STEVE LAKE warns: you’ve never heard anything like Magma!
CHRISTIAN Vander sits in the shadow of a room in a Kensington Hotel, an almost invisible black figure in the darkness of the chamber.
Black T-shirt: black jeans, black shoes, and black hair framing a dark complexioned face. You can’t tell where black ends or begins, he says. And besides, black is the colour of the state of the world right now
It’s now dusk on Sunday. The first time I saw Christian Vander was Wednesday last. lie was behind a drum-kit at the Marquee Club, flanked by the rest of his band.
But this wasn’t the routine Marquee bop. This was Magma, and I have never, NEVER seen anything like Magma,
Records in no way leave you prepared for the actual, live confrontation with this cataclysmic ensemble.
Try to visualise this: a dimly-lit stage, and dotted around it a number of grimfaced black-clad figures, one of them a beautiful girl, shrouded in a flowing cape. Another is a tall, slim bespectacled black man, who brings a serpentine contrabass clarinet slowly to his lips and begins to play.
A bald-headed bass guitarist, his instrument in ‘cello tuning, pumps out intimidatingly vicious fines. A bearded man, with exceptionally long hair, opens his mouth and begins to sing. So does the girl.
But if you were expecting rock and roll vocals, well, forget it, you came to the wrong place. This, this is opera, isn’t it?
The male singer is threshing and clawing at the air, a rich tenor flows easily from his mouth. Several octaves up the girl sings along with hum.
But the drummer, his countenance an extraordinary study of perpetually shifting leers and sneers, eyeballs turned upwards so all you can see are demented whites, suddenly charges into a furious march tempo, sticks blurring off the snare.
Jeezus, what is going on? ‘This is military madness, or a Covent Garden nightmare.
Alien syllables cut through the smokey air. Clientele looks puzzled. What language is chat? German? Some forgotten Slavonic tongue? Ah no, mes amis, this is Kobaian, and the reason you’ve never heard its like before is simple. Christian Vander made it up.
The music powers on. There’s much use made of repetition, and the strange words are chanted over and over with ever increasing intensity, until the group’s total emotional output becomes almost unbearable.
Vander whips at the cymbals with slashing savagery. Twin keyboards tear around the throbbing bass root-notes of Jannik Top.
Now the chanteurs are screaming. The clarinetist is screaming. Vander is screaming. God help us, the whole place seems to be screaming, a massive primaeval cry of anguish. Crash. Silence. Stunned applause.
“Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh,” says the singer, Klaus Blasquiz. Still there is no trace of a smile.
Magma begin tri play again, like the stirring from slumber of some great beast. It’s as though they are trying to redefine heavy music.
I’ve never heard the horsemen of the Apocalypse, but I imagine that Vander’s drumming is a pretty fair approximation of other-wordly galloping hoofbeats. Sheer energy! What passion! Still the voices chant and shout.
“Hortz fur dehn stekehn west / Hortz zi wehr dunt da hertz…”
Jannik Top begins a bass solo, utilising every inch of the fretboard. Fingers flying everywhere, he steps to the mike, and proceeds to blow a whistle that’s wedged between his teeth. The shrill notes seem to slice through the brain.
Guitarist Claude Olmos, a tiny and emaciated figure, picks up the pulse and creates his own fantasy for a few moments before Vander solos.
Now, I hate rock drum solos, and I say that as a person who bas dabbled with the instrument a little, but Vander’s feature was honestly unbelievable.
It wasn’t just an exercise in speed, although he has that at his disposal too, but rather an object lesson in dynamics, rising from the verge of inaudibility to an earthquaking roar, and as the cacophony heightened, the drummer began to sing, his face continually contorting, head turned upwards to a suspended microphone as legs and arms flailed away.
The decibel level lowered a little, Christian executed one final flourish and quit the stage. End of set.
This time there’s no doubt about audience response. A mighty cheer rises, the crowd returning a little bit of the energy the band had expended.
To enthuse in superlatives is always dangerous, but occasionally a situation genuinely merits it. Magma at the Marquee was such a situation.
Four days after the gig, I still feel vaguely shell-shocked. I can’t quite rationalise away what I saw and heard.
Listening to Magma requires a lot of mental adjustment, a rethink about musical values, but it’s nonetheless a shattering experience.
And the group are so unlike anything else on this earth, that the thrill of discovery when you first see them is just unreal, like stumbling upon the Velvet Underground must have been for questing New Yorkers.
