Monday, December 28, 2015

Magma's 'De Futura' - French apocalyptic prog in excelsis

"I don't always listen to 'De Futura' in the morning before I go to work, but when I do, I lose my job." This comment from a fan who's posted the Magma track on YouTube is presumably meant in jest; it certainly raised a chuckle of recognition from this fellow musical traveller.  There's such euphoric rage in bassist Jannick Top's composition - an intolerance for routine, conformist patterns - that you could certainly imagine a receptive listener, one perhaps fuelled by illegal stimulants, responding to it at day's beginning with employment-threatening enthusiasm.  Scope out the media sharing site for a clip made by the late documentary filmmaker Michel Parbot from a live performance of 'De Futura' at the Hippodrome de Pantin in 1977; along with the definitive version of 'Köhntarkösz' from Live/Hhaï (1975), one of the French progressive rock group's finest moments.  In this truncated, but still devastatingly effective version of the 18-minute track from Üdü Ŵüdü, you'll find enough of the bridge-burning attitude hinted at in the poster's comment to inspire a whole statute book of Platonic censorship.  It's also a neat synthesis of the musical and visual facets of this group's paradigm-disrupting agenda.

   Magma were unique in the progressive music landscape of the 1970s for the epic scope of leader Christian Vander's conceptual vision.  A multi-album science fictional sequence, with its own invented language of Kobaïan, it makes oft-referred to examples of prog excess like the Yes and Genesis double concept albums Tales from Topographic Oceans and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway seem lacking in ambition.  A reconfiguration of standard rock instrumentation also set them apart.  Keyboards and guitars, vehicles for virtuoso heroics in other contexts, are assigned a more textural or rhythmic role.  Bass is often the foremost instrumental voice while the group's vocalists draw on a fusion of the operatic and choral traditions of Wagner and Orff, jazz scat projections and soul shouts to convey the melodic themes.  Rock's visual dynamics are similarly reoriented in Parbot's video.  Klaus Blasquiz may be the main singer at the front of the stage here, but there's no doubting drummer Vