16 August 2010

Magma Monday 7

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 Kohntarkosz Anteria, better known as K.A., which was on its release in 2004 the band’s first full length album release in 20 years.

Getting to hear an album before it’s released isn’t really that odd anymore. Between unofficial leaks, official leaks, bands posting their entire album streaming on their websites in order to try and limit the impact of illegal downloading, it’s usually a pretty fair thing to say that if you want to hear something before it’s actually out on disc, you can. It was not always thus, and while I can’t say for certain that Any Magma album has ever leaked out, I don’t believe it to be the case.

That said, I did hear Kohntarkosz Anteria before it actually came out on disc.

Then again, a lot of people had.

Magma does something that a lot of bands seem to have pretty much stopped doing these days…playing out new material before it is actually released. It used to be that a band would go on tour ahead of releasing an album, and play a few selections from it anyway. In some cases, bands would extensively road test material before committing it to album. Of course, often what got released was not quite the same as what they had played out, but that was part of the idea…road testing new material to get audience reactions, to find out what worked and what didn’t. King Crimson did it, Pink Floyd did it, even bands like Rush did it.

And starting in 2002, Magma did it, performing their soon to be recorded/released album Kohntarkosz Anteria in concert.

Now, Kohntarkosz Anteria is not (and was not) exactly new material. Much of this album was written between 1973 and 1974 as an intended prequel to the main work on Kohntarkosz (1974), and this much is obvious in how the music sounds. There is new material fitted around this structure, bridging things and completing sections that may have been left slightly unfinished, but as a whole, this was music that was intended to be released as part of what one might call the ‘main sequence’ of Magma albums, if in fact such a thing existed.

But I digress, if only for a moment.

With Kohntarkosz Anteria not coming out until 2004, the band began airing out the material in concert in January/February of 2002, in a set that also included Köhntarkösz, Flöë Ëssi, Ëktah, Lïrïk Necronomicus Kanht and Ballet Slave, a.k.a. Ballet Turc or Ballet Egyptien. While I can’t say how those concerts were, I can state that looking at those setlists makes me green with envy, especially as the only…ahem…alternate recordings I have heard from the 2002 touring cycle feature a more abridged set (and a different set, actually, with Köhntarkösz, K.A., an excerpt of MDK, and Ballet Slave). I do know how they sounded in 2003, however, because I was at the concert in Trenton NJ at NEARfest, which I wrote about several weeks ago.

I was under the impression, like so many, that Kohntarkosz Anteria would be out that year. And so I waited patiently. This would be the first new Magma album to come out since my discovery of the band, since finding out how much I loved the music, and I was excited beyond believe. The wait dragged on, and the album didn’t hit shelves until 2004. You can believe I snapped it up as quickly as I could.

In prog circles, much is made of the question ‘I’ve never listened to Magma before…what album should I get to try them out?’ So very often the choice seems to be their 1976 live album Live/Hhaï. It is a good choice; the band shone and shines live, and the renditions on this live release are very good. But this Magma was a different band from the band in the studio, with less choral vocals and added violin; while I love Live/Hhaï, I don’t think it the best way to go, as odd as that sounds. Most often, I’ll recommend Kohntarkosz Anteria, not because it was my first (since really it wasn’t my first Magma album, just the first new one for me) but because I find it to be incredibly accessible and easy to listen to. The vocals are lush, the music tight and intense, with less stridency and Orff-ian bombast than some people seem to associate with Magma.

The first movement of Kohntarkosz Anteria is almost subtle, with quiet vocals and soundscapes leading into the kind of music Magma is known for. There are copious quantities of piano, bass and drums driving the music forward, something that really sets the band apart from its contemporaries just from a musical standpoint. Magma has always featured some monster bassists (Jannick Top, Bernard Paganotti, Guy Delacroix), and the latest addition to this roster is Philippe ‘Bubu’ Bussonet. Listening to him play is a revelation; I think if I were in his shoes I’d be shaking at the history I was stepping into, but he makes the position his own. His playing is fluid, effortless, incredibly lyrical, and amazingly powerful. I’d probably enjoy listening to just his bass lines off these recordings. He locks in incredibly well with Christian Vander. Emmanuel Borghi and Frédéric d'Oelsnitz handle the piano and Fender Rhodes, and again, their playing is just right.

