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Class ?

Main Category: Prog Rock
Also applicable: Avantgarde, Psychedelia
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties



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Year Of Release: 1973
Overall rating = 12

Never knew Wagnerian motives would be so popular among our descendants several thousand years from now on.

Best song: I'd better not mess around with those umlauts.

Track listing: 1) Hortz Fur Dehn Stekehn West; 2) Inia Suni Dondai; 3) Kobaia Is De Hundin; 4) Da Zeuhl Wortz Mekanik; 5) Nebehr Gudahtt; 6) Mekanik Kommandoh; 7) Kreuhn Kohrmahn Iss De Hundin.

Magma is one weird, weird, weird band. Nowhere near as weird as some would tell you, though. Here are some preliminary facts you need to know: 1) Magma were a French band, one of the very few to achieve fame in a rock background; 2) Magma had different lineups for practically every album, but were always centered around drummer Christian Vander, who had the 'vision' for the band; 3) in their prime, Magma wrote exclusively on their whacked sci-fi themes, namely, their music was centered around the legendary planet Kobaia, settled by people fleeing the Earth's wickedness, and upon further Kobaian relationships with Earth; 4) here's the real kick: the singing for these records is done entirely in 'Kobaian', a crazyass artificial language made up by Vander and Co. and sounding like an irrational hybrid between German, Hungarian and God knows what else (on paper - vocally it's just gibberish); 5) the music itself is vastly pretentious - naturally, as it's supposed to reflect the kind of music that'd be played in a far, far removed future - and significantly varies in style from album to album, though admittedly not within the limits of any given album; 6) you need anything else? Wait until I give these guys a proper page. They deserve it. Oh, wait, the closest analogy to the band I can think of is Gong, of course, another band that was French-based and had an equally demented leader and a strong "self-mythological" background, but Magma definitely beat Gong out in the 'far-out' department. Except that they don't seem to grasp Gong's sense of humour.

Now that's out of the way, let's concentrate on Magma's Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh album, from 1973. (Please excuse me the lack of umlauts - I don't want to fuck up the encoding). First, the background. It is subtitled as 'Third movement of Theusz Hamtaahk' ('Time Of Hatred'); the problem is, chronologically it was the first movement, and as for the other two, one of them only came out as a Christian Vander solo project some years later and the other one, though regularly performed live, was not captured on record until many years later. Not that this kind of development should surprise you if you know anything about Magma. In any case, MDK is, like its predecessors, a concise 'rock opera' of sorts, and here's the plotline retold in brief: a guy called Nebehr Gudahtt, subtitled The Great Prophet, has a vision that the Earth is cursed forever and destined to perish, and the only way for the people to save themselves is to unite themselves and sacrifice their lives on Earth in order to achieve proper enlightenment. The people naturally rebel and march against him (a little inconsistency here - why they didn't just send the Alpha Group to kick his balls is beyond me). As they march, they are, however, one by one seized by doubt, and at last one of the marchers turns around and says that the Angel of Light has smiled upon him and that he understood the guy is not a tyrant, but a sage, and then the people repent and pay homage to the Gudahtt fellow, and they all begin chanting hymns which take them to the state of grace. In the end they all die and achieve salvation, or whatever. The liner notes tell all these things in a far more elaborate fashion, of course, but who cares? Magma's mythology is all a jet of bilgewater anyway.

What is not a jet of bilgewater is the music, which rules immensely. Too good they're all singing in Kobaian, as required, and nobody but the most diehard fans with extra linguistic experience can decode the stuff they're chanting; any direct meaning would only spoil the picture. MDK is often called Magma's musical peak, and it's definitely like no other record ever made... well, it does have some Amon Düül II parallels, though. This is perhaps the most convincing mix of rock and opera I've ever heard. It's pretty useless to dissect the album into individual tracks (I couldn't even be guaranteed to spell their names right, not to mention the umlauts!); they often flow into each other so that you don't notice the transition at all. They're also more or less all produced in the same style.

The basic pattern of the melody is jazzy, although at times I can smell poppy and even Broadway-ish overtones. However, it's not really the instrumental melody that matters the most; none of them are particularly memorable, and there's next to no blistering instrumental passages - not a jaw-dropping guitar or organ solo in sight. It is the vocals/instruments interplay that's the meat of the album. The singing, done mainly by Klaus Blasquiz (male) and Stella Vander (female), is structured in fine Wagnerian tradition, with 'arias' rather than 'songs' offered to your ear, and lengthy, mesmerizing, pompous passages that slowly amount to tremendous, occasionally hysterical choruses. At times, you could say that the music isn't progressing at all, with 'loops' of harmonies hanging out there in the air forever, and yet there is a subtle, subconsciously evident movement, and then hoopla, the 'loop' suddenly explodes in a whole torrent of sound, with keyboards, horns, drums, bass, and miriads of chorale overdubs flowing out in every direction... turned out loud, it's pure, pure magic.

What is perhaps the most wonderful characteristic of the album is how dang accessible it sounds, for my ears, at least. There's next to no dissonance at all, in fact, if you've heard just a wee bit opera, you're in for a fully enjoyable ride. Music that nobody had ever dreamt of composing until then, complex and adventurous as hell, and yet totally understandable. I could care less about the idiotic plotline - all I know is how dang optimistic and uplifting this sounds, just like a nice little six-hour Wagner opera should. The keyboards and brass sound fresh and exciting, the multi-layered harmonies are energetic and (sometimes) hilarious, and unlike, say, Freddie Mercury singing operatic, these guys almost sound adequate (can't believe I'm saying this!). It all comes together in the blistering, triumphal conclusion (singing celestial hymns to Kreuhn Kohrmahn the Supreme Being, no doubt?), which is just the right finale for this kind of thing, but believe me, these sections all qualify. The only serious complaint is that it all sounds the same, but I guess it doesn't sound the same any more than an opera sounds the same; a more serious complaint would state that occasionally, the 'harmony loops' get a bit too long, to the point of becoming annoyingly repetitive, but it's not like any of them go on for ten minutes or anything, and like I said, the 'resolution' of each loop is always brilliant.

