Imagine a civilization centuries in the future, where society as we know it has descended into nihilistic chaos. In disgust and desperation, a small group of humans flee Earth and seek refuge on the distant planet Kobaïa, where years of conflict from the dog days of Earth are recalled through song in the planet’s native tongue, Kobaïan.
This cosmic dystopia was created in 1969 by the French band Magma. While it’s unfair to lump the group under the prog-rock umbrella, Magma exhibits the excesses and ambitions of that genre often enough that they tend to leave their listeners polarized: you either enjoy the trip or jump ship. Their show at the Highline Ballroom on September 20th was a space-opera exorcism—strange, rambunctious, and rewarding, for those with the patience to stick it out.
The Ballroom was dark and hot as we waited for the show to start, afrobeat blasting over the equally blasted crowd. Red lights made it difficult to make out much except for the huge Chinese gong onstage. I remember there being some sort of mist—maybe a fog machine? Probably not, but there might as well have been one. The audience seemed to consist of technology nerds and 70-year-old hippies, plus a Ted Kennedy look-alike. I not only had the luxury of sitting in a booth (I’m 5’2”—I hate standing crowds), but sat next to Foetus, aka J. G. Thirlwell, an innovator in the industrial genre and currently a member of Wiseblood along with several ex-Swans members. Weathered and intense-looking, and holding a Diet Coke all the while, Foetus closed his eyes and waited for Magma to come out. Such a strange accumulation of people—I couldn’t help thinking of all of us on a spaceship along with the group. It would probably be a cross between Spaceballs and The X-Files.
Christian Vander, the face of Magma and leader of the theoretical civilization of Kobaïa, looked much different than in his younger years. When he birthed the band in 1969, Vander resembled an uglier Joey Ramone: tall and svelte with icy eyes and a strong jaw. Now he was sweating behind his drum kit like a winded John Candy, while most of the other members of the reformed group looked like they were still waiting to lose their virginity. Skeptical and curious, I closed my eyes like Foetus and waited.
The show lasted about two hours. The band played only four songs, but I wasn’t going to complain about such a whirlwind prog-fantasia. The first set, which was consumed by two new tracks (“Slag Tanz” and “Felicite Thosz”), weaved in and out of doom-metal, jazz, and chants that would have scared the shit out of Don Cherry. “Slag Tanz” built up like a geyser; Hervé Aknin began chanting in Kobaïan like a televangelist speaking in tongues, the hypnotism eventually broken by the shining Chinese gong. The dirge bass line, courtesy of Philippe Bussonnet, sounded straight out of 1976’s “De Futura.” The curious heaviness of “Slag Tanz” was classic Magma, specifically like the later tracks on their 1973 Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh. Stella Vander provided the almost frighteningly high upper-register vocals.
The second song in the set, “Felicite Thosz”… what can I say? I used the opportunity to find the bathroom and read the label on my beer. The piece was a very long 25 minutes, with lots of sleigh bells and vocal solos, but it picked up towards the end as the piece morphed into a Russian dance theme à la Vander’s 1974 soundtrack Ŵurdah Ïtah.
The next piece, “Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê,” was absolutely magnificent. Any Magma fan knows that “Ëmëhntëhtt -Rê” is the third part of the Magma trilogy that includes Theusz Hamtaahk and Köhntarkösz. Vander reworked the piece to include “Rinde,” from Magma’s 1978 album Attahk, which then morphed into “Hhaï,” and then “Zombies,” from Üdü Ŵüdü. The last 10 minutes of “Ëmëhntëhtt -Rê” was one Kobaïan spasm after another, showcasing Vander’s exceptional drumming.
Perhaps allowing the band to catch their breath, pianist Bruno Ruder then exposed us all to a long, unaccompanied solo that was probably meant to come across as some form of Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Mediations but instead sounded like customers noodling away at a Guitar Center. (Out of the corner of my eye I saw Vander’s eyes burning a hole in the back of Ruder’s head, possibly a statement about the pianist’s competence.) After this brief disappointment, my faith in Magma was restored with “Kobaïa,” from the group’s debut LP of the same name. Sounding like a new-age palette-cleanser, the piece is a heavenly audio break that marks the humans’ landing on the new Kobaïan planet. Vander’s interest in Elvin Jones and John Coltrane came through during this 10-minute gem, which featured a doo-wop female chorus and jazzy percussion trickling in alongside rambunctious horns. Wailing saxophones and maracas raced against Vander’s impeccable drumming, eventually coming to a spacy halt halfway through. As Vander shouted in Kobaïan from behind the drum kit, euphoric jingles made their way through the chaos. Warbled guitar and piano chords made their psychedelic re-entrance, and the band members played like a well-oiled machine.
Magma definitely had their day. The unconventional nature of the group, and the turnover rate of its members, makes the group’s trajectory difficult to follow; having lyrics sung in a secret language meant for a future generation of Earth-fleeing humans doesn’t help. But while all these elements could be brushed aside as novelty, Magma’s musicianship is unrivaled. Vander’s demand for committed (and bilingual) members is almost frightening. Most musicians study the past to further their practice, but Magma is that rare group that looks to the future. “Majestic,” “brilliant,” “difficult,” and “inimitable” are all words I’d use to describe their Highline performance. In Kobaïan, it’s “Fu bunder hundin kobaian kaolin.”