John Payne on MAGMA and THE MARS VOLTA (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 16 (April 2005)

(Hipped to this particular clip via Blastitude)

John Payne on new albums by Magma and The Mars Volta

Kohntarkosz Anteria

Frances the Mute

We all know the cliché about France, that it is incapable of producing Great Rock Music, a condition said to owe to the French language itself, which is said to be too soft and nuanced to make the properly heavy rock impact. So it’s ironic that in 1969 France gave birth to one of the heaviest bands the rock world has ever known, and simultaneously not a rock band at all.

Magma was formed in Paris by drummer Christian Vander, the stepson of French jazz pianist Maurice Vander. Christian had been playing jazz and pop professionally since his early teens—he received his first drum set from jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who stole it from his drummer. Vander gathered players from all over the country who were dissatisfied with the typical French habit of slavishly copying American or British rock and jazz musicians. At the time, he says, “Everyone had flowers on their clothes, but I preferred to see flowers in the meadows.” Magma dressed in black.

A raven-haired, powerfully built man of swarthy hue and wolfish glare, Vander was and is of a darkly cosmological bent, and had an early fascination with Gurdjieff. Musically, John Coltrane was his god, and Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones made a big impact on Vander’s multilimbed, badass drum style. Not wishing to play jazz, exactly—he still considers it a specifically black American art form—for Magma Vander drew on the folkloric music of his Polish Gypsy forebears. The band’s signature sound evolved via chanting, guttural vocals and much use of repetitive motifs pumped out on multiple acoustic and electric pianos and horns, atop militaristically hefty bass and drums.

But Vander felt that the French tongue was too perfumey for this kind of hard music, and he disliked the sound of English as well. So he made up his own language, a vaguely Germanic, craggily mellifluous thing called Kobaïan, which came to him, he said, in his sleep. Meanwhile, Vander’s vision was grand, and apocalyptic: He developed a high-concept project for Magma, a nine-part opus that would tell the story of the Kobaïans, a race of humans who’d fled the degradation of life on Earth and settled on another planet, only to find they’d dragged Earth’s miseries along with them. The solution, of course, was annihilation. The opus was never completed; after the release of Part 4, Mëkanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (1973), the plan seems to have been abandoned, though the group continued to sing in Kobaïan and a mixture of English, French and vocalese.

Vander’s arcane world-view—requiring concept albums, quasi-operatic vocals and a distinctly non-rock & roll harmonic/melodic language—was sneered at by American rock critics, naturally, ‘cause it sounded nothing like a bar band from New Jersey and totally neglected lyrical themes of sports, cars and pussy. Yet Vander’s trip was not that far removed from the eccentricities of critics’ fave Sun Ra, or, for that matter, John Coltrane. At its best, Magma’s music, in particular MDK and its 1974 follow-up, the eternally cryptic Köhntarkösz, defined a sound roughly intersecting progressive jazz, Bartók and heavy metal, related texturally to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Red-era King Crimson. Köhntarkösz concerns an exploration of an Egyptian tomb, its serpentine, mozaical structure redolent of incense, mold and fire.

Magma’s sound grew wicked, culminating in the 18-minute metal masterpiece “De Futura” from the album Üdü Wüdü, written by the band’s then-bassist Jannick Top, who was in the habit of tuning his bass down to C for an extra-resonant brutality. Vander’s music could not, however, sustain all that dark hubris, and over the years Magma became lighter, more vocal-oriented and lyrical, even. Band members for this technically demanding enterprise came and went; many of France’s best players, including violinist Didier Lockwood and bassist Bernard Paganotti, joined the ranks.
Vander himself has frequently been called, well, “the world’s greatest drummer” (it’s a prog-geek kind of thing to say, but there’s some validity to it in this case). A powerfully original and audacious maelstrom of controlled polyrhythmic fury, he’s a feral cross between Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Rashied Ali and, of course, Elvin Jones. In recent years he’s formed two other bands, Offering and the Christian Vander Trio, to further explore his jazz roots, and has engaged Magma in varied instrumental frameworks, including performances with large choirs and a version of MDK sung by a children’s chorus. And Magma has inspired an actual genre in France and Japan, called Zeuhl Music, with several bands (Japan’s rough-hewn Ruins, France’s very scary Shub Niggurath, among many others) adapting the Magma model of folkloric chants, twinkling ostinatos and raging rhythm sections to their own forbidding ends.

Circa ’05, Magma is still at it. Vander revived the band in the early ‘90s – primarily, says his wife/manager/bandmate Stella Vander, because a new generation of Magma fanatics begged Christian to reform the unit and let them have a turn devoting themselves to the rigors required by this strange obsessive music. A couple of months ago Magma released their first album of new material in many years, K.A.—not entirely new, however, as it’s a reworking and augmenting of a one-hour epic from 1972 they had never recorded or performed live. Musically it’s the missing link between the Gypsy-metal-jazz chant & throb of MDK and the Emëntëht Rê (descending into the tombs) sound as heard on the more angular and spare Köhntarkösz. (Apparently Magma abandoned K.A. after Mike Oldfield stole several themes, including the famous Tubular Bells main motif, while living at Manor Studios when Magma came to record MDK. Or so Vander claims. Funny to ponder the possibility that it was Magma who in fact provided the seed money to launch the Virgin Records worldwide mega-behemoth…)

Longtime Magma fans and curious newcomers will find a lot to rave about on K.A. The studio band is the same lineup that toured the States in 1999, a young, lean and incredibly mean crew that doesn’t pussyfoot too reverently around the material and which boasts, significantly, a simply fantastic bass player named Philippe Bussonnet who is the equal in fierce inventiveness and true threatening heaviness of his forebears Jannick Top and Bernard Paganotti. It’s not heavy like “De Futura” was metal-band heavy, yet in the spectacularly disciplined interplay between the complexly polyrhythmic and odd-timed bass, Fender Rhodes, mesmerizing chants/vocals and, of course, just totally wicked drums, drums, drums, it’s got real magic—a kind of black magic—deep inside.

