France’s Magma can lay claim to a level of pretension that dwarfs even the most mystical progressive rock bands of the ’70s. (None of them bothered to create their own language.) Yet the group’s music can hardly be lumped in with that realm. Rather, French drummer and John Coltrane fanatic Christian Vander’s ensemble aimed to purify the soul via a multi-movement cycle detailing war, interplanetary migration and mysterious prophets. If the concept weren’t strange enough, the music came out an eclectic fusion of Coltrane, Bela Bartok and Weather Report — with an operatic sense of sturm und drang. Today, Magma is often classified with other avant-prog bands like Univers Zero and Richard Pinhas’ Heldon, but they were truly in a league of their own.
Magma’s musical roots are effectively 1960s R&B, early 20th century classical music and modern jazz (especially Coltrane). In 1967, when he was 17, Vander left France for Italy on something of a soul-searching mission after Coltrane’s death. Upon his return the following year, he sought out and played with jazz stars (including Chick Corea) as they traveled through France. In 1969, with the help of future Magma producer Laurent Thibault, he and future Magma member Francis Moze got a gig supporting a French pop singer — only to be fired after two shows. However, a concert promoter liked Vander’s band, and let them continue touring on their own under an absurd moniker, the Carnaby Street Singers. It was then that Vander experimented with ideas like artificial language for the first time, performing it over songs by Pharaoh Sanders, the Rolling Stones and Sam & Dave.
When the band returned to Paris in 1969, more future Magma men came aboard, including Claude Olmos and Rene Garber, and over time they perfected a sound self-described as “devastating” and “volcanic.” So much so that they renamed themselves Magma. They were later hired to back another pop singer and given studio time to rehearse his material, but instead used the studio to flesh out their own. When singer Klaus Blasquiz joined, the band was complete, and Thibault borrowed a few thousand dollars to produce their self-titled first record.
Magma does not feature the martial symphonettes of the band’s classic period, but it is strange, outlining the “Kobaian” saga that would be the primary force behind their first few records. The music is eclectic to a fault: lengthy horn-led excursions, strange, percussive ritualistic soliloquies, clipped, angular rhythms and extroverted, expressionist vocals. None of it really gels, but isolated moments offer glimpses of a band that would not be denied its dark moment. Still, recognizing Magma’s limited appeal, the next record was made as Univeria Zekt. Certainly more straightforward than the Magma material, The Unnameables emphasizes jazz-fusion, and has much in common with concurrent Herbie Hancock or Donald Byrd.
1001° Centigrades added to Magma’s repertoire of eccentric jazz-rock, while at the same time expanding the structures into three large pieces rather than several fragmented short ones. Reedman Teddy Lasry’s moody “Iss Lanseï Doïa” and keyboardist Francois Cahen’s complex, contrapuntal “Ki Ïahl Ö Lïahk” are colorful takes on the sound of the debut, but the feature attraction is Vander’s epic “Rïah Sahïltaahk.” While not the apex of his alien overtures, it collects the best ideas Magma had hit upon to that point, and presents them in symphonic sequence. Concert 1971 Bruxelles captures this band in concert performing material from 1001° Centigrades as well as the then-forthcoming Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh.
Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (or MDK) unveils a much darker vision: the end of the world is near, and oppression, fear and cryptic alien prophesy are the way of things! The spacey jazz-rock of the first two records is long gone, replaced by a fantastically singular vision of martial minimalism and extroverted symphonic overtures. Minor key melodrama with menacing brass surges and hellish choral exclamations flesh out Vander’s dream to combine the intensity of Coltrane and the ambition of Stravinsky. Mekanik Kommandoh, a scrapped early version of the piece, lacks some of the textural color of MDK (no brass), but is arguably the definitive performance due in no small part to the drastically better recording of Vander’s forceful drumming.
Wurdah Itah, a soundtrack to the Yvan Lagrange film Tristan et Iseult, was released under Christian Vander’s name, but it is very much a Magma record, featuring the core quartet of Vander, wife Stella, Klaus Blasquiz and bassist Jannik Top performing the second movement of the hallowed Theusz Haamtaahk trilogy. Similar to MDK (itself the third movement, despite being released prior to Wurdah Itah), the record features sharp, martial motives and almost oppressively precise choral arrangements. Far less repetitive than its predecessor in Vander’s trilogy, this piece is constructed of episodic strains that make for a more colorful listen.
