Magma: live in concert (pt. 1)


Dear Matt:

How appropriate that immediately after my confused, vaguely angry response to Die Antwoord, you’re coming with me to see Magma in concert.

Let me explain Magma. Magma is a jazz-fusiony prog band from France, led by virtuoso drummer Christian Vander. They’ve made 11 albums, each of which further expounds the sprawling utopian sci-fi mythos that they’ve developed over the course of their half-century of existence. Magma doesn’t just do concept albums. They’re a concept band.

The actual story that the albums tell is pretty tough to discern, because the bulk of the music is sung in Vander’s constructed language of Kobaïan, which is sort of a blend of French, German and speaking in tongues. Vander even came up with a Kobaïan name for the genre of music Magma plays. It’s called “Zeuhl” (pronounced “tsoil”), and it is characterized by slow-burning repetitive patterns, chanting from the small choir of backup singers that always accompanies the band, and virtuosic free improvisations on the bass, drums and guitar.

Lyric translations are not available because many Kobaïan words don’t have literal meanings. However, we do know that the basic premise of Magma’s mythology is that after an ecological crisis on Earth, a segment of humankind takes to space and colonizes the far-off planet of Kobaïa. Then there is adventure and and there are wars and there is quite a lot of chant-based spirituality.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out whether Vander actually believes that this story will come to pass. Most of his interviews are in French, so I’ve had trouble getting a handle on him. But, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he thinks himself a prophet.

Look, I obviously disagree with some of what you said about prog back in your Van Der Graaf Generator response. I don’t think that prog is silly by definition. But Magma is fucking ridiculous. Magma is everything that you thought Van Der Graaf Generator was, times an infinity. An entire infinity. They are maybe the silliest band ever, even more so because they are completely sincere, and most of their audience appears to enjoy them without the barest hint of irony, as well.

I find this a completely untenable way of approaching Magma. They’re the sort of band that leaves me reaching for Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to explain why I enjoy them. But I do enjoy them, very sincerely. It’s just that a significant part of my enjoyment comes from my sincere appreciation for ridiculousness. I’m completely okay with the sort of music where the artist’s reach exceeds their grasp, many times over. I even find it preferable to most of the alternatives.

I’m a bit jealous of you for getting to experience Magma for the first time, live. Their shows are famously impressive and intense, to the point where their live albums almost make their studio output feel superfluous. The lineup has changed constantly since the 70s, but every cohort has been pretty much equally stellar. They’ve made some of their most acclaimed music in the last decade.

I have my doubts about whether this will be for you. But, you’ll at least be able to say that you’ve seen one of the strangest acts in popular music. This is like seeing Beefheart, or Henry Cow, or John Cage blending vegetables in front of an audience.

So, I’ll see you Thursday, for the greatest evening of virtuoso sci-fi jazz you’re ever likely to experience. I’ll expect your response sometime Friday.

I am ludicrously excited.

— Matthew


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