Planet Magma keeps on turning
The cult French rock-jazz fusion band Magma is a strange and fascinating beast.
In a music world awash with formatted, nicely-packaged products aimed at getting airtime, Magma makes long rock symphonies.
You can cut them up into songs, each with a different mood, but listening to one in isolation makes little sense.
Needless to say, they’ve not been a huge commercial success but have always had a huge cult following. Their live performances, with drummer/vocalist Christian Wander in the driving seat, are legendary.
Wander formed the band in 1969, two years after jazz saxophonist John Coltrane died. Wander says Coltrane has always been a huge influence.
"I grew up listening to jazz, but Coltrane was doing something different. When I heard Coltrane performing longer pieces (than the 5 or 6-minute ones we were used to hearing) I thought right this is it, it’s time to go."
In the early albums, notably the first trilogy (Kobaïa, 1001 Centigrade, Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh) Wander invented a planet called Kobaïa, where he imagined human beings could escape the destructive path they were on.
He also invented a language known as Kobaïan, which to the naked ear sounds a little like German, and while it has a written vocabulary, there’s no grammar.
“It wasn’t pre-meditated, he explains, “the sounds just came naturally with the music. French didn’t feel powerful enough somehow. It didn’t really fit the music.”
While the language continues to develop, Wander’s vision has softened.
“At that time I thought we were heading for chaos, and people were unconscious of the fact.”
Wander says Kobaïa isn’t another planet after all.
"Kobaia is actually the earth, but it’s about living it in a different [more considered] way".
Magma’s been a seed-bank for many experimental musicians. Bassist Jannick Top and Didier Lockwood among others cut their teeth with the band.
Some have gone on to create their own Vander-influenced groups (Zao, Weidorje).
As well as a host of live recordings, the band has made 11 studio albums. Their latest is called Felicité Thösz.
It’s a vocal-oriented piece with strong instrumental backing, and some great piano. In just 30 minutes, it explores a more celestial, uplifting world than some of the previous works, and includes the Tamla Motown-inspired piece Thea.
Wander describes the music as a "ceremony of renewal" that takes the listener on a trip to the east, from Japan to Mongolia.
“What’s important for me is transformation, mutation. We’re still part of the cosmos, we’ll continue, but perhaps in a different form.”
Energetic and passionate as ever, he has no plans to hand in his drumsticks.
"Music is what keeps me evolving. If I stopped, I’d lose my raison d’être."