Magma came to my attention via an occultist friend of mine who has given me awareness of bands and artists too numerous to mention, but too essential to wonder how ever did without them in my life. Magma was formed at the tail-end of the ’60s by French drummer Christian Vander, which includes the distinction of the language of many of their songs being a fictional construct created (and often sung) by Vander himself: Kobaïan. Vander tells of the genesis of Magma as a result of an unsettling “vision of humanity’s spiritual and ecological future” of a ruined Earth and thus many of their albums tell the tale of the planet Kobaïa settled by human beings and their struggles when other Earth refugees make their way into the presence of the established Kobaïan people.
This sort of esotericism meets progressive rock meets the psy-fi of Timothy Leary seems like a pre-emptive set of soundtracks for the modern metaphysical counter-culture, does it not? Christian Vander once stated in an interview: “It is difficult to define what music is. Music is life. Music contains all secrets of life. It is man’s clearest way of expression. Music can contain both life and death. Music is an extension of your self, of your way of expression.” When it sounds this good then I think one wouldn’t think twice about joining the cult.
Magma are sometimes slotted into convenient genre crates such as progressive-rock or jazz-fusion but their sound became known as Zeuhl (a Kobaïan word meaning “celestial”) , which other French bands of the ’70s became associated under that tag. Zeuhl is science-fiction rock opera, mad improvisation, elegant choral arrangements and stately combinations of common instruments into a sensitive and moving whole. I sometimes wonder if Pink Floyd happened to be listening…..
In 1970 they released their debut album Magma, which later was later re-released as Kobaïa. Vander had wanted to fill the void left by the death of grandmaster John Coltrane, so jazz expositions permeate the first foray into Kobaïan vocals which actually sound like a kind of African-American devotional groove at that point in time. Three years later their Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh was released and cemented Zeuhl as a wonderous story-telling experience of a future that may yet be revealed, but in a tongue that perhaps was still yet to be understood by anyone.
This performance from 1977 (Paris) illuminates this very clearly:
With the drizzles of estoterics (for example, this effervescent paean to 19th century French mystic Eliphas Levi) and the extraterrestrial operatics, the exotic talent of the group as a whole are not overshadowed given the extent which they can channel the raw elements of rock, jazz and the universality of rhythm into raucous excitement. These snapshots in time typify the sport of journey that Magma can enthrall audiences and expose potentialities of unbridled creativity. Especially when Mr Vander leaves the drum kit to one side or to another and takes the microphone on his own psychic trip.
Unfortunately they never found the commercial success they might well have deserved for their ingenuity, thus disbanding in 1977 yet persisting in various offshoots until 1983. Vander managed to pull the group together again in 1996, with their sound having drawn in a new generation of fans. With the release of Félicité Thösz last year, Magma still continue recording and performing and inspiring to this very day.