05 July 2010

Magma Monday 2

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 Magma’s 1970 debut album, alternatively titled Magma or Kobaia (depending on whether you own the initial or re-release)…

Magma in 1970 was certainly a different beast from that stomping, steam rolling band we came to know and love in the mid 1970’s and beyond. In fact, I’d almost dare say that the first time someone familiar with albums like Live/Hhai, or Köhntarkösz, or even newer releases like K.A. or Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê, puts on the Magma debut album to play it, the first thought to pass through their minds might be something along the lines of this:

‘Did they stick the wrong music on this album?’

(Oh, new listener…wait till you get to 1986’s Merci. But I digress…on with the entry. You’ll get no more digressions, I promise.)

Magma’s 1970 debut release shows a completely different side of the band, and in some ways sounds very much like a fusion of two different groups, split on an axis drawn by bass and vocals. On one side of the Christian Vander/Francis Moze rhythm section you have Claude Engel on guitar; listen to this grouping and you have a fine, if somewhat typical psychedelic band, with fuzz guitar over driving beats. On the other side you have the richness of Teddy Lasry, Richard Raux and Alain "Paco" Charlery on brass instruments. Listen to this side of the band and you have a pretty damned fine jazz combo. Toss in some vocals and it’s almost Blood Sweat and Tears at their more adventurous.

Oh yes, the vocals.

There was one thing that started out pretty fully formed for Magma; the vocals…or at the very least, the lyrics. Christian Vander had already fully embraced Kobaian as a way of expressing his philosophy, allowing the singer or singers to act as much as an instrument as a relayer of information. In a way, the derivation of Kobaian as an invented language pretty much blew away barriers as far as understanding the gist of a song, since no one could get it unless one was told expressly what the message of the song was. Thus, the listener was forced to simply go along with the music, getting swept up in the fury and passions the music induced. And when it came to presenting vocals in a passionate, furious manner, no one was better at it than Klaus Blasquiz. Blasquiz would feature on every Magma studio effort through 1978’s Attahk, and his distinctive and strident delivery, as well as his charasmatic presence as frontman, would be as memorable as Vander’s drumming and the bass/drum/Fender Rhodes interlocking that would be the traditional Zeuhl sound.

But in 1970 many of these things were still to be discovered in the distance. Magma at this point was still very much a jazzy, fusiony band, albeit one with pretensions of something greater. They already had their mapped out mythos and philosophy. Over the space of 82 minutes across 2 LPs, this first Magma album would tell the tale of a group of people fleeing a doomed Earth to settle on the fictional planet Kobaïa. The entire Magma story and mythos starts here, and despite the very different sound, there is quite a lot to recommend for the new Magma listener.

Album opener ‘Kobaïa’ is the best known track from this release, as it has been a reasonably frequent mainstay of the band’s performance repertoire for the past 40 years. In concert these days it’s played in a less straight forward jazz/rock arrangement, with the multiple vocalists in current Magma lineups replacing the prevalent horns. ‘Malaria’ is a dark jazz piece, with horns in minor harmonies and some wicked drum/bass interlocked playing that does a great job in building tension, albeit without the minimalism and repetition that would later become hallmarks. ‘Sckxyss’ is a brief horn driven piece, with some very nice piano from François Cahen and repeated, koan-like vocals that point the way toward more of the chant style that would be the vocal raison d’être moving forward.

If listeners were unsure what to make of the first half of Magma/ Kobaïa, LP 2 would confound them just as much. ‘Thaud Zaïa’ opens meditatively, with flute and piano painting a gentle, almost pastoral scene. Vocals slip into the mix about one minute in, quietly mixed and sounding very much like just another instrument. By the two-minute point pressure is building, with pulsing bass and distant mixed drums creating depth not necessarily common in music of this vintage. This track sees more of the Zeuhl sound coming to the fore, not fully birthed but impending. ‘Nau Ektila’ sees Magma shift through a number of styles, from the pastoral to hotter, quicker jazz rock, with a bit of Christian Vander drum solo tossed in for good measure. At 12:55 it is easily the heftiest piece on the album, with LP closer ‘Muh’ coming close in length. It’s a fairly unlikely closer; fairly complex, with odd harmonic and rhythmic choices scattered throughout. In the reckoning, it’s a difficult closer for a difficult album, one that fails to offer any clues where the band might be heading musically…until the final moments, where chanted, strident vocals intone repeated lyrics, pointing the way to the future.

As mentioned above, much of this material has fallen by the wayside in Magma’s live repertoire; only ‘Kobaïa’ features with any regularity in the band’s current live sets, and then even sporadically. Thankfully, Vander saw fit to include 3 pieces from this release on the first of 4 DVDs commemorating the 35th anniversary of Magma’s first release. These pieces can be seen and heard on Mythes Et Legendes Volume I, filmed at the famous Paris club Le Triton in 2005, which also covered material from the band’s sophomore effort 1001 Degrees Centigrades and Theusz Hamtaahk (translated: Time of Hatred), the first movement in the band’s initial mythological trilogy. While expensive, the DVD is a worthy piece from Magma’s C.V., one I’ll be talking about in the future.

Thanks for joining me this week, and I hope you’ll return next week when I go back in some personal history (yet again) to talk about that very first Magma concert from NEARfest 2003.

CD 1/Album 1:

Kobaïa (Christian Vander) – 10:15

Aïna (Vander) – 6:15

Malaria (Vander) – 4:20

Sohïa (Teddy Lasry) – 7:00

Sckxyss (François Cahen) – 3:47

Auraë (Vander) – 10:55

CD 2/Album 2:

Thaud Zaïa (Claude Engel) – 7:00

Nau Ektila (Laurent Thibault) – 12:55

Stoah (Vander) – 8:05

Muh (Vander) – 11:13


Christian Vander – drums, vocals

Claude Engel – guitars, flute, vocals

Francis Moze – electric bass, contrabass

François Cahen – piano

Teddy Lasry – soprano sax, flute

Richard Raux – alto and tenor sax, flute

Alain "Paco" Charlery – trumpet, percussion

Klaus Basquiz – vocals


Anonymous said...

I am really looking forward to "Magma Monday" blog. I have been a rabid fan for years and really enjoy their 1st two efforts. Hell, I even find "Merci" to have its charms. I can't wait for the 3rd installment!

Bill K. said...

Glad you're enjoying them. Its going to be a fun exercise for me...

Mike said...

I think the debut Magma is another example of a double album that might have made a classic single. I love the horn section, so I too was pretty thrilled with the first Mythes et Legendes DVD, it was a nice chance to see them attack a rarer part of their catalog. There are some nice videos from this era floating around out there as well. Like the Blood Sweat and Tears reference too, nice catch!

Bill K. said...

This is a hard one to say that condensation to a single would have made a stronger album. Obviously in so many cases it's easy to see, but here I have a harder time on first thought seeing where I'd have cut things.