Electric guitar has never been a huge featuring instrument in Magma’s sound; it’s one reason they sound so little like other bands. James Mac Gaw does his best to change this, however. He adds little flourishes here and there, and even through the very dense mix, his playing is noticeable and an important addition to the compositions. It was a surprise to me to hear him so present in the mix live, and I was glad to hear him just as much on album.

The one thing Magma is most known for, of course, is their vocals. It’s the one element that seems to drive people away in droves. We’ll even exclude the lyrics in Kobaian. There is something about the choral vocals, often very quickly delivered in chant, which seems to be impossible for some people to get past. It’s a shame, because the vocals are actually very intricately arranged and impeccably performed; I have a background in choral music, and I can state with 100% certainty that it’s incredibly difficult to perform this kind of material with the clarity and accuracy that Stella Vander, Himiko Paganotti, Isabelle Feuillebois and Antoine Paganotti do. Theirs is perhaps the hardest job in Magma, and they handle (handled, as Himiko and Antoine are no longer in the band) it well.

The first movement of Kohntarkosz Anteria, as I had begun before my digression, is very typical Magma in the end. Movement II opens with a slight choral flourish before a single female voice takes the lead over a rolling bass, trilling bass line. Vocals build in intensity with every iteration, tension building through repetition. The vocals take on a bit of a conversational tone, as a male voice takes the lead, followed by the same choral explosions. There are fairly extensive instrumental sections as well, offering a rest for the singers, and allowing the band to stretch out. Mac Gaw’s guitar solo at 4:30 is a bit of a surprise, but a welcome one indeed. While he gets far more opportunity to stretch out in the offshoot project One Shot, I simply can’t imagine this track without his soloing and ensemble playing. As for Christian Vander’s drumming, which I have not as yet mentioned…what can I say? Note for note, stroke for stroke, I know he’s in my top five favourite drummers in rock ever, and some days I’m pretty sure he tops the list. He can play off time better than anyone, he grooves, he swings, and I feel sorry for his drums, which must take a beating unlike any other.

Kohntarkosz Anteria closes out with some of the most intense material the band has ever released, merging the spiritual side that Christian Vander has always loved with the darkly classical material the band has always seemed to gravitate toward. The "Halleluja!" section is amazing to hear, while the instrumental workout that opens the third movement rivals the best of the band’s legendary C.V. (that’s curriculum vitae, not Christian Vander). The movement ends mysteriously, as a single male voice intones several phrases as the music dies away to nothing.

It actually took some looking around to understand a bit of the thematic underpinnings of this album as it fits into the band’s mythos. Magma is a band with a deeply ingrained mythos and story, and Kohntarkosz Anteria is no exception. Over 30 years on, it is the opening movement of the band’s second trilogy, which continued with 1974’s Kohntarkosz and closed with last year’s Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê. Together, those three albums are every bit the equal of Magma’s Theusz Hamtaahk trilogy, perhaps in my mind even a little stronger, and all the more impressive for just how long it took for all the material to finally be completed and recorded. In a catalogue filled with brilliant albums, Kohntarkosz Anteria is a high water mark, and one I still pull out at least weekly to explore again.

Track Listing:
1. "K.A I" – 11:12
2. "K.A II" – 15:53
3. "K.A III" – 21:43

Christian Vander - Drums, Vocals, Percussion
James Mac Gaw - Guitars
Emmanuel Borghi - Piano, Fender Rhodes
Frédéric d'Oelsnitz - Fender Rhodes
Philippe Bussonet - Bass guitar
Stella Vander - Vocals, Percussion
Antoine Paganotti - Vocals
Himiko Paganotti - Vocals
Isabelle Feuillebois - Vocals

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