Live at Venue Nightclub in Vancouver BC, Canada on April 2, 2015
Written by Conor Fynes
Photographed by Shane Lange / Factory Worker Media
As both a reader and writer alike, I’ve typically found specified show reports to be limited in their appeal. Outside of those who had the fortune (or displeasure) of sharing that certain time and place, or when and where a show occurred – a concert that potentially happened half a planet away has little bearing on most musical digests. As a result– and particularly with a band as legendary and striking as Magma— I’d prefer to get simultaneously broader and more specific in my discussion. Personal opinions are saturated on the web to the point of tempting a Malthusian thought-apocalypse, so I hope an article that also touches upon the way those opinions change over time may prove a rarer breed of write-up. For my personal experience of Magma, it has been in utter flux since the first baffling time I heard them, and I think that journey finally culminated upon witnessing them perform live this past month.
Although progressive rock tends to boast the fact that it supposedly offers a more substantive dish than the average sort of music, can it really be said that so many prog bands are really challenging? There are plenty of would-be Mozarts and Handels, but very few genuine weirdoes. While Magma frontman Christian Vander may have originally styled himself as an acolyte of the posthumous jazz visionary John Coltrane, it wasn’t long into Magma’s career that they were onto something intensely special and unique. Vander has since labelled their style as Zeuhl, and while it’s undoubtedly a more alienating way of describing the music than calling it avant-prog, martial jazz fusion, alien rock opera or a thousand other rhetorical categories – the invented term does help to impress upon a novice listener that their sound is quite unlike any other, as well as the countless bands they have influenced amidst three dozen-odd established acts that have embraced the Zeuhl genre notwithstanding.
Although I’ve since learned to love the playfulness of their debut, Kobaia, the martial craft of the classic Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, and the vivid life of my best-loved Kohntarkosz Anteria (not to mention the other great records they’ve done), I did not always feel so warmly towards the band. I was introduced to the work of Magma six years ago in high school, during that time I was prone to pillaging a certain prog rock forum for recommendations, and time and again, I kept running into the name of this band. When I finally got around to listening to their music (I believe it was something off of the then-new Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré) I remember feeling quite baffled. After a few more listens, the bafflement turned into frustration– the musicianship was obvious in its excellence, but the style itself felt ridiculous, perchance unlistenable. Endlessly repetitive vocal motifs underneath screeching, caterwauling, wailing– whatever you want to call it – my uninitiated ears were unready for it. I ended up handing over some Magma to my girlfriend at the time, and I remember she laughed, brushing it off as “space-themed porn music.” In my ignorance I agreed with her– though in my current musical mindset, space-themed porn music now sounds like a ton of fun.
To my credit, I don’t think I ever wrote off the band completely; I was just sure that, like a disappointing amount of krautrock, it just wasn’t for me. In the years after, my musical tastes expanded outward, with both ears often on the lookout for the next oddity or extremity. Coincidentally, I was reminded of Magma’s existence when they announced late last year they would be playing in Vancouver. When I sat down to give them another chance, it didn’t feel like revisiting music so much as it did having an entirely new experience altogether. It was as if I was seeing a red fire truck for the first time after being cured of a congenital disorder that limited my vision to shades of grey and blue. Perhaps it was due in part to the fact that I have a more realized knowledge of music now than previously. On the second time around, Magma astounded me with their fusion of freeform jazz execution and the elegant constraint of classical composition, as well as its combination fueled with the added energy of rock music. I should add that, in the months since re-visitation, their 2006 comeback K.A has become one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s as if they spent the decades in between then and the 1970s storing up their energy until they could finally outdo the classics they built their name upon.
Of course, listening to an album resulting from potentially thousands of hours of meticulous work and collaboration is quite a bit different from seeing the same thing live. The live experience has always been particularly important in progressive rock, not just for the theatrical elements some bands have been prone to use (see: early Genesis) but the skill required in bringing some of these creations to life. The more complex and daunting the music gets, the more satisfying it can be to hear unfolding in real time– this is why Gentle Giant‘s ‘Playing the Fool’ live LP was such a monument, and it’s also as to why Magma have built up such a reputation not just as innovators, but as performers as well. Although some of their arrangements seem like they would be impossible to nail live, there are enough videos available online to provide proof that they can do it. And even then, that vicarious experience was little preparation to see them in the flesh.
