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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

Magma

Live at NEARFest, June 2007

Review by Julie Knispel

There are very few bands that can state that they have created an entirely new genre of rock music; that is to say, before their existence, the style of music they played simply did not exist.
Magma is one of that select few.

Despite their legendary status among progressive rock bands, they’ve never toured the United States extensively. Prior to 1999, their only US dates occurred in 1973...a 26 year gap. 1999 saw their most extensive touring in North America, with between 6 and 10 dates played (the definitive reference site for Magma touring, Ork Alarm, is unsure about several dates, hence the uncertainty in the number of dates played). Since then, the band has only played 4 additional North American shows, with a pair each in 2003 and 2007. Each of those pairs of dates was motivated by the band’s performance at NEARfest, the premiere progressive music/art rock festival in North America.

Magma’s performance at the 2007 incarnation of NEARfest closed out the festival, a worthy show of respect for a band that has been revitalized in the past decade. With a line up that has remained fairly consistent since 1999, Magma has once again become a force to be reckoned with musically. As well, they are not a band willing to rest on their considerable laurels; new material has been a major part of the band’s performances since 2003, with new albums released or in the process of being completed (K.A., 2004, Emehnteht-Re, 2008). Magma is the textbook example of an older band reuniting because the music drives them to create, not to simply cash in another paycheck.

Their performance at NEARfest 2007 was typical of the band’s work over the past decade. Based, as always, around the impressive Elvin Jones influenced drumming chops of founder Christian Vander, the modern Magma adds in Fender Rhodes electric piano (Emmanuel Borghi), vibraphone (Benoit Alziary) and 4 vocalists (including long time member Stella Vander and 2 children of former Magma bassist Bernard Paganotti) to a sonic mix that also includes one of the strongest bassists in a band history that is littered with legendary names and a guitarist that could hold his own in any intense jazz fusion band. The end result is a sound that is both easy to describe and at the same time indescribable. Magma’s compositional style is based heavily around tension built through repetition and release, with significant amounts of interplay between drums, bass and piano. Over it all, a cosmic choir of voices intones Vander’s tales of ecological despair and redemption, told entirely in the constructed artificial language Kobaian. This is often the biggest stumbling block most people have with the band’s music; their inability to understand what is being sung. If one is able to surpass that, through acceptance of the voices as another instrument, one will find compositions and playing that rival the best of contemporary rock or classical music.

Magma’s set at NEARfest 2007 opened with a powerful version of their 1973 album Kohntarkosz. Leading off with a shouted command from Antoine Paganotti, the band launched into this nearly 35-minute suite. Benoit Alziary’s contributions on vibraphone are a newer addition to the Magma sonic arsenal, and they enrich an already thickly orchestrated sound. James Mac Gaw’s guitar flits in and out of the song, punctuating musical phrases with brief bursts of notes, while Philippe Bussonnet’s bass playing throbs and pulses like the heart of this alien beast that is Magma. The vocal arrangements are the equal of any modern classical composition, with layers of voices singing in counterpoint and harmony, sometimes simultaneously.

Magma shifts into Offering/One Shot (two off shoots from the main Magma band) approximately 21 minutes in, with an extended instrumental section offering Mac Gaw and Bussonnet ample opportunity to take center stage musically. Mac Gaw’s soloing is nearly spastic, flurries of notes broken into short phrases often mimicking earlier vocal parts. Bussonnet’s solo, high up on the neck, is impressive and awe inspiring, showing him to be very much the equal of Jannick Top or Bernard Paganotti, two of the men whose shoes he must fill as bassist in Magma. The full band finally returns, vocalists in tow, for the climactic conclusion, with the entire group synchronized note for note before ending full stop, a standing ovation their reward.
     
The highlight for many North American Magma fans would be the debut of their newest work, the 47-minute Emehnteht-Re. This is a composition that has been in various phases of completion since the mid-1970’s, with portions of the work released on a number of albums (Udu Wudu, Attahk, Hhai/Live, others). Never fully completed, Christian Vander and the band have been working studiously on completing this as their next studio album, with a projected release date sometime in 2008. They’ve been playing a more or less complete version of this track since last 2006 to rapturous response, and for the long time fan, it is exciting to hear the parts separately released knitted together as a whole.

Incorporating portions released as “Zombies,” “Rindoh,” “Hhai” and “Emehnteht-Re (extrait),” the nearly complete work is one of the band’s strongest. Considering the competition (several album length works litter the band’s output), this is high praise indeed. Emehnteht-Re stands alongside the rest of Magma’s catalogue without seeming less than what came before; again - high praise when one allows that often reunion albums fall far short of a band’s classic material. Having four vocalists allows for more lushly orchestrated arrangements, as well as balancing out the more limited keyboard palate. Benoit Alziary is integrated far more into the arrangements on this piece, as it seems sections were written specifically for his contributions.

Small cheers arose from the audience as the band moved into familiar, previously released sections, and on conclusion, Magma received a second well-deserved ovation before leaving the stage. As they were signed for a 2-hour slot, the audience knew more was to come, and their cheers rose in volume, drawing the group back on stage for their first encore. Drawn from the band’s debut album in 1970, “Kobaia” is a far more jazz-influenced track. Had John Coltrane recorded rock music, it may well have sounded like this. Interestingly, the early Magma material featured extensive horn and brass parts, which were replicated in concert by the three female vocalists (Vander, Himiko Paganotti and Isabelle Feuillebois) to fine effect. A “shorter” track at just under 12 minutes, it offered a second opportunity for the instrumentalists to work into a heavy fusion influenced maelstrom, showing them to be one of the most instrumentally intense groups of the weekend.

The band took their bows and left the stage a second time, with louder applause and cheers following them from an audience that wanted more. Minutes passed before Stella Vander took to the stage, saying they would perhaps play one last song if they could find a microphone for Christian. With the microphone found and placed at the front, Magma shifted into a far mellower mode for the beautiful and understated “Lihns.” Originally released on the band’s 1975 live album, it allowed Christian Vander to move from behind his kit to center stage, proving tot he audience that he could well have been a phenomenal lead vocalist had he not been leading the band from his drum throne. The performance also proved that Magma can do more than play bombastic Wagner and Orff influenced rock music, as “Lihns” is a gentle, lullaby like track that ended the performance on a wonderful note.

Following the performance, Magma (with the exception of Stella Vander) made themselves available for autographs. All members were gracious and genuinely humbled by the response they earned from the audience, and the entire band took the time to listen to the stories each person had to share. Magma’s performance was the perfect capper to an incredible weekend of progressive and art rock, and showed them fully worthy of a festival headlining position.

The members area of our site includes a gallery with many more pictures from this concert - and all larger than the pics presented here.
     
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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