vander, Stella Vander, Isabelle Fuellebois, Antoine Paganotti, and Himiko Paganotti) with various percussion devices (mainly tambourines), accompanied on the piano by Emmanuel Borghi--no amplification at all, no thundering basses, no pummeling, dramatic Vander drums, no screeching keyboards. None of the Magma embellishments, and the listener realizes they really are embellishments (it could be argued that the piano is properly classified as a percussion instrument as well).

The disc starts with Theus Hamtahk, a very early piece with appropriate dramatic potential. Following this are selections from probably their least known and least available recording (which is a great shame as it is one of Magma's finest moments), Wurdah Ïtah, which was actually a soundtrack for the French film, Tristan et Iseult. Wurdah, by the way, is Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler's favorite Magma album, and I can see why. If you can find it, I would recommend getting it. It is extraordinarily beautiful, but the instrumentation is very spare. The piece is an obvious choice for this configuration, as the original recording was very stripped down--mostly piano, electric piano, some bass guitar, percussion, and vocals. With less instrumentation, the group makes a very convincing rendition that loses none of its power or (yes) savagery.

One truly outstanding moment though, is the acoustic rendition of parts of Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandöh. The original recording was done with drums, bass, guitar, Hammond organ, brass, and a contingent of singers. Here, stripped down as it is, all the pieces mix together flawlessly, and one hardly misses the big ensemble. As a matter of fact, the astonishment of it being performed this way makes it even more breathtaking. The vocals are impassioned and there is no loss of rhythmic flow. In this version, with the voices orchestrated as they are, one realizes how much work went into the arrangement, and it is staggering. This is really a virtuoso performance, and gives a great deal of credence to regarding Vander as one of the great musical visionaries of his time, as the composition stands fully exposed in this setting.

Magma's fortunes have declined and advanced through the years, but this group still has plenty to say and can still surprise and provoke wonder and awe.


Also see our interview with Christian Vander and our other career retrospective on Magma


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