How to describe Magma to the uninitiated? Generally, the band seems to be lumped in with progressive rock, but there are also elements of jazz, with more than a couple of scoops of avante garde on top. Really, though, nobody sounds quite like Magma, so they founded their own genre, called Zeuhl (which means “celestial” in Kobaian, which is not only a language created by Magma, but one that they usually sing in). There are imitators out there, of course, and some of them quite good in their own right, but the originators are always more interesting. It also must be noted that Magma has been a band almost as long as I’ve been alive, which is getting to be quite a feat these days. They’re only four years short of their fiftieth (!) anniversary. Here's a good introductory article and interview.
Despite their longevity, this show marked only the second time I’ve seen them. The first time was at the San Francisco Progfest back in 1999, when they played within the relatively classy confines of the Palace of Fine Arts. Their performance was the highlight of that weekend for me, and little did I know that it would be more than a decade and a half before they would next deign to visit. Here's some YouTube footage (audio only) from the progfest show. Here's another review of the festival too. There's more, if you click around a bit.
That was then, and this is now...
Jeanine and I made good time getting to the city. In fact, we got there slightly before the doors opened. Once inside, we both made beelines for the bathrooms, and wonder of wonders, there was a line for the men’s bathroom, but not for the women’s. Must be a prog rock show. While waiting in line, we all enthused about the fact that Magma was in town. A couple of people mentioned the relative tininess of the venue. I would rather have seen Magma at The Great American Music Hall, or perhaps the Regency, but I was happy to be seeing the again at all.
The expected merch table was empty, except for one final copy of a free sampler CD that the guy right in front of me quickly claimed. Oh, well.
While we waited for the screen in front of the stage to ascend, I people watched, discovering that the average Magma fan is male, has an affinity for black, and is between the ages of thirty and fifty. Uh, guilty as charged, I guess.
Finally, the screen (which had been displaying low-resolution pointlessness) ascended and strangely enough, it was not the expected band, but Jello Biafra standing there. He sure gets around. All was explained though. The band had asked him to introduce the show, which he did by mentioning that Magma was the only band that he would fly a great distance to see, but, he ended with, “they’re here!” He also told a story about being caught in traffic on the way to an east coast Magma show, upset that he’d miss their entire set. When he got there, it was to find that he was in time, due to the storied lengths of their sets, to catch the final hour and a half of their show.
With the arrival of the band on stage, the magic truly began. The current live incarnation of Magma features eight members. Christian Vander, who is in his early seventies now, was of course behind the drum set. The band is fleshed out with a guitarist (James Mac Gaw), a bassist (Philippe Bussonnet), keyboards (Jeremie Ternoy, I think), vibraphone (Bonoit Alziary), and three vocalists.
First out of the gate was Köhntarkösz, from their 1974 album of the same name, and it was an epic exercise in musical bliss. The music produced by the individual members of the group was interesting enough that my attention tended to flit across the stage like a small insect, sometimes alighting for a moment on top of an interesting drum fill, a pleasing, jazzy guitar melody, or perhaps a gut-wrenchingly heavy bass line, bubbling and roiling like molasses in a fiery cauldron. During the set, the rhythm was subtly passed from instrument to instrument, and even to the vocalists, freeing up Christian Vander to go crazy on his little kit. He is an intense drummer, making better drum faces than most guitarists do guitar faces. The man probably eats rhythm for breakfast.
Vocalists Stella Vander, Isabelle Feuillebois, and Herve Aknin were all amazing. Aknin tended to stay mid-range and clean, but his voice could also soar and plumb the depths as needed, showing off quite a vocal range. Vander and Feuillebois also impressed me greatly, both with their precision and their beautiful delivery. When the song finally climaxed and subsided into silence, Feuillebois mentioned that it had been composed and released in 1974, and that it was still ahead of its time. Her matter-of-fact tone indicated that this was no mere boast, and of course it was obvious that the audience both agreed and appreciated the sentiment behind the comment. It’s a shame that such fantastic music isn’t more widely known and enjoyed like it deserves to be.
Köhntarkösz was followed by another massive song from the seventies, in the form of Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh. A Great cheer went up from the crowd during the first few notes (in fact, throughout the evening, there was cheering during the songs, not just between them, which normally irritates me, but it was hard to not get swept up in the intense excitement of the crowd). We were again treated to a song that was not merely a song, but rather a journey into the world of Magma. For me, it was like being absorbed into the music and held there as a willing captive for the duration. These songs are serious stuff, which despite the instrumentation, have more in common with classical compositions than with rock music. Maybe that’s why this music isn’t more widely heard: it’s for adults, and given what can be heard on the radio and seen on the internet, the majority of popular culture is obviously developmentally arrested.
Toward the end of the song, the musicians brought things down to a slow pulse, becoming the rhythm section while Christian Vander stepped back from the drums and grabbed a microphone. He took over lead vocal duties with aplomb. His voice is a bit rougher than those of the three other vocalists, but it fit the song perfectly. He even engaged in some scat singing, keeping time on the body of the microphone with his fingers.
After the song, Feuillebois announced that they were done with the seventies for the time being, and introduced the next song as Slag Tanz, which is their most recent album. That’s right, they proceeded to play the whole new album, which is divided into movements but is essentially one long song. It sounded even better live, with the growling bass giving it added punch. In short, the music they’re releasing now is every bit as vital as their seventies material.
After Slag Tanz, the band left the stage for a moment until all of the chanting and clapping brought them back for a relatively brief encore song in the form of Zombies, a song that I hadn’t heard before, even though it too is from the seventies. This reminded me that there are some major gaps in my Magma collection. The show was so excellent that I’m on a bit of a Magma bender now, not only re-listening to all of the albums I do own, but buying more. It was one of those shows where I had moments thinking I could be happy only listening to Magma from now on. Not true, of course, because there is too much good music out there, but in the moment, it seemed like a valid thought, which says something about the power of the performance.
All told, Magma played for around an hour and 45 minutes. Afterward, we migrated to the crepe truck across the street and gorged ourselves on crepey goodness. It was fitting, somehow. Jeanine allowed that the show was “interesting” and “entertaining”, but beyond that, didn’t really get what the fuss was all about. As for me, I thought it was the best show of the year so far. I’m still buzzing from it four days later.
It's not the same watching crappy phone videos on YouTube, but if that's your thing, here you go.