Band of the Week: Magma

Resident sound-nerd thumbs through reams of musty vinyl so you don’t have to. Here are his weekly recommendations…

#12: Magma

Who: Christian Vander, Claude Engel, Francis Moze, François Cahen, Teddy Lasry, Richard Raux, Alain ‘Paco’ Charlery, Klaus Basquiz.

When: 1960’s-Present.

Where: France.

Why: The practice of more out-there bands like Sigur Ros spouting lyrics in made-up languages in a glossolalian manner is nothing new. Magma were the first prominent group to decide to create an entire myth-world around their music, singing in their own language and exhorting bewildering hymns drawing out a vast sci-fi narratives in a virtuosic jazz-prog-classical tornado. The bands’ legendary drummer-composer Christian Vander may have claimed to have hailed from the distant planet of Kobaïa, but in reality he was raised in the revolutionary streets of 60’s Paris. Forming the band to continue John Coltrane’s cosmic legacy after the great jazzer’s death in 1967, he invented the Kobaïan language for the group to sing in because he didn’t think French was expressive enough for their music.

The band, robed in garb that would make Scientologists green with envy, proceeded to redefine the boundaries of cosmic music over the course of several interstellar early 70’s LPs. Calling their otherworldly sonic escapades ‘Zeuhl’, which, translated from Vander’s cryptic language, means ‘celestial’, they could easily compete with the wild sounds creeping out of Germany into the counterculture’s nether-consciousness at the same time. The breadth of musical literacy was astonishing for a band so steeped in spectacle and gimmickry. The first thing to strike the virginal Magma listener must be the over-the-top choral leanings, the band sounding at times like the inner-workings of Carl Orff’s mind while he’s tripping balls on Mars. Combined with these powerful vocal traits, there are hints of the neoclassical ballet of Stravinsky, as well as traces of a Bartók influence in the piano works. But it’s jazz fusion that’s at the core of the 8-piece, with Zander’s ultimate aim being ascension into the slipstream of Coltrane.

The band, who still appear live in some shape or form today, reached their peak on vinyl with 1973’s Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh, a staggering record which brings all the band’s sensory-overload elements to an apex. Sung entirely in Vander’s synthetic language, which brings to mind some lost glottal-stop-free Germanic vernacular, it’s the highest ebb for symphonic rock. Designed as a song cycle for a small choir, baritone soloist and jazz ensemble (backed, obviously, by Vander’s orchestral percussion) it’s quite unlike anything else you’ll hear. Breaching a long-forgotten gap between prog-rock lunacy and modern classical, it dazzles and enthrals even today. With its ridiculous mix of 20th Century art music devices (using pianos percussively, syncopated rhythms), sci-fi shenanigans, Teutonic martial tendencies and swathes of choral mantra, it takes Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis and sets controls for the heart of the sun. According to some slightly dubious scientific journals we’re supposed to be bathed in the light of a supernova in the coming years – rather than listen to John Williams, I reckon Magma will provide perfect musical companionship to the fantastic celestial activity light years away.

Influences: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Pink Floyd.

Influenced: Chrome Hoof, Hella, Acid Mothers Temple, Ruins, Ulver.

Sample Lyric: ‘‘Wï wï Ëss Ëss dö worïtstoh wahn / Ïssïss ëhnwöhl §’ §’ Ühnwëhl’.

Which Record: Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (A&M Records, 1973)