Check out for catalog ordering information.

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Punk rock started in 1976. It’s almost 30 years later, and you know something? Some of us don’t want to pay our hard-earned bread to see a buncha yobbos in T-shirts drinking beer onstage and grinning like regular joes as they play the same three chords, in roughly the same progressions, as any beginning guitar player. Sometimes, we want a bit more. A bit more proficiency, a bit of ambition, some exploration. Maybe even some grandeur. POMP. Spectacle.

Perhaps it’s the Mars Volta (and their sillier corollary, The Darkness) who’ll bring that awestruck feeling back to the masses. Perhaps not—perhaps it really is too late to erect the wall again. But let’s just suppose…which is just what guitarist/composer Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez does on his band’s Frances the Mute, the new Mars Volta disc. It’s a concept album, about what exactly I couldn’t tell you, and I think the band likes it that way. Some of it supposedly concerns itself with AIDS—perfect metaphorical stuff for these guys, allowing for an extremely inconclusively worded multipart song cycle in five sections, spread out over what must be the full 74 minutes a CD can hold. They give their pieces names like “Cygnus . . . Vismund Cygnus” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore,” with sections entitled “Vade Mecum,” “Pour Another Icepick” and, need you ask, “Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma).” Lyrically, unlike musically, it’s what’s between the lines that attempts to speak volumes.

Musically, though, it’s everything under the prog sun, times 50. It’s Yes. It’s Rush. Mahogany Rush, too. It’s Metallica. It’s Crimson. It’s Neu. Perhaps more than anything, it’s Pink Floyd circa Umma Gumma and Atom Heart Mother. It’s pretentious as hell, and clearly, that’s the precise, full-on point. On the surface you hear a lot of seriously impassioned, gonad-grabbing ’70s-rock wails, and very well sung, too, by Cedric Bixler Zavala. Interestingly, Zavala’s insistent caterwauling about a jillion tiny obscurities and moods and atmospheres and smells and prickly feelings and cobwebs and the moon and disease and so on doesn’t wear on you. That says something. Maybe it’s ‘cause he gives the impression that he’s telling a story, and ‘cause Rodriguez-Lopez’s music is so varied and surprising: metallic staccato juggernauts of drums/guitars/bass, liberally laced with ’70s Brit-jazz (Soft Machine) horns, violas, ‘trons and, significantly, huge portions of Mexican and Cuban musical shades and styles.

It’s when they let these Latin sections or dolorous prog-jazz weirdness sections go on for such a loooong time that you sense a kind of integrity and seriousness of purpose about the Mars Volta. What’s really interesting is that neither these extended non-typically-rocking passages or the inevitable returns to heavy-band machine gun carnage seem to blur interest. (That is, if you’re someone who actually likes to sit and listen to albums all the way through, like a lot of the original progressive rock records of the early ‘70s allowed for and encouraged.) To say that this music is “overplayed”—a common complaint about MV from critics who sealed their punk rock- and/or minimalism-inspired minds back in the ‘80s—is way beside the point; this is maximalism, and it’s supposed to dominate your body and mind, splatter your face, then melt back down in a big puddle, into which you can gaze and see a reflection of yourself . . . I’d argue that its proper reception will depend on how you much sleep you got, how much of the good stuff you imbibed/smoked, and – more importantly – how young you are. Because, technically speaking, it’s working with your levels of testosterone or ovum.

These rather amazing quagmires of sound were most fortunate to be crafted by an obsessive weirdo like Omar A. Rodriguez-Lopez, someone who, like Christian Vander, is just consumed with his vision, and the moral of the story is that, actually, in rock, any kind of obsession is where it’s at, no matter the “pretension” of the outcome. Surely we’ve all realized by now that one never really says anything in “rock” music by holding back one’s real impulses; not holding back—and risking ridicule—that means being honest, just as “honest” as Bruce Springsteen.

Well, no need to defend it, I don’t think. But here’s another moral to the story: Without a doubt, a younger generation of musicians in recent years have radically upped the ante, as players, songwriters and real musical imaginers. The Mars Volta are 100 times the band that Metallica ever was, not just technically but in terms of artistic ambition. There is something undeniably thrilling about any group of young musicians who are so focused on what they’re doing, so fucking into it, and you’re hearing it and grasping that what they’ve accomplished has taken an enormous amount of work—discipline—and they’re carrying it out with precision and guts. That the Mars Volta play the fuck out of these well-constructed and amazingly shaded pieces is just plain inspiring.

You hear a lot of “serious” musicians going on about the importance of paying attention to the space between the notes. Fact is, some music depends a lot on cramming in every note you’ve ever heard, in a desperate, obsessive, mad rush. The Mars Volta, like other young musicians, shouldn’t worry too much about the space between notes. At this point, like Magma, they do what they do because, sounds like, it’s what they were put here on Earth to do. Which gives us the opportunity to say, “Whew. The fuck was that?”