Music: Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (Magma)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-02-06 18:00:00 No comments

If Magma had not existed, someone might well have invented them. Here was a band that sang in its own invented language (a pan-European polyglot they called "Kobaian"), that produced albums and songs about a future history of mankind in outer space, and whose sound was, in a marvelous quote from the Rolling Stone Record Guide (2nd. ed.), "combustible strains of Bartók, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Coltrane", a "dense avant-Wagnerian wall of oppressive percussion, dark jazz variations for guitar, violin, and keyboards, and hellish ... singing". Remember that episode of Star Trek when Worf started jamming to Klingon opera? They missed a bet by not simply dropping in Magma there.

But underneath and aside from the headscratching novelty value, the critical brickbats, and the tongue-in-cheek pop-culture cross-references, this is progressive rock at both its most challenging and satisfying. There are many times when Magma noodled about or got lost in the heady netherworlds of their concept-prog experience ("zeuhl", as the subgenre they spawned is now called), but there are just as many times when they made music I would be happy to list next to any of their aforementioned influences. Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh is easily the best thing they've done so far, epic and accessible in about equal measure, and even memorably melodic where so much of this sort of music (Magma's music included) isn't.

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Some words about Magma's high-concept science-fiction future history are in order. The first Magma release, Kobaïa (1970), was a scene-setting double album. Its oratorio told of a small group of humans determined to escape Earth's degeneracy and perfidy, and who set out for a planet named Kobaïa to make their homestead. They extend a hand to another group of Earth refugees whose craft has been damaged, and who beg the Kobaïans for help in saving Earth from its own doom. The Kobaïan delegation to Earth is imprisoned, and when the Kobaïans reveal they have weaponry that can put Earth out of its misery, the last links between "old" and "new" mankind are severed.

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That was only the first of what was intended to be nine (some sources say ten) albums' worth of material from the future mythology of Kobaïa. The first album attracted the first incarnation of the band's cult following, but the second album, 1001° Centigrades, eschewed the mythology and the song-centric approach of the first record in favor of a less compelling set of extended workouts. (I know some diehard Magma fans who have played the second album a total of once and either shelved or sold it.)

MDK, though, brought back the mythology in full force and fused both the side-long jam approach with the song-cycle setup of the first record. It is essentially one long composition broken over two sides of an LP, although the indexing of the CD and MP3 editions break it into several sections which can be approached on their own terms as songs. The free-swinging jazz-rock sound of the first records -- piano, drums, guitar, bass, reeds and brass -- is made far more metronomic and disciplined, and joined with Carl Orff-like choral chanting in Magma's invented language. Hence my "Klingon opera" jabs, which did come to mind the first time I heard Magma. But then I read Henry Rollins talking about Einstürzende Neubauten, whom he loved despite not being able to understand a word of German: to him, the intensity of the voice ("like a dog barking") communicated everything that there was to communicate in such music. Likewise, the fact that the voices soar ever upwards is clue enough as to what they are singing about: a soaring-upwards. Drummer and bandleader (and inventor of the Kobaïan mythos) Christian Vander himself admitted there was no real conscious attempt to create a functional language with Kobaïan -- that the words were, in a sense, their own instrument: "It was really sounds that were coming at the same time as the music." And, from what I hear, from within it as well.

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The biggest reason by far why MDK worked as well as it did was not the lyrics or even the voices, but the songwriting as a whole. Vander described MDK as his version of Coltrane's take on "My Favorite Things", a spiraling composition where each section gives rise to another and builds on it to create an unending sense of escalating tension. Just when a particular section of the music seems to have reached its limit (whether because its composition doesn't seem to have anywhere to go or because it borders on becoming ridiculous or campy), it gives way and something new takes its place. The final moments of the album are chilling in a way that seems entirely apart from it being the emotional and musical culmination of all that has been going on. There's the a climactic choral movement that the whole piece has been building towards, but then at its last moment it shifts into a nearly-atonal march, and is then finally eclipsed by a single, slowly-rising, ultimately piercing squall of feedback -- something I imagine happened serendipitously in the studio and thus advertised itself as a fitting conclusion to the record.

Much has been made of how serious the band was / is about their mythology. At least one music guidebook I read gleefully wrote off the whole thing as a "scam", implying the band intended people to take their messages literally, and dredging up one variety of bizarre (and unverifiable) trivia or another about the behavior of the bandmembers. This seems about as relevant as bringing up Coltrane's heroin use; what matters is what we hear. And there's rarely a moment on record when the band doesn't seem serious about taking the conceits they have in mind and making them palpable through the music they made. I wonder now if George Russell had ever heard this music; its construction bears a remarkable resemblance to his "vertical forms". Magma is as bombastic and aggressive as Russell is not, but Russell's Electronic Sonata was created out of the same sense of urgency about man's spiritual development and future prosperity as Magma's SF mythology. That doesn't require you swallow the SF setting wholesale to make the most of it; it's there to add a dimension of its own if you choose to investigate it. Eric Van of the Harvard Independent put it this way: "Kobaia is certainly not a gimmick; rather, it creates a context in which to interpret the music." The music more than speaks for itself.

Magma disbanded in the late Seventies, although Christian Vander continued with his own solo projects, and eventually reassembled a new version of Magma that more or less picked up where the previous incarnation had left off. I have yet to investigate the last few albums that have been produced by this new version of the band, but if they can recapture even a fraction of the power and momentum of this record, I'll be impressed.

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This page contains a single post by Serdar Yegulalp, in the category Music, published on 2013-02-06 18:00:00.

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