Magma - Retrospektiw

by Bill Golembeski Rating:8 Release Date:2017-11-24
Magma - Retrospektiw
Magma - Retrospektiw

I really don’t think anyone will confuse this three-vinyl album re-release of Magma’s Retrospektiw (Vol. 1, 2, & 3) as a last-ditch attempt to create Magmamania and take the world by storm.

The world is just not ready for Christian Vander bobblehead dolls. No, this one is for the hardcore fans.

But just in case anyone’s interested, the music of Magma is a fairly extreme concoction of rock, jazz, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I suppose in prog layman’s terms, it all comes down to Van der Graaf Generator, Focus’ tune “Hocus Pocus,” Crimson’s “Fracture,” a little Hatfield and the North, a lot of National Health, Zamla Mammas Manna, Area, and an accelerator pedal. And, of course, the vocals are chanted in Kobaian, a language created by Christian Vander for his music.

Now, this is available in compact disc form. But vinyl albums are all the rage these days.

Many years ago at a Jethro Tull concert, this guy with really long hair who looked a lot like Rod “the Bottle” Price (of Foghat and “Slowride” fame) told me about this band Magma whose music is predicated on a story of human beings who travel to this planet called Kobaia, where these humans learn (besides a new language) to live in harmony with everything. But then other disgruntled humans, escaping the dire straits of our planet’s environmental disharmony, somehow take a spaceship to the happy planet of Kobaia and convince these ex-patriot humans (now Kobaians), to return to the dear planet Earth and teach the humans the errors of our ways. Well, these nice Kobaians are met with an initial handshake, but then are imprisoned, as we humans often do to people who make us confront the reality of our stupidity.

Then the Kobaians threaten to destroy the Earth. That is chronicled in the album 1001 Centigrades. Thankfully, we humans free those Kobaians and avoid getting fried in an intergalactic inferno.

I honestly thought the guy was joking.

He wasn’t.

Now, a disclaimer: As intriguing as all this sounds, I have never been a huge fan of the band. My French prog tastes tilt more towards Mona Lisa, (the great) Pulsar, Atoll, (the incredible) Wapassou, and the jazzy Magma-spin off group Zao. But I really enjoyed these downloads, and I dusted off old vinyl copies of albums which, in more enlightened days, received American releases.

So, this Retrospekiw is a summation of Magma’s 70’s music. And it’s a live recording. The first record (two sides of vinyl) contains “Theus Hamtaahk,” which apparently means Time of Hatred in Kobaian. This is the first part of the trilogy that to the best of my knowledge never really made it to a studio recording. This version was recorded in 1980 at Olympia in Paris. This is dense, complex, dark, throbbing, chanted, stern, and just plain oddly addictive French progressive rock. And it does remind me of National Health’s Canterbury complexity. And it also sounds like the more coherent bits from Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy.

Just so you know, Christian Vander is both the drummer and leader of all this zeuhl music. And by the way, the word zeuhl translates as celestial in Kobaian. So, yeah, this is truly music of the spheres.

The second album contains the live version of “Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh.” Now, this is where the story gets weird. Apparently, in the Magma mythology, after the Kobaians leave and decide not to fry the Earth, a prophet of sorts named Nebehr Gudahtt takes up the cause and preaches the Kobaian message to the masses. At first, the guy is rejected (as prophets often are), but then we mere humans see the erudite light of wisdom and become, thankfully, spiritually astute.

And this spiritual awakening, of course, allows for a transcendental understanding of Jon Anderson’s lyrics, and the world finally comprehends the true meaning of “Siberian Khatru.”

Sorry, I made up that last bit.

But anyway, those third and fourth sides up the zeuhl ante a bit with the messianic “Mekanik” (known as MDK). The choral sound is more extreme with some trills here and there. The pulse deepens; the drums are even more persistent; Stella Vander’s vocals actually pre-date Cindy Wilson’s “Rock Lobster” singing. But trust me, this isn’t pop rock music. By the fourth vinyl side, the keyboards begin with full aerial bombardment mode and the music slides into a violin bit. Then this music, with all the Magma prog rock soul, simply soars. It soars in a wonderfully repetitious way.

Now, for some strange reason on Retrospektiw 3, the Kobaians discover funk. And they remember a few English words, too. Quite frankly, I thought “Retrovision” was playing at the wrong speed. That’s the seismic jump. It’s a George Clinton jump. But once the funk dust has settled, the music becomes a universe of its own. Einstein said something about time being relative. Well, I suppose musical time can be relative, too. Mr. Radue (aka Jazz Guy) suggested the new funky Magma sounds like Miles Davis around the On the Corner album.

This is still celestial music, but it’s music that is racing with a faster mathematical equation into an ever-expanding universe. I mean, the universe has dark matter and black holes, but that doesn’t preclude it from being funky for eighteen minutes of so.

But the next tune “Hhai” drops the funk, scales down the intensity of its former self on Magma Live, and with duetting vocals from Klaus Blasquiz and Stella Vander, becomes, well, quite enjoyable. Former band member Didier Lockwood apparently makes a guest appearance on violin. Now, after listening to the music of Magma, I seriously doubt there is a Kobaian equivalent for our English expression, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.” But if there were, this music would fit those words.  

The album then ends with the somber, brief, and quite beautiful “La dawotsin.”

So sure, all of this weird prog rock has to be approached with a certain smile. Perhaps, it’s Voltaire’s smile of reason. It’s a Kobaian smile. This is just a vinyl release of something from long ago. It’s for the true Magma devotee, the hardcore fan who still longs for the spinning spaceship ride to the mythical planet of Kobaia, a place where serenity reigns; prog music propels ideology; the best of humanity survives; and ultimately, funky music may well rescue the few true believers who still cling to the epic lifeboats from the good ship we all know and we all love that’s simply called progressive rock music.

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