Magma. Just the word itself is intimidating. Part rock, part liquid, thousands of degrees in temperature. It can be easily outrun but is able to eat whole roads and towns. It can light the ocean on fire. Not a bad band name for what that can conjure up. And honestly, some of that is not a bad reference point. The fact that this band is so unknown 45 years into their career is criminal, as they are as groundbreaking as any of the legendary rock bands of the sixties. In a continuing series of ‘the best bands you have never heard of’, the monumental French band Magma is next up for unraveling.
When I first encountered Magma in freshman year of college, I was thoroughly intimidated. I was beginning to be drawn to weird bands-Genesis, Yes and King Crimson first, then Gong, Van der Graaf Generator and Hawkwind later. My main source for these bands was the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, a late 70’s publication by Harmony (and highly recommended)
This book was my best friend and my bible when I was seventeen. I devoured it from cover to cover voraciously. It taught me the wonders of many strange things: Hawkwind, Gong, Gryphon, Can, Henry Cow, Kraftwerk, Mike Oldfield, Caravan, Soft Machine, Amon Duul II, Gentle Giant, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis-a whole world of European rock music that was decidedly strange and were offshoots into territory unlike anything I had ever heard of, some quite unlike rock at all. For a boy weaned on Blue Oyster Cult, Kiss, Boston, Yes, Rush and Derringer, this was mighty unfamiliar territory. One band stood out from the rest: Magma. According to the Encyclopedia, Magma was an early 70’s French progressive band that had essentially created their own form of music. They had planned a ten lp cycle describing colonists in space returning to earth and being viewed as alien conquerors that was to be called Theusz Hamtaahk. To further muddy the waters, the band (or more correctly founder Christian Vander) had created a brand new language to accompany this decidedly weird weltanschauung. The much maligned Rolling Stone Record Guide took Magma to task with one star reviews and described them as “Deep Purple undergoing a bout of colitis’. In retrospect, a more accurate smartass review would be closer to “Electric Flag and Coltrane attend a mid 1930’s Nuremburg rally”. The language the band speaks, (all of the songs are sung in it), and have given themselves new names in, is called Kobaian. It has a decidedly Germanic guttural feel to it, alien and threatening. Horns and chanting are predominant, and although there is guitar, it lives mostly in the background. Drums and bass (sometimes two bassists) are essentially the lead instruments.
I ventured into my college town to see if I could locate any Magma albums. I received either blank stares or astonished splutters- a wee 17 year old chap asking for Magma albums? I located Attahk (a good place to start) in a cutout bin of a tiny record shop and brought it home. The first thing I noticed was the names of the band members: Klötz Zaspïaahk, Stündëhr, Dë Wëlëss, Kahal Negümüraaht, Stöht Ürgon, Wurd Gorgo…decidedly strange. Then the band member photos: each one was a skull x-ray. This was definitely a band cut from different cloth. Even their logo was mystically strange and compelling. Magma Live on the Tomato label was the only thing left in print in America (and is another great starting point for newcomers) was put on special order at another store, and took about six months to materialize. This double album, recorded live in France, captures Magma at the height of their powers in mid 1975. Vocalist Klaus Blasquiz wails away in falsetto Kobaian, Janick Top (the only co-composer in the history of the band) frenetically erupts on bass, while from behind the kit, Christian Vander intones some pretty heavy bass chanting to keep the gravitas solid. Here is a snippet of mid 70s Magma, with Klaus as lead vocalist, from their masterpiece Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh:
I became the only Magma fiend in my circle of friends and slowly accumulated all of their LPs in a five year period. Then, the more difficult task of acquiring the CDs came next. Emissaries were sent to Paris to nail down some essential and elusive titles. (As an aside-my second trip to the UK, I spotted a Mini with a three foot Magma logo painted on the drivers door. I instantly set off in hot pursuit on foot chasing the car, but it eluded me at the second light. What I would have actually done had I caught the car was not really thought out. In the late 70’s, there was a rumor that an article in Playboy said that the headquarters of the US Magma fan club was located at UMass. In the early 80’s, I got off on the wrong floor in Sylvan, and as the elevator doors opened, I was greeted with a seven foot tall Magma logo. Holy shit! It was true!)
The years went on, and Magma remained mostly a European and French area gigging band. The band went through many lineup changes (over 50 by the late 90’s) and had some influential personages float through the band- Pierre Moerlen (Gong), Francis Moze (Gong), Patrick Gauthier (Heldon), Daniel Denis (Univers Zero), Brian Godding (UK sessions, Kevin Coyne), Sometimes there were horns, sometimes no horns. Sometimes a powerful guitarist (Claude Olmos) and sometimes no guitar at all (Attahk, Udu Wudu). But through it all, they still maintained a fairly consistent and iconoclastic sound, easily identifiable. Below is a segment from 2005 that shows that 35 years into their career, the band can still bend reality and dimensions:
The band returned to the States in 2003 for Nearfest prog festival, and some sporadic shows exposed them to a new audience. I trekked down to Brooklyn in 2007 to a small low ceilinged club. Three female vocalists chanted ancient Kobaian hymns in perfect harmony, crystalline voices supported by the superb drumming of Vander. Part Elvin Jones, part teutonic ritual rhythms-the low ceiling seemed to lift to cathedral heights. My friend said “I get it! This is like opera as rock n roll.” She was exactly right-Magma’s music is a fusion of opera, rock, jazz, classical and a touch of the unknown. No band can touch so many points in one evening. And like German opera, you don’t need to know what they’re saying to enjoy it (there is no Rosetta Stone for Kobaian). In addition, Magma can also conjure up some moments that are very hard to describe-drums and incantations are chanted creating some very large group hallucinatory experience. Rock? Jazz? It’s truly difficult to pin down.
I gathered up a small posse to see them on a short US tour this year (2015). The band delivered two hours of magic-Kohntakorsz, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (all forty minutes of it) and Slag Tanz comprised the set. Zombies was the encore. It was a completely devastating and powerful performance, and the packed house was silently stunned at the end. After the show, I watched folks trek upstairs to the backstage room. I took a chance and followed a group of Parisian musicians who were friends with the band and latched on to them into the room. Waiting patiently until they were done, I spoke in halting French to Christian Vander. He was a genuine presence in the room, like Hendrix or Townshend, this guy had created works of music so singularly unique and powerful that I was a bit in awe. He was affable and friendly, signed a CD, graciously listened to my terrible French, and gave me a huge hug. I have never experienced anything in my life like a Magma show. It transcends just a concert into some weird uncharted territory.
In the long run, Magma is so much more than a band. It is closer to a pre Christian pagan ritual-flames reach to the stars, drums thunder polyrhythms that induce trance like states and reality melts away. What is revealed is some inner truth. Part dark, part light but the world is stripped bare for all to see: Zeuhl (which supposedly means celestial in Kobaian) is at the core and pervades all. Much like the Egyptian philosophical idea of “as above, so below”, Magma’s music mirrors the vastness of a universe little understood by humanity, and throws it into the blender of human frailty and the horrors of human cruelty. Somewhere in there lies the superman, ubermensch, that flows through Teutonic mythologies, an ability to synthesize the elements and rise above it all. For all its militaristic underpinnings, Magma is essentially a spiritual release for the human soul, pretty heady stuff for a prog rock band. Their success depends on how far you are willing to immerse yourself into this world and surrender. Let the Kobaian language flow over and through you, let the magical rhythmic pulses of days gone by produce an altered state of reality. Then? You might be able to see over the edge, and glimpse another plane of existence. That is something no band in the history of rock music has been capable of doing at such a level. And the fact that in 2015, they are still capable of doing this live in concert is a testament to an unrecognized musical genius. Christian Vander says he doesn’t really compose so much as go into trances and let the music flow through him. This statement I do believe, for the musical output of Magma is truly otherworldly. Do yourself a favor, and take a dip into another dimension. No rock band can do that anymore.