A User's Guide to Magma
The scene: A West Coast liberal arts college dorm room, Fall 1974.
Two young students, male and female, sit chatting. The male puts a record on the turntable. A minute later, the coed, a math major named Wendy, utters a memorable phrase:
“This is the worst album I've ever heard.”
That of course was a subjective opinion. But even the male student had to admit that Magma's 1973 release Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandoh was perhaps the oddest album ever released by a major American label at that time. This was a year before Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, and that at least had Reed's name to help sell it. Magma, in contrast, was an obscure, France-based ensemble making stentorian music that was occasionally reminiscent of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," if played by Frank Zappa's Grand Wazoo big band. Oh, and the album told the third part of a trilogy about a war between Earth and the forces of planet Kobaia. Of course that story is told (sung/chanted) in the umlaut-laden Kobaian language, as devised by powerhouse drummer/mastermind Christian Vander (who himself took on the name Zebëhn Straïn dë Geustaah in the course of the epic). If that ain't hit material, what is?
In any case, decades later Magma looms large in the legacy of progressive rock and arty Euro-jazz, with the MDK album at the top of the list of a handful of (in some circles) essential works. And the years have been surprisingly kind to the music, if not quite to the extent as to the King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra material of the same period. At times, it's bracing stuff — dynamic and dramatic, imaginatively conceived and arranged, effectively crossing genre lines. Today the story and language elements are almost incidental, merely parts of an aesthetic that proved surprisingly strong over a series of releases, now supplemented by live recordings both archival and recent, mostly released on Vander's Seventh Records. In the latter category is the highly recommended trio of Theusz Hamtaahk (Concert du Trianon) discs from the band's 2000 reunion performances in which it finally played the entire Kobaia trilogy live — part one, Theusz Hamtaahk, had gone unrecorded (or at least unreleased), while part two, Wurdah Itah, seemed to pretty much disappear right after release.
But it's the original ’70s albums that are the core of the legacy. The preceding albums Magma, which introduced Kobai and its language, and 1001 Degrés Centigrades (originally Europe-only releases) don't hold up as well, a bit more scattered in their neo-jazz-rock approach. Following MDK, though, Vander hit his stride. With a shifting line-up of game supporters (nearly always including Vander's wife Stella, who was one of the top Parisian-pop “yeh-yeh” girls of the ’60s) decked out in priestly robes and heavy medallions of the band's stylized “M” /spider-thingy logo, the leader stuck to his vision.
Vander continued to write almost entirely in Kobaian, and the music veered back toward his jazz roots, but with more confidence. 1974's Köhntarkösz pared down the ensemble a bit, largely losing the horns. The epitome of this period is the live version of the title piece as heard on the unearthed (and unearthly) “Concert 1975” set recorded at the Toulouse Theatre in Paris, the lengthy piece essentially a showcase for the soaring violin of then-new member Didier Lockwood, interlocking with the wordless vocals of the ensemble, taking the French fiddle-jazz tradition running from Stephane Grappelli through Jean-Luc Ponty into deep space. After the scattered but interesting Üdü Wüdü (1976) and the relatively funky Attahk (1978), Vander disbanded Magma, taking on various other settings for music related to but hardly identical to Magma, before convening a new crew to fly the mothership for the trilogy concerts and the long-delayed 2004 studio recording of K.A. (Köhntarkösz Anteria), another Kobaian chapter written 30 years earlier but never recorded.
So where is Wendy today? Probably a brilliant mathematician on her way to a Nobel or something. But whatever she's achieved, one would like to think that somehow Magma inserted itself in her subconscious, that every now and then she finds a tune coming to her head that she can't quite place, but has an oddly familiar ring, quite enjoyable even — a little Kobaian chorus that just makes her feel good all over.