A hotly anticipated gig – Magma at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, where in the last few years I’ve seen both Gong and Syd Arthur. I’d had a ticket for their seated gig at the Royal Northern of College last year, got ill at the last minute and ended up giving my ticket away to an old friend. 3 gigs in Manchester within just over a year (this was a 2-date visit to Band on the Wall) suggests an unexpectedly sharp amount of interest in the band: an unlikely Zeuhl nirvana after so many barren years in the UK.
Having not only never seen Magma before, but also having dragged along a friend who was a complete Magma ignoramus, I was able to see the gigs as if through the eyes of an outsider. Forget for the moment that I’d had more than a passing acquaintance with their back catalogue and imagine you’d just stumbled in on the act – the prevailing initial impression is that, on the surface, at least, this is a quite preposterous proposition: 8 doomy, intense, largely dark-clothed musicians purveying an unsmiling blend of rolling, low-end basslines, repetitive keyboard mantras and inpenetrable chants authored in a fictitious, menacing Germanic language. My friend, let’s call him Progshy D, looked on implacably at this intimidating cacophony: was he impressed? I’m not sure. Was this prog? He most definitely thought so. This music is other-worldly without being ethereal, and exploratory in its sense of stripping back perceptions of what is musically ‘normal’. And yet for all the freshness of its menace, it turned out that all music performed tonight was around 40 years old, the first and third parts of the ‘Theussz Hamtaahk’ trilogy, the first part of which, the eponymous, atonal first part I didn’t recognise for a some considerable while until it kicked into its recognisable ‘chorus’ a mere 25 minutes or so in!
The band included a bass player, electric guitar player, keyboardist, mallet player (vibes?), a lead vocalist, two backing vocalists and drummer/bandleader Christian Vander himself, an incredibly tight-knit outfit who gave little away facially whilst pounding away with their mesmeric rhythms. Rumour has it that Christian Vander keeps a close leash on his troops , and this is borne out by meticulously scored, repetitive themes which give no indication that the musicians could stretch out beyond their basic parts. But that’s rather missing the point: the effect is to draw you in hypnotically and dare I say, transport you somewhere else. There are darker rumours out there about Christian Vander’s political leanings, which Hugh Hopper alluded to during correspondence with me years back, in response to my eulogising about the (little) Magma I’d heard up to that point. Thankfully there’s no tangible evidence of this on stage, (unless you count the occasional stiff-armed gesturing by one particularly worked up fan in the front row of the audience).
A few things to note: for all the presence and impact of the lead singer and the two female vocalists (of whom Stella Vander contributed more than one beautiful melody), the high points of both Theussz Hamtaahk and Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh were the sections where Christian Vander downed his drum sticks and assumed lead vocals himself. Backed by starkly simple keyboard themes, he soloed almost raga style with a chilling intensity I’d not seen since some of Daevid Allen’s live performances on Gong’s ‘Selene’ .
I have to be honest, I’d not even been aware that Vander sang until the advent of Youtube – the only previous time I’d seen him live was back in the autumn of 1989, when, in something of a fried mental state, I’d set off for southern France on a cheap Interrail ticket and quite by chance stumbled on the Christian Vander Trio gig peddling jazz standards and more in a salubrious jazz venue in Avignon. He’d totally bowled me over with his muscular, omnipresent drumming and his virtuousity is equally in evidence (almost egotistically so) in the official Magma videos which cut backwards and forwards to the drum kit throughout. Tonight however, he was very much buried behind his drumkit, which made his vocal solos, where he stood up and brandished his mic like a wind instrument, even more striking.
Having played the grand total of 2 songs for their entire set, it seemed doubtful that any encore would be snappy. But the band re-emerged for a what was a quite uplifting reworking of a track from their debut ‘Kobaia’ album, where the idiom was much more jazz-flavoured, and vibes, guitar and keyboards were allowed to solo with a joyous freedom. And yes, they were all astonishingly gifted musicians, as I should have guessed.