So give it a try! A grizzly old snubby reviewer like me, who doesn't really get his mind blown away any more no matter what kind of weird music he might have heard (and is Magma really any more weird than the Residents or Captain Beefheart or Throbbing Gristle?), won't probably appreciate this stuff as much as some of the more innocent Magma fanatics, but I tell you: this is goddamn worthy. Why doesn't this band get any more recognition? Just because any DJ who'd like to play one of their tunes on the radio would twist his tongue trying to pronounce the title? Shit, did all these DJs sleep through their Kobaian lessons at school?



Year Of Release: 1974
Overall rating = 11

No more Wagner! We're going interplanetary New Age here! Or, uh, something.

Best song: ORK ALARM

Track listing: 1) Kohntarkosz Part One; 2) Kohntarkosz Part Two; 3) Ork Alarm; 4) Coltrane Sundia.

Now the contrast between this record and MDK is certainly one of the major factors in establishing Magma's legendary uniqueness - two weird unprecedented albums, and sounding nothing like each other. It's a true testimony to the perverted genius of Christian Vander that after the band's style had been established and they could have developed their brand of "futuristic prog-rock opera" for ages and ages to come, he chose to try his hand at something radically different instead - radically different and at the same time equally, or even more, inaccessible for the routine listener.

Not that you can't guess it's Magma, of course. The operatic vocal style is still present, and the music gives the impression of coming from a totally different dimension again. But this is no longer classically-influenced space-rock. This is, in parts, more jazzy, but perhaps the greatest influence here is classic Sixties' psychedelics a la Pink Floyd; it also sounds closer to the Soft Machine and Gong than last time around. And as far as melody is concerned, it's a slight step down from the level of MDK; the extended suite form and the penchant for atmospherics take their toll on Vander's gang, and practically none of the tunes are memorable in the slightest. But, of course, that's not really required.

Essentially, Kohntarkosz is very much mood music, and while I can't say it lacks any kind of dynamic development entirely (even within the fifteen-minute suites there's some progression going on), it's far far removed from the Sturm und Drang of MDK. I haven't managed to make it entirely clear what the subject of the whole movement is this time (it's not supposed to be related to Theusz Hamtaahk'), but obviously, there's battle and violence involved, and so 'Kohntarkosz Part One' represents a 'gathering of the clouds' of sorts, after which comes the battle itself. In that respect, 'Part One' is a wee bit of a disappointment - the mid-tempo piano/organ rhythms with Stella Vander's ominous cooing in the background get kinda stale rather early, and then they just go on and on; only towards the very end, when a shrill ear-destructive synth line starts underpinning the melody, does the band openly strive for a climax, but somehow it never really arrives. In my mind's eye, 'Part One' could have made a decent three to four minutes introduction; as it is, the only thing that redeems the composition are Jannick Top's scary basslines, as if the guy wanted to retell us his encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex through his bass playing, no less.

'Ork Alarm' achieves in its five minutes much more than 'Part One' ever did in its 15. It's BATTLE! Or a surprise attack, at least. There's a martial violin pattern, there are grim spooky Kobaian vocals, there are shrill paranoid exclamations, there's wild psychedelic guitar, and there's a climax! Or at least, growth, as the tune ends in total chaos with wild synthesizer blasts and evil laughter. Who won? Who lost? Who cares! It took a lot of invention to come up with this little piece of martial fantasy. And after this comes 'Kohntarkosz Part Two', which is pretty dynamic compared to 'Part One', but still, it's hard to even dissect the composition into consequent segues and links. What there definitely is in this place is a mighty crescendo, as the tune starts out quieter than a mouse but then Vander slowly stimulates the band into catching fire, and then jamming in a sort of a jazz-psychedelic avantgarde style (heck, for all I know this could be easily called 'acid jazz', proving that all the 'newer' movements of older genres aren't as new as they might seem), up until the pseudo-Gregorian chant conclusion.

I know I haven't managed to exactly set your imagination on fire, but nobler and mightier minds than mine have tried to capture the essence of Magma music on paper and failed, so I have my excuses. In theory, this sounds far less exciting than it does on practice; it also sounds absurdly twisted and emotionless, but such is Magma's style that you have to give yourself to it in order to appreciate it - and since nothing on Kohntarkosz seems to threaten the postulates of good taste, I am more than willing to do it. Actually, Kohntarkosz is a mish-mash: it could remind you of everything from Floyd to the Grateful Dead to Stravinsky to Coltrane (the peaceful conclusion to the album doesn't happen to be entitled 'Coltrane Sundia' for nothing!) to Amon Düül II to Gong, which explains why the record still confuses me, and the rating of 11 is definitely a tentative one. It's certainly not an album to listen to on a regular basis - I would suggest MDK instead. But it's a real gas to stretch out your musical borders to the limit with this stuff - especially pleasant since none of this is in the least dissonant, something I couldn't state about other border-stretchers like Henry Cow, for instance. Yes, it's not exactly 'The Gates Of Delirium' as far as apocalyptic battles go, but it's weirder, and after all, it is supposed to be weirder - we're talking Kobaia for Chrissake, not some miserable "Apocalypse" rubbish!

Of course, nothing of this really explains why my CD edition messes up the original running order of the tracks - placing 'Ork Alarm' after 'Part Two' when it's definitely supposed to be before it. Ever heard of a story with freely interchanging parts? Well, I haven't.


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