Later that year, Vander underwent a change in philosophy. Legend has it that fear of other musicians ripping off his style (most notably Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame, who had attended sessions for MDK) led him to abandon military sci-prog for a more conventionally attractive veneer. What resulted was Köhntarkosz, which is supposedly about the Egyptian prophet Emehnteht-Re. Despite smoother textures and extended, almost trance-like phrasing, the album is hardly what you’d call accessible. The cyclical figures and Vander’s magnificently understated (but weighty) drumming — along with some of the most otherworldly singing ever waxed — contribute to Magma’s dreamiest epic. BBC Londres 1974 features this band performing Köhntarkosz and one of the best versions of Theusz Haamtaahk.
As most of the members of Magma came from a predominately jazz background, it’s not surprising they thrived in a live setting. The double-LP Live (aka Hhaï) is the band’s definitive concert document, and arguably the best starting place for anyone curious about Magma. The performances of a wide cross-section of material from throughout the band’s career are fiery and inspired, if not as weighty as the studio records. Furthermore, the recording quality far exceeds their other live releases (and even some of their studio ones), including the same year’s Theatre du Taur.
With Udü Wüdü, Vander began another change in direction, one that would gradually transform Magma’s sound into something approaching crossover pop. The title track has a quaint rhythm box-generated Latin beat, and the album employs an array of analog synthesizers. Bassist Bernard Paganotti (who left Magma during the recording to form a band of his own) contributed the uncharacteristically optimistic “Weidorje.” With crushing bass and heavy, syncopated drums, Jannik Top’s “De Futura” is an 18-minute, funky tour de force, which has had a significant impact on today’s “brutal prog” scene (groups like Flying Luttenbachers and Ruins). The triple-live Opera de Reims, recorded the same year, features MDK, Theusz Haamtaahk and “De Futura” in their entireties.
The democratic musical direction of Udü Wüdü was short-lived, as Vander took complete control of the band in 1977 — to the point that it may as well have been his solo project. For Attahk, he drafted an almost completely new ensemble of players to bring forth a new Magma sound that threw many fans for a loop. “The Last Seven Minutes” is a fusion-disco burner that, while hardly lacking energy, had little in common with the ominous minor-key overtures of a few years earlier. The song gave Vander an excuse to display his considerable drumming abilities, as well as being an extended platform for some very uninhibited falsetto. Attahk, which applies that template to funk, slow-jam ballads and gospel (!), is surprisingly good, if now obviously dated.
The same year, Magma released Inedits, a compilation of unreleased compositions recorded live. The sound is bootleg quality, but the performances are typically excellent. Of special note are two fragments of a piece called Kohntark Anteria. Composed in the early ’70s, it is a musical is a bridge between MDK and Köhntarkosz.
After Attahk, Vander retired Magma for a few years, but restarted it in 1981 for the concerts documented on the Retrospektïw albums. These shows at the Olympia Theater in Paris presented almost all the musicians ever to have played in Magma performing all of its major pieces and several new ones. Retrospektïw I-II, which contains excellent versions of MDK and Theusz Haamtaahk, is occasionally marred by out-of-place space-age synthesizers. Retrospektïw III contains one long new piece, “Zess” (also featured on Concert Bobino), which represents Vander’s funk and soul gestures as opposed to science fiction operas, as well as the gentle, piano-led “La Dawotsin”, which foreshadows his work later in the decade with Offering. Merci, Magma’s only studio record of the 1980s, is an ill-advised attempt at R&B crossover, and is the consensus pick for the band’s worst release.
Vander undertook solo projects throughout the ’80s and ’90s: soundtrack work, straight-ahead bop and three records with his band Offering, performing a calmer, jazzier take on the Magma sound. The compilations Mythes et Legendes and Simples kept the Magma name afloat until he reconvened the group in the late ’90s and released the “Floë Ëssi”/”Ëktah” single. Though Vander and his wife Stella are the only original members left, the new group ably continues the Magma legacy, with bassist Philippe Bussonnet’s “Floë Ëssi” sounding more typical than Vander’s track. The triple-disc La Trilogie Theusz Hamtaahk, a complete live presentation of the Kobaian epic, was released in 2001 In celebration of the band’s 30th anniversary. Vander promises more new music from Magma in the future.