There’s no easy way to introduce anyone to the perplexing, complicated and just plain bizarre music of Magma. A French progressive rock band that rose to prominence in the 1970s, Magma can come across, on-paper, like the most absurd band on earth. Helmed by classically trained drummer Christian Vander, Magma plays a style of music known as “zeuhl,” a term the band invented, which is Kobaian (a language that the band also invented) for “celestial.” Lost yet?
More simply put, Magma plays sci-fi jazz prog, but it’s actually much more interesting than all of that sounds. When they started, their music was unlike anything else out there, and even today it has few imitators. It’s such a massive and rhythmically intricate sound that it would take a team of virtuosos to be able to pull off an imitation. But within that dizzying, disorienting mixture of polyrhythmic structures, shifting time signatures, made-up languages and stylistic variations exists some truly mesmerizing, even transcendent music.
With Magma currently touring again in the U.S., the time felt right to revisit some of their greatest works, and to offer up a five-song introduction to their broad musical palette and vast array of sounds. Again, this isn’t an easy task, but these tracks offer a five-song roadmap into their musical world, if not a complete understanding of their beautifully bizarre ways.
“Thaud Zaia” from Magma (aka Kobaïa) (1970)
It’s easy to get a sense of just how strange, ambitious and indecipherable Magma is based on their debut album (informally called Kobaïa), an 82-minute double concept album about a group of people fleeing earth to re-settle on the planet Kobaïa. (Yes, that is pretty dorky, but The Force Awakens netted $2 billion, so don’t mount that high horse just yet.) What separates Magma’s take on the popular ’70s trope of space-travel-themed prog-rock is the musical component. “Thaud Zaia,” one of the album’s highlights, is more like an avant garde jazz track than a rock song, balancing discordant keyboards against horns and flutes, and some gorgeously nuanced piano. To hear it without context, it might sound more like a film score than anything else, which in a way is pretty accurate—there’s just no film to go with it.
“Mekanik Kommandoh” from Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (1973)
Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh is a concept album about seeking justice for the death of a Kobaian ambassador (or something, who knows, it’s all in a language nobody can understand so don’t worry about it). This is a hard album to choose a standout track from, if only because it flows as one continuous piece of music on each side. Yet as the band’s most highly acclaimed and musically adventurous album, I didn’t want to leave it out. It features a full choir and pulsing, minimalist-inspired textures and recurring melodic motifs, the end result being something like Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach combined with Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But weirder. “Mekanik Kommandoh” seems like a natural pick, if only because it takes those melodic motifs and works them into a funky, groove-heavy art-rock jam.
“Mekanik Machine” single (1974)
Magma is a pretty atypical rock band—if you can even call them a rock band, which is a separate debate. They do have moments, however, that definitely rock. “Mekanik Machine,” a non-album single that was later released on their 1998 Simples compilation, finds the band putting aside the more complex rhythmic and tonal structures in favor of a harder groove and some abrasive guitar sounds. It’s a bit like electric Miles Davis jamming a five-minute rock opera with Can. It’s a strange irony that this song is actually one of the least commercially convenient finds in their catalog, since it’s actually one of the best tracks to introduce Magma to zeuhl newbs.
“Coltrane Sündia” from Köhntarkösz (1974)
In the context of the whole of the Köhntarkösz album, “Coltrane Sündia” seems like a minor piece. That’ll happen when 75 percent of the album is a two-part, 30-minute track. Yet, it’s a crucially important piece of music to Magma on the whole, because of its homage to the jazz giant referenced in its title: John Coltrane. Magma leader Christian Vander spoke about the importance of his music on his own work in a 1995 interview, noting, “it is still Coltrane who actually gives me the real material to work on, to be able to move on.” This song showcases that influence transparently in a concise package, beautifully incorporating the atmospheric motifs of Coltrane’s spiritual jazz of the mid- to late-’60s.
“De Futura” from Üdu Wüdü (1976)
This is it: The big one. The 17-minute monster that grew more heads onstage and extended beyond the 20-minute mark during live performances. You can’t really say that Magma has any “hits” to speak of, but the reputation of this track positions it as one, in a way. Several versions of it show up on the first page of a “Magma” search on YouTube, in particular a live performance that shows just how badass the band was in their element— and how many great shapes Vander contorted his face into while playing it. “De Futura” is a summary of everything that Magma is and could be: Massively ambitious rock, creepy and ethereal avant garde composition and jazz improvisation, all rolled into one overwhelming package.
Magma plays March 15 at Brick By Brick