As a companion piece to his MAGMA article in Shindig!Magazine #95 (The Stooges cover) WARREN HATTER digs deep into their back catalogue and finds 7 essential albums along with some MAGMA family gems.
Magma in seven records
1. Magma (1970, called Kobaïa in some editions)
Magma arrived fully formed in many ways. That logo! The alien language! The songs are often beautiful and subtle, the brass is outstanding, and this is the album of theirs that most wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s written by someone who loves Coltrane and Bartok, and it’s the only one that you can put in a box marked ‘jazz-rock’.
2. Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (1973)
Jannick Top arrives with his retuned bass, Stella takes on vocals, and Magma’s martial sound is born. MDK, as it is often called, is partly recorded at Manor Studios, with Mike Oldfield present, around the time he is recording Tubular Bells, which Christian Vander later claimed includes a refrain from a song Magma rehearse at the time.
3. Köhntarkösz (1974)
This story extends Magma’s mythology back to ancient Egypt and the music obliges. For this recording, Magma jettison wind instruments in favour of synths, which makes for their most sombre work yet. This is the Magma music that was in Jodorovsky’s mind when he wanted them, with Pink Floyd, to soundtrack his never-made epic of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
4. Üdü Ẁüdü (1976)
Top has left and re-joined, bringing with him a change in feel, as his vision merges with Christian Vander’s. This is VanderTop, which turns out to be the sound of a band breaking up. There’s a move back to shorter songs, but a whole side is dedicated to Top’s ‘De Futura’, driven by the most visceral earthy bass yet heard.
5. Attahk (1978)
The cover by Giger, most famous for his work on Alien around the same time, provides a dystopian facade, but this is mostly a joyous album by a new band. They turn up the funk, often with two bass parts across a range of styles, including swing and spiritual. Significantly, longstanding vocalist Klaus Blasquiz cedes lead vocal duties to Christian Vander.
6. Rétrospective Vol. 1 & 2 (1981)
It feels wrong to include a live set in any artist’s essential albums, but the version here of ‘Theusz Hamtaahk’, recorded in Paris in 1980, is incredible. You go through every human emotion in its 36 minutes, with playing ranging from the most delicate to overwhelming. Stella explains why this is considered the definitive version: “We did a lot of overdubs, so it’s almost a studio recording”.
7. Zëss (Le Jour De Néant) (2019)
Once more discarding the synths, Magma extensively re-work an old piece for the modern era. Hypnotic and relentless, with an ecstatic climax, it is at times bleak, and hits home emotionally through Rémi Dumoulin’s skilful arrangement of the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Deeper Underground: the best albums by the Magma family.
Underground music from 70s and early 80s France is as exciting as Krautrock, but much less well known in the UK and US. Here are some of the gems – the ones involving people who have been through Magma’s revolving doors. Many of these albums were out of print for a long time, but all except Drones have had recent reissues.
1. Univeria Zekt – The Unnamables (1972)
This is Magma in disguise, trying out slightly different approaches over a shorter format than on their then recently released second album (2, now known as 1001° Centigrades). It’s mostly jazz-rock excursions sung in English, and this one is for the completists. Everything else in this list is among the best albums you’ve probably never heard.
2. Nyl – Nyl (1976)
The mighty Jannick Top, with his demonic bass, had given Magma the distinctive sound they evolved for MDK and, two years on, he plays on the key tracks of perhaps the best prog album to emerge from France. There is a hint of the blues in places, rare, in the French underground. Just a hint, though, and sometimes in 5/4 time. It appears on Urus records, run by Heldon founder, Richard Pinhas, the French Underground’s most important catalyst.
3. Laurent Thibault – Mais On Ne Peut Pas Rêver Tout Le Temps (1978)
Self-producing here, one of Magma’s founder members plays guitar and bass to create one of the great French albums: an indefinable, restless instrumental rock that moves on to the next mood once you think you’ve understood it.
4. Weidorje – Weidorje (1978)
Named after a track on Magma’s 1976 Üdü Ẁüdü, which Bernard Paganotti had written and Patrick Gauthier played, with a cover drawn by Klaus Blasquiz, this spin-off is such a powerful development of Magma’s signature style that it threatens to be Frasier to Magma’s Cheers. It’s both hypnotic and martial, even brutal at times. But the band split before recording another album.
5. Univers Zéro – Hérésie (1979)
Founder Daniel Denis was briefly Magma’s drummer, playing MDK live so that Christian Vander could concentrate on singing but found his element here, seven years later. Parts of this are as scary as music gets, as orchestral rock, baroque and the avant-garde collide. Univers Zero were Belgian, but this is a glimpse at the French underground’s obsession with the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft that, if you like that sort of thing, was further developed by Shub Niggurath in 1982.
6. Jean-Philippe Goude – Drones (1980)
Goude himself was never a member of Magma, but was part of Weidorje, most of whom had a role in Drones, along with legendary Magma vocalist Klaus Blasquiz. This album veers from subtly funky Zeuhl to esoteric electronica – it’s the moody sibling to Bébé Godzilla.
7. Patrick Gauthier – Bébé Godzilla (1981)
Magma’s 1980s keyboardist is also a graduate of French underground greats Heldon. And he calls in a few favours for this, including members of both groups, so the album features a different line-up for every song. It’s not as dark as you might expect, cosmic repetition giving way often enough to uptempo melody.