Magma shared the bill with no one; the crowded house was only there to see them. The show began on a surprisingly intimate note; Laurent Goldstein (a colleague of the band) came on stage and verbally recalled the effect seeing Magma live for the first time had on him. In virtually any other case, I would have found a host’s introduction pretentious and unnecessary, but it only served to amplify feelings of excitement throughout the audience. By the time Magma took to the stage, it was easy to see why they had the night to themselves. Within ten minutes, it was clear no others could have come before or after; Magma moved and interacted like a jazz band, and in spite of the fact that their composition rarely diverged from their recordings; there was nonetheless an incredible sense of spontaneity that surged through each moment of their performance. Much like their jazz and compositional disciplines seemingly combating one another in a miraculously, mutually complimentary way, Magma were simultaneously serious and playful in the way they performed. For all of his tact as a drummer, I’m certain a wholly entertaining night could have been had simply by watching the contorting facial expressions on Christian Vander’s face as he played his kit. Some of their recorded footage online provides a clear example of this:
At first, it’s almost comical, but as the show went on, it felt like the visual by-product of a musician so completely immersed in his art that he couldn’t help but make some kind of entertaining face.
Magma may have never had a single lasting lineup, but the musicians performing that night gave me the impression that this may be the most tightly knit line-up the band have ever been. Each musician was world-class in their own right, and it would be difficult to pick out favourites. The interplay between the vibraphonist (Benoît Alziary) and Rhodes pianist (Jeremy Ternoy) was incredible to behold, as was the guitar work of James MacGaw, who capitalized on his instrumental bits with a frantic energy. Perhaps most impressive of all, were the two female choruses of Stella Vander and Isabelle Feuillebois, who took down the house with harmonies as resonant and perfect as any I’ve heard in concert. Lead vocalist, Hervé Aknin was a strong fit for the band as frontman, with a punishing command of the Teutonic bellow that is the Zeuhl language. Then again, I would have liked to hear Vander sing himself; as there was only a single passage during the show where he took the microphone himself for a loose Zeuhl interpretation of scat singing. It was easily one of my favourite moments of the evening, and although I can’t complain about a single thing about that night, Vander is one of the most gifted vocalists I’ve ever heard and it only would have served to hear more from him that night.
Their two hour set felt over much sooner than it rightly should have– confirming that the key to temporal relativity is enjoyment. Though I suppose as much may be expected from a progressive rock show, the number of songs they played could have been performed on one hand. “Riah Sahiltaahk” (from 1001 Centigrades) and the challenging epic “Kohntarkosz” offered enough perfected moments between the two of them to have made the entire night worthwhile. Best of all, however, was their rendition of Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh in its near-entirety – although the denouement “Kreuhm Kohrmahn Iss Deh Hundin” was left out of the set (and cleverly so), Magma brought their top-ranked classic to life in a way that simultaneously replicated and surpassed its recorded origins. I’m quite sure I would have lost bowel control if they had played any part of K.A., but with such a wealth of excellent material to have chosen from, I don’t think any combination of songs could have disappointed me. Even something from their much-loathed pop LP, Merci would have sufficed equally as well. When I am able to look back on a show with such fondness and reverence, it’s indeed strange to think that my opinion was ever different to begin with.
It was announced before Magma took the stage that their evening was somewhat of a historical occasion; in well over four decades of existence, it was their first time ever playing a show in Canada. Regardless, it had been their first or thousandth time performing in this hemisphere of the world, it was the first time I and many others had ever witnessed them in a live setting, and that’s more than enough to have made it one of the most immortal concerts I have ever experienced. No matter what your preconceptions regarding this band is; I can’t recommend nor encourage enough how much one should catch them live. If they are ever rolling through your neck of the woods, be sure to make a strong note of checking them out. If you become heartily affected by such a performance as I was, you will only be reeling for days thereafter.
All photos granted permission for use and not to be displayed in any other context outside of Heathen Harvest Periodical and Factory Worker Media, respectfully.