04 October 2010

Magma Monday 13

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 BBC 1974 Londres, part of the Akt series of archival live albums (and catalogue number Akt XIII, an appropriate choice for Magma Monday 13!)…

The Akt series of releases have gone a long way toward filling in holes in Magma’s catalogue, offering us snapshots of the band at varying points of their evolution.  At the very least they’ve been interesting looks at the band as it has grown and changed; at their best, they offer stunning insight into how their music has developed, grown and become even more keenly honed.  While it’s hard to pick any one Akt release over another in terms of saying ‘if you could only buy one, this is the one to buy,’ in the end for me perhaps the choice is simple…BBC 1974 Londres.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, this was a session recorded for BBC radio.  As a result, sound quality is absolutely stellar.  If you’ve ever had a chance, for example, to hear the BBC session from other prog bands of similar vintage, you know how incredibly well they were recorded.  This Magma release is no different.  It sounds if it were recorded yesterday, almost...crisp highs, labyrinthine lows, huge presence.  It is one of the best sounding Magma live albums in their catalogue.

Secondly, this recording shows a transitional band.  Stripped back into a sextet, there are no female vocals, with only Christian Vander and Klaus Blasquiz handling the vocal reins.  As a result, there tends to be far more focus on the music versus the vocals.  That’s not to say that this is Magma in instrumental format; however, if you’re not necessarily a fan of the Kobaian vocals and chanting delivery, this may be a good place to look, as there’s significantly less of it.  Jannick Top also takes part in these sessions, meaning that the bass work here is at its deepest and darkest best.  Top is an absolute beast on bass guitar, bringing a classical flair to the material, and while other bassists have more than adequately filled his shoes over the years, I think when most people think Magma bassist, they think Jannick Top.  Add in a pair of keyboardists (Michel Graillier and Gérard Bikialo, both contributing Rhodes electric piano) and a guitarist (Claude Olmos), and you’ve got a tight band that was ready to blow the doors off the BBC recording studio.

We open up with a fantastic rendition of Theusz Hamtaahk, the opening movement of the band’s first trilogy.  Keep in mind that this is a composition that has never seen a studio rendition…all versions we have at our disposal are live.  While others may be longer, none are quite like the version on BBC 1974 Londres.  Slower, less sprightly, this is a version that wrings as much primordial darkness out of the piece as possible, entirely fitting for a song whose title translates from Kobaian as ‘Time of Hatred.’  Quiet almost whispered vocals and gentle Rhodes set the plate for an almost impossibly slow bass part from Top, while Olmos adds glistening guitar chords over top.  Vocals are less chanted than they are intoned…one gets the feeling of an almost religious, sacred telling here.  After listening to so many different versions over the years, I find myself coming back to this, the (chronologically) first recording of this composition, as my favourite.  There are more moments in this recording that get me pointing to my speakers and smiling than in some band’s entire catalogue of releases…and did I mention that this song hasn’t ever been released in a studio recorded version?

The album closes with a 27-minute working of Köhntarkösz.  Not yet released when this session was recorded, this is an intense rendition of the piece that would form the core of Magma’s 1974 studio album.  Tight enough to bounce a coin off of, it’s an amazing showcase for Vander’s drumming, along with some wonderful and all too brief guitar contributions from Claude Olmos.  Top is of course all over this song, providing a heartbeat like pulse, or adding in long swelling slid notes that rise from the primordial murk before descending again.  All the framework for this song is in place, but individual instrumental parts differ from the final studio recordings.  There’s an awesome organ solo about 18 minutes in that sounds so much like 1971 Pink Floyd that it’s frightening.  It amazes, when one thinks about it…between 1973 ad 1974, Christian Vander and crew would write or release Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, Theusz Hamtaahk, Kohntarkosz, Wurdah Itah, and much of the material that would make up Kohntarkosz Anteria.  I can’t imagine any band doing that today…though I suppose it would be possible.  It just seems like such a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

60 minutes, 2 songs.  It amazes me to this day that bands like Magma got the chance to record hour long session s for the BBC…can you even imagine the same thing happening today?  There actually was a time when major media outlets were willing to take a chance on something outside and artistic because it was outside and artistic.  Thankfully the tapes survived, because this is one of the most amazing sounding examples of a band at their early peak, playing as if their lives depended on getting every note out there as powerfully as possible. 

If you can purchase only one release from the Akt series of archival Magma performances…oh, you know the rest.  This is the one to get.  It really is.

Track Listing:
1 – Theusz Hamtaahk
2 – Kohntarkosz

Klaus Blasquiz: vocals, percussions
Claude Olmos: guitar
Michel Graillier: Fender piano, keyboards
Gérard Bikialo: Fender piano
Jannick Top: bass
Christian Vander: drums, vocals

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