Sunday, July 23, 2006


Back around 1976, when I was busy exploring all the outlandish prog-rock that I could get my hands on, I would go to extraordinary lengths to acquire some cool new LP that I hadn't yet heard. Obsessed, I once drove about 120 miles to buy a single Captain Beefheart record. While I was on that trip, elsewhere in the store I spotted a weirdly cool album cover, a double LP set called 'Magma Live.' I knew nothing about Magma, but I bought it anyway, mainly because the band boasted two keyboard players, a violinist, and most of the songs were really long. This seemed promising to me. I got the record home, and found that I did indeed like the album. In fact, for sheer strangeness, the group went toe-to-toe with Captain Beefheart.

Magma was formed in 1969 by a French jazz drummer named Christian Vander, whose main musical influence was the late-period music of John Coltrane, along with classical composers like Carl Orff and Bela Bartok. Vander's father was a well-known jazz pianist, and the young Vander got to meet many major musicians as a youth, including Coltrane. He was also fascinated by classical music, especially Orff and Bartok. The membership of Magma as never very stable, except for Vander and his wife Stella, who sang. (They can be seen at the left in the picture below.) Also, a vocalist of remarkable range and flexibility anchored the group during their most productive years, Klaus Blasquiz. (Seen to the far right.) Others came and went, but these stayed.

Vander had a vision (literally, according to some accounts) of an ecologically devastated Earth, and he began to compose an epic science-fiction saga as a sort of metaphor, a warning for mankind. Realizing that the French language was entirely unsuited for the sort of music that he envisioned (not enough consonants for the percussive sounds he heard), he created his own, called Kobaian, after the planet Kobaia, which is central to this saga. All of Magma's early albums are sung in this language, which has a very Slavic/Germanic quality. (One can even find a Kobaian/English dictionary online!) Klaus Blasquiz proved to be as committed to this musical vision as Vander was, and his contribution to this concept was integral. His singing is quite extraordinary, employing falsetto, "fry-tones" and other extended means of expression.

Magma, circa 1975.

Back in the late 70s and '80s, I collected pretty much everything that was available by this group. I owned at least ten or twelve albums of the band back then. When cds came along, and I simultaneously went through some intense personal upheaval, I sold them all. I hardly thought about this band for at least twenty years or so. A few weeks ago, I was surfing around the iTunes store and I thought I'd see if there were any Magma albums. I figured this was a total waste of time, but I typed the name in the search window and hit "enter." And nothing came up. Nothing, except about 17 albums or so, and several of them very inexpensive. I sampled a few of them and found that they sounded even better than than I remembered. A bunch of downloads later, I had a new collection. And Magma's music was even more impressive than ever. Further revelation came in the newly released live recordings from the BBC in 1974. Wow. (And not expensive, either.)

When I first listened to Magma, I had good instincts about music, but no technical or theoretical means of assessing what I heard. Now, they make even more of an impression, because I can clearly hear the polyrhythmic intricacies that Vander concocted. They made many fine albums, but for a one-disc intro to their music, Magma Live is the best. It features one of the best lineups that Vander ever put together, playing at an incredible level of virtuosity. The first track, the 30-minute "Kohntark" is a tour-de-force of visceral playing, welded to extremely sensitive compositional technique. Vander's drums are here better recorded than on some of their studio albums, too. Magma differs from other jazz-rock bands of their time in their singular musical vision, which eclipsed any individual aims in the group. There is no ego here. Soloing is minimal, or tightly controlled, according to Klaus Blasquiz solos were usually composed out by Vander. And the physical stamina that they had in playing pieces like this, with precision and endurance far beyond most bands, is truly exhilarating.

Christian Vander, today.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

iTunes will be my downfall...

I don't have an iPod. My wife does, my daughters Rachel and Eileen each have one, most of my composer cronies have one. But I do have a Mac and I use iTunes, and so a while back I started nosing around the iTunes store to see what I could find. Not much, at first. But, eventually I pulled out a few British Invasion hits that I wanted to drive around with, and then scooped up the Patti Smith tunes that I really couldn't live without, and then I started looking in earnest for all of the strange stuff that occupied my attention for about ten years, from 1976 to 1986. (All of the LPs that I no longer have, but wish I still did...) Didn't find much at first. But recently iTunes has expanded their catalog by a tremendous amount, and the selection has become a bit frightening, especially for an old prog-rock fan like me. Here's what I've been downloading:

Van der Graaf Generator. (See my earlier postings on this band) Most of the band's catalog is available on iTunes, along with bonus tracks. Remastered and sounding as relevant as ever. Their live album 'Vital' is downright scary in its visceral impact. And now it's available again in its original form.

NEU! A German duo consisting of two original members of Kraftwerk who left after the first album. "Motorik" was the term they coined for their style, and it fits. Their first album is remarkable, their second has some dreadful tracks along with some brilliant ones, and a later EP was excellent. Thanks to iTunes, I only buy the good stuff.

Magma. I have to say that I searched iTunes for this band with absolute certainty that nothing would turn up. Nothing did, except something like seventeen albums. If you know who Magma is, the astonishment that this statement should evoke needs no explanation. For those who don't: Magma was/is a French band led by jazz-rock drummer Christian Vander, and featured a constantly-changing lineup. Their unique sound was mainly owed to the fact that their primary influences were late John Coltrane and Carl Orff. They also sang in a language of their own invention, epic compositions of a science-fiction saga that I never quite understood. A band that helped define the term "acquired taste," but somehow I acquired it, and now I can relish their stuff yet again. They sound even better than I remember, maybe because now I can more easily perceive all of the polymetric stuff that they were doing back then. Expect a separate posting on this band soon. 'Magma Live' is their best.

Other stuff that I'm astounded to find on iTunes:

Captain Beefheart. iTunes has a great selection of his stuff, and I hope more will arrive soon. A thrill was finding "Here I Am, I Always Am," in both demo and released versions. This amazing song, which I've long wanted in digital form, is notable for being one of the few pop songs with metric modulation.

Ange: a French prog band that was really quite awful, but I liked 'em for a while. I could try them again, if I want to.

Faust: a German band whose LPs were amazing pieces of audio and visual art. Minimalist and noisy, they've recorded a lot since I stopped paying attention to them.

Be Bop Deluxe: a British prog/pop combo led by guitar virtuoso Bill Nelson. Lots of their stuff still sounds great. If they start putting out Bill Nelson's gigantic solo catalog, I'll be really excited.

Cecil Taylor: Lots of Cecil's recent recordings are out on iTunes. Frank Zappa once said: "If you want too learn how to play the piano, buy a Cecil Taylor record."

Tangerine Dream. I loved this band, up until about 1980 or so. Some of their early stuff still appeals, and they are a bigger influence on my own music than I'd probably care to admit. 'Stratosfear' and 'Rubicon' were as good as anything that Pink Floyd did, I think. 'Phaedra,' too.

I'm sure I'll discover more soon. Expect updates.