12 July 2010

Magma Monday 3

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 my first ever Magma concert, on 28 June 2003 in Trenton NJ.

Ahh, NEARfest 2003.

When prog historians look back at the importance of the festival in the continued survival of the genre, I think it very likely that NEARfest 2003 will end up meriting a pretty large reference. While the previous festivals had seen things such as first concerts from supergroup Transatlantic, or the return of Banco del Mutuo Soccorso to the United States, NEARfest 2003 was something very special indeed. For one, you had the duality of Glass Hammer and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, yin and yang, playing on the same day one after the other. You had one of the last (to date) concerts from the legendary band Camel, with a deputised Tom Brislin filling in for Guy LeBlanc, whose wife was in the midst of some very serious health issues. There was the reunion of Änglagård, who played new music and proved that if you dream long enough and hard enough, sometimes those dreams come true (even if the band still doesn’t feel the performance worthy of release).

And you had Magma.

I need to take a slight trip back with you before we get to the performance. Magma had been announced at NEArfest 2002 as the first band signed for the next year’s festival. If you were there, you remember the circumstances around the announcement. If you weren’t, well…

Everyone started entering the hall. People had been rumbling that there was going to be a band announcement, and that it might be a headliner. Loads of names were being bandied about. When we got into the theatre, what was playing over the PA system? Marillion. Specifically ‘Psuedo Silk Kimono,’ leading in to the rest of Misplaced Childhood. Then Rob and Chad took the stage to mention the announcement. They began to drag it out.

‘The first letter in the band’s name is…M!’

People cheered a little.

‘The second letter is…A!’

More people cheered, and made the connection to the music playing as we entered. Holy cojones, NEARfest was getting Marillion! People were going nuts.

Then, silence. Chad pulls the press release from Rob’s hands (or was it the other way around? The memory, it cheats).

‘Let me have that…oh, I can’t read this, I don’t understand what it’s written in.’

When the name Magma was finally announced, to say a portion of the audience deflated would be an understatement. While avant prog and RiO certainly have rabid and loyal fan bases, one could say, and perhaps with some degree of correctness, that those populations are generally not as large as those into the more melodic and symphonic side of the genre (please note: obviously I am not taking sides…I love it all, and for different reasons). In any event, I know there were a lot of disappointed people reacting to the announcement. Being essentially unfamiliar with the band at that point, I couldn’t say I was disappointed, but I just didn’t know enough to have a strong reaction.

I spent some time in the year between NF 02 and Magma’s performance in 2003 to get somewhat familiar with their work. It was not an easy road to travel, but thankfully a little familiarity with composers like Carl Orff helped. But before they took the stage Saturday 28 June 2003, I can say that I honestly was not a fan.

What Magma did that night was nothing short of miraculous.

Firstly, they opened their set with a piece not yet out on CD. Entitled Kohntarkosz Anteria, later shortened to K.A. for the album release, it was 50+ minutes of intense Zeuhl music that blew my mind. The chanted vocals, the building of tension through minimalism and repetition, the impossibly tight rhythm playing of Christian Vander and Philippe Bussonnet…what I had heard on record or CD had not prepared me for this. I spent the entire 50 odd minutes glued to my seat, essentially disbelieving what I was hearing coming from the stage. Four singers, 3 women and a man, clearly and fluently chanting these incredibly fast lyrical lines, in a totally invented language, and having each line sound crisp and clear and clean. The moments of almost pure musical ecstasy that seemed lifted from sacred masses. For me, it was bliss and joy and brilliance and light.

For the security staff outside the doors, well…it’s best stated by a quote from one of them; ‘I don’t know what’s going on in there, but it sounds like the Devil himself might rise up on the stage any minute!’

The band finished, the crown responded rapturously.

And we were far from done.

The second piece opened, and this one I recognised immediately. I cheered loudly, laughing and smiling when Antoine Paganotti went to the mic and intoned the words ‘Mekanïk…Destructïw…Kommandöh!’ Here was a piece I knew. Here was a piece I was familiar with…but again, what I had heard on record could not, and would not, have prepared me for the experience that was hearing it played live. I know at one point I had closed my eyes to focus on the music. Intense is a word that sometimes I use pretty liberally, but this performance of Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandöh is one that merits something almost stronger than intense to describe it.

One would think those two pieces on their own would be enough…after all, between those songs you have nearly 90 minutes of performance. But Magma had a little bit left to share. The first piece up was ‘Ballet Slave,’ a composition the band had been working with on stage since early in 2002. They would continue to play the piece live through most of 2004 before retiring it. The best way I could describe the song would be to say it’s a Zeuhl jam session that the band used to conclude a good number of their contemporary shows. To me, and knowing what I know now, it sounded perhaps like a combination of One Shot and Offering…interesting, certainly enjoyable, but a bit of a lull after the double shot of KA and MDK.

The encore had the band pulling out all the stops for one last blast of cosmic music…an excerpt of Theusz Hamtaahk, the first movement of the band’s first triology of albums, not released as a studio album but available in a myriad of live formats, with the Trilogie au Triannon rendtion being one of the most widely heard. This would not be the entire composition, as that would have pushed the band far beyond their allotted time, but it was a brilliant excision of the 40-minute piece, and sent the audience off, minds blown and believing that Magma was in fact a worthy band to headline this festival.

One of the best things about NEARfest is the fact that you could get things signed by the artists. Sadly, this was harder to do in Trenton than the home base of Bethlehem PA, as the venue was not exactly designed for such things (neither was Zoellner, for that matter, but it is a more spacious place in general). I regretted not waiting around to try and get signatures, but I wasn’t just driving for myself, I had other passengers, many of whom were tired, and as a result walked out figuring I had lost my only chance to meet the band.

I was wrong, of course.

But like so many things, that’s a tale for another time.

Join me next week as we take a look at the above mentioned Trilogie au Triannon boxed set, a review-ish thing that will of course include plenty of insight and tales about my eventual acquisition.

Thanks for reading along, and see all you Zeuhl-heads next week.


Robert D. said...

Aah, yes! NF03 brings back fond memories, including my first encounter with Sir Bill K. The Magma show was superb but I missed part of it because of a tremendous headache... (sigh). I have my Magma moments too, especially in my studio when I'm tinkering with computers! ;)

Anonymous said...

Love the conversion story Bill. Hallelujah KA style. I was a Magma fan before I saw them live for the first time in San Francisco 2000 but that definitely upped the game for me. My friend said after the show that it was like being in church, and I know exactly what he meant.

Pete said...

I was there too, what a great performance Magma had at NearFest 2003. I also saw them at Club Wetlands in NYC in 2000. That was really an exciting show as I had always wanted to see Magma in concert since growing up listening to their albums as they were released in the '70s. Radio station WXPN (Philadelphia,) and announcer John Dilaberto, introduced me to Magma when they played Kohntarkosz; I was hooked.