26 July 2010
Welcome to Just Another Magma Monday. Once a week, your obd’t narrator and occasional blogger will trawl the expanses of his Magma collection to discuss something of Zeuhl-ish importance. Whether it’s the studio albums, the best of the AKT archive releases, one of the sundry live DVDs, or a choice artifact from his ‘unofficial’ collection, one thing is for sure…for this writer, Magma iss de hundin!
This week, sit back and relax as we take a look at Archiẁ I & II, the double disc set of rare and unreleased material included in the 2008 boxed set Studio Zünd: 40 Ans d'Evolution.
2008 saw the release of Studio Zünd, Magma’s huge career spanning retrospective covering 40 years of the band’s music. After the troubles and tribulations I went through finally deciding to pick up Theusz Hamtaahk, I wasn’t going to allow myself a second lengthy and arduous process in deciding to purchase this boxed set; I picked it up the first day of NEARfest 2009.
The frustrating thing for me, having purchased the odd Magma album here and there, was this: Studio Zünd is less a ‘traditional’ boxed set and more a one-stop shop for buying Magma Studio albums, as every studio release up through Kohntarkosz Anteria is re-released on this set. By this point in my fandom, I’d already purchased a bunch of their studio albums separately, which meant I was going to have a decent sized batch of duplicate releases. I could easily hand over a bunch of them to some nouveau Magma listener as a starter set, and while that’s a lovely idea and kind and generous, I’d spent a decent bit of cash for them (Magma albums are not inexpensive!), and there was no way honestly I was going to do that. So they sit next to the boxed set, making my collection look that much bigger.
I had it better than many people, however, as there were still Magma studio albums I didn’t have. That made buying the boxed set an easier thing for me. For many, if not most, Magma aficionados, the entire set save Archiẁ I & II would be duplicates, essentially asking those fans to buy the entire catalogue all over again (and with none of the discs seeing any remastering or anything) simply for 2 discs of material that would not be released separately. I can see that being an entirely difficult position to be placed in, and I don’t see any easy way out that would satisfy both sides of the situation. Certainly a separate release of the archive material would be welcomed, but it would have totally hamstrung sales of the boxed set. It’s a catch-22 situation all the way around.
But I’m not here today to discuss the politics of this release; I’m here to talk about Archiẁ I & II. So let’s get down to business.
Archiẁ I & II compiles 17 tracks of unreleased Magma music, with the vast majority of it coming from 1970. Magma in 1970 was a far different band from the one that stormed the stage in all black like some Orff-inspired rock orchestra…they were jazzier, horn driven, at times a lighter band by far from the one we all know and (some of us) love. We start off on Archiẁ I with 7 tracks from a 1970 French film 24 heures seulement. My Google-Fu is apparently weak, as I can’t find any good info about the movie…well, that and it seems most all of the hits I get when I search for “24 heures seulement” link to articles about the release of the sound track on Studio Zünd (shameless bit: I’m linked to on page 3 of the search results). I know that this soundtrack was recorded by the same line-up that would go on to record the first Magma album that same year. Therefore, it’d be safe to assume you’re going to hear the same kind of music that you hear on Magma/Kobaia.
You’d be wrong. Mostly.
Certainly there are points of comparison. Both the first Magma album and this soundtrack are a jazzier Magma than most people are familiar with…but the jazz references are far stronger on this material than on the material written for that epochal first Magma release. Opening track ‘La Foule’ is one of the wildest things I have heard Magma ever do, with BS&T like horns and some psychedelic guitar bringing to mind a strange combination of west coast psych/garage band and jazz combo. It doesn’t sound like magma, and it doesn’t sound like any other band, really. ‘Blues de v.’ carries on this theme, vamping on a cool little progression with loads of funky, wah drenched guitar playing over a great little horn chart. Again, this is a totally different Magma, unlike any you have ever heard before.
‘Fete foraine’ hews closer to a sound that we’d associate with Magma, with a driving bass and drum pattern opening the track. We soon have a return to the heavy guitar focus that has been such a major part of the first two tracks, and while I completely understand that fuzz and wah were major parts of late 0’s/early 70’s psych music, it just doesn’t work for me in Magma. The wild flute playing is nice, however (and if I were doing my job, I’d say that the flute reminds me of Jethro Tull or Camel, but I try to avoid those stereotypes wherever possible). The track’s a brief 2:47, but it’s a cool little piece. Of similar length is ‘Pascale,’ a quiet, acoustic number with some great flute playing mixed with pleasant acoustic guitar and bass. A good bit of this reminds me of ‘Bolero’ from King Crimson’s Lizard album. Is this Magma? Maybe not as we know then, nor as they’d ever be again. But it’s a gorgeous song, and that simply cannot be denied.