That’s how important Magna are. The New York Dolls and their ilk are great fun, absolutely, but Magma are important.
AND so to Sunday, and the Garden Court Hotel, where my interview created a closer relationship than the usual rock’n'roll tÍte--tÍte.
Vander, you see, being French by upbringing, if not by ancestry, speaks very little English, and my French is just useless, sub – “O” – level school textbook stuff.
So, sitting between us, and acting as interpreter, is none other than Giorgio Gomelsky, daddy of British r and b, one-time manager of the Yardbirds and Julie Driscoll, and now father-figure to Magma.
Perhaps I should at this point explain, for those that don’t already know, that the lyrical matter of Magma’s material is a sci-fi trilogy that tells of mankind’s dealings with the planer Kobaia, a planet itself populated with renegade earthmen who became disenchanted with the dishonesty, uselessness, cruelty, vulgarity and lack of humility paramount on the mother planet, and who have developed their own language, society and technology in deep space.
However, if you think that is a sign to dismiss Magma as pretentious, half-baked, Hawkwind-type stoned drivel, then you’re making a very big mistake.
The whole allegory allows Vander to make some genuinely profound and spiritual statements, and the music is definitely not any cheapo-cheapo space rock.
Magma’s is music of the spheres, as succinctly understood as is that of Sun Ra, or Gyrgy Ligetti, or Gustav Holst, even, if you prefer a more accessible example.
Vander has devised his own category for the music, of which, incidentally, he is the prime composer. He calls it “Zeuhl Music” (“zeuhl” rhymes approximately with “earl”), and this Kobaian word is as much a comment on the intent of the music as it is the sound.
Zeuhl music is that which attains to higher ideals than the strictly material values of most pop or rock. Christian is fairly contemptuous of people who would deny the spiritual, or restrict their vision to earthly triviality.
“Most people now have too much self-esteem,” he says through Gomelsky, “believing that humans are the highest possible thing. It is very evident that you should have aims higher than you are; live to contribute something rather than just survive.
“Until you reach the highest state you can get to, you are always nothing compared to the universe.”
If that sounds fair enough, but you still feel overwhelmed at the prospect of listening to a verbal assault in a foreign tongue, then consider this.
The Continent has now, for the best part of 20 years, been dancing to English and American pop music of which the bulk of its populace understands nary a word.
Thus, for French fans, it was no big deal that Magma sang in another language.
And if you stop to think about it, maybe it isn’t such a big deal anyway. Christian says that Kobaian is a language to be felt rather than precisely understood, to be sung rather than spoken. But in case anyone is really perturbed, he’s working on a Kobaia-to-earth language dictionary.
The origin of the language makes an interesting little anecdote.
Prior to Magma, Christian was playing in a fairly sordid casino, laying down Coltrane-inspired jazz, but the audience was not aware, or did not want to be aware of what the group was doing. SoÖ
“I tried to explain to the audience that lots of musicians with really fabulous things to say practically committed suicide through their sadness at not being understood, like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker.
” But they did not listen. And I am ashamed to say chat I came to hate them so much in that moment, that the words that came pouring out of me were so strong that it was better that they could not understand them.
“It was better that they were not in French. In that moment I wished them all dead, and that is unusual, because I have a great respect for life – rightly or wrongly.” .
John Coltrane was the great spiritual love of Vander’s life because he was playing for his time, rather than makimg any pretentious claims to be making “music for the future.” Any music that purports to be avant-garde, says Vander, is out of touch with reality.
Magma’s intention is not to play for any elite, but rather to educate the mass audience to the appropriate level, or rather as Christian puts it, to simply make the audience more aware.
Vander is passionately convinced of the importance of Magma.
“Before Magma, Coltrane was more important than anyone to me. Now I love Magma most, and Coltrane just immediately after.
“I will explain why. When you put all your emotions and all your feelings into something, it’s logical that you’re going to love that thing more than any other.
“Previously Coltrane was always closest to my heart, but it wasn’t my heart, in fact, it was Coltrane’s. But playing his music helped me to find my own.”
By the time you read this, Magma will be winging their way back to their Paris residence. But fear not, they’ll be back.
The third album from the group, “Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh,” the first to be released in Britain, will be available on A & M in January. And live performances here will recommence in February, when the band will be supported by Nico, an ardent fan of Magma.
Nico, says Gomelsky, plays zeuhl music, too. I wouldn’t doubt that for a moment.
So, that’s one tour you miss out on at your peril. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Melody Maker – December 15, 1973