Published Apr 03, 2015Parisian progressive rock band Magma formed back in 1969, and in the 45 years and dozens of band mates they have burned through since, they had never played anywhere in Canada before last night (April 2). Appearing in front of a modest, mixed age and multilingual crowd, the rock fusion group quickly set to work delivering one of the most mind-blowing experiences for which anyone could hope. The mind all too easily spirals into a string of hyperbolic comparisons, imagining Focus composing for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Yamantaka//Sonic Titan if they jammed with BadBadNotGood for four decades, or Berg's Wozzeck as interpreted by John Coltrane and performed by the Mothers of Invention, or a thousand other apt yet ultimately short-sighted strings of artists and collaborations.
However, Magma — ever led by classically trained drummer Christian Vander and currently featuring bassist Philippe Bussonnet, Jérémie Ternoy on Rhodes piano, Benoit Alziary on vibraphone, guitarist James MacGaw and vocalists Herve Aknin, Stella Vander and Isabelle Feuillebois — was given one of the best formal introductions any band ever had.
Laurent Goldstein's introduction set out the proper way to approach their music: "For people who have never seen Magma before, I'd like to say that, first of all, there is a tendency when we hear, watch a concert, different music or different movie, different style, something unique, we try to interpret it through our brain. We try to look at point of reference: what does it make me think of? With Magma, it's better to forget all of that. It's not a music to be experienced from the intellect. It's a music to be felt. It's a music to be experienced from heart, soul, and the gut."
This is true. Most of their lyrics are sung in Kobaïan, a phonetic language created in an improvisatory fashion from elements of Slavic and Germanic languages, the words often chosen for their sound as much as their meaning, so that word-for-word translation is impossible. In their delivery, Aknin had the presence of an opera tenor of Pavarotti's magnitude, while Stella and Feuillebois locked down the three-part harmonies and counterpoints, their powers combined to command the awesome forces of nature. At one point, the singers and bassist left, allowing Christian to scat as if he was playing the mic like a fucked up trumpet over the percolating piano, guitar and vibraphone.
The whole band had those gut-feeling faces most of the time they performed. Christian looked as if he was creating the universe whenever you could see his face poke out from behind the wall of cymbals towering around his kit, while Alziary would smile and sing the melody one second, then look like he was beating his metallic instrument with bloody fingers the next. When they locked it in, all of their eyes would close except for Ternoy's, as he was reading a veritable library of notation taped across the top of his electric piano.
Remarkably, for a band that played only four songs over the course of an almost two-hour long set, it never felt like they were being overindulgent. Every sound and performer had their own space. Even as the singers left the stage to let the instrumentalists get a little crazy during "Köhntarkösz" — a song originally composed in 1973, but as Stella said, still sounds ahead of its time — MacGaw took a second to casually shrug and regroup halfway through a savagely epic guitar solo. With the band dressed in black, somewhat casual, well-worn clothes, they came off unassuming yet utterly dedicated, without a hint of pretention.
Of course, it wasn't a "perfect" set. Something of a bass drum rumble was happening early on, and a creeping wash of feedback hummed sporadically for the last hour, but the gut didn't hear those things. The gut simply felt all those the dank, funky bass lines, sonorous voices, crushing drums, driving guitar melodies and jazzy vibes and keys, all of the movements and motifs making each track a rock opera unto itself. As they played, their age, the feedback, all the little things washed away, leaving only a pure rock experience eternally burned in the crowd's memory.