‘Ourania’ is the longest piece from the soundtrack. Nearly nine minutes long, it comes closest to the sound listeners who own Magma/Kobaia and 1001 Degrees Centigrades would be familiar with. Vander’s drumming is very busy, with loads of percussive accents scattered about, the bass playing is present and a joy to listen to, and while there are horns, they are used more like voices rather than sheets of sound. It builds slowly, much like later Magma works, the pace increasing, the playing picking up speed, the song driving forward toward its inevitable conclusion. We even have a nascent, early Vander drum ‘solo’ that shows even in the early days of his playing that he was a force to be reckoned with.
For most Magma listeners, however, it is the second half of Archiẁ I that is likely of most interest. This compilation includes the third different release of Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh to come from the band since the original studio release in 1973. To give you a general overview…
1) The original 1973 studio release, now out on CD on Seventh Records individually and in the boxed set.
2) A second 1973 recording, released on Akt Records (Magma’s ‘official bootleg’) label, featuring a stripped back mix and many differences from the well-known album above.
3) This alternate demo version, described below.
This has all the feel of a classic demo, and while it gives us the form of MDK as we know it, there are so many differences. For one, there are next to no vocals. Next, there’s a lot of organ scattered here and there throughout the song. Organ is not an instrument I typically associate with Magma, and it’s odd to hear. Then there are these odd bits of horn here and there that sound like elephant skronks. It’s MDK, to be sure, but not like we’ve ever heard it. As a lesson in how the song evolved, however, I think it’s brilliant, and I enjoy it greatly for what it is. It does make me wish the band would consider releasing more extracts from their demos…I know they are out there (at least, I know additional MDK demos exist, as well as extracts from Wurdah Itah recordings).
Archiẁ II, by comparison, is generally much less interesting, as it is based entirely around material that most Magma listeners have a decent familiarity with. The opening 51 minutes of this disc is dedicated to the band’s first demo recordings of material that would be released later that year as Magma/Kobaia. These recordings, unlike the soundtrack material of similar vintage, are taken from an acetate cut from the sessions. As a result, the songs do have a varying degree of static and pops throughout. I don’t know how easy it would have been to clean these up as they are pretty prevalent throughout the material. It’s a shame that masters from these sessions seem to no longer exist (I’d assume that’s why the acetate was used), as I think for most people that’d make the listening experience more enjoyable. I admit to not having done extensive A/B listening of this recording with the versions released officially, but there seem to be minimal differences from these renditions to the final ones. What little differences I’ve picked up seem more in accents than extensive structural changes.
The final piece on Archiẁ II is the song ‘Eliphas Levi,’ originally released on 1984’s Merci album. This version features drums and percussion that the original release did not. It’s also significantly shorter, 9:35 versus the 11:15 of the original Merci rendition. It’s a particular favourite of mine from a release that I generally don’t rate all that well, and while the drums don’t necessarily add a huge amount to the song, it’s interesting indeed to hear the song in a different way.
Archiẁ I & II is a mixed bag for me. There’s some very interesting material on here, and most of that for me is on the first half of the release. Magma’s not a band that has necessarily offered up a lot of alternate recordings or archival studio recordings in the past (though they are impressively well represented with some great older live releases over the years). Would I have bought Studio Zünd: 40 Ans d'Evolution for this 2-CD set alone, had I already owned the full set of studio releases? That’s a hard question to answer. Is this essential? That question, I think, is even harder. I enjoy it, even if half of the material is reasonably familiar to me (and even though we’ve all heard MDK, the demo is different enough that I think of it as unfamiliar territory). I don’t think it essential to the more casual fan, but then again, the casual fan isn’t going to be buying Studio Zünd.
I have no idea what I’ll be covering next week in Magma Monday…it’s a tough choice! I will say that I’m deciding between Mëkanïk Kömmandöh (the alternate version of mentioned above) and MDKMythes Et Legendes Epok III DVD, so either voice your opinion below or wait till next week and see which side of the coin came up to help me decide!
Track Listing CD 1:
Blues de v.
Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh
Track Listing CD 2:
Alain ‘Paco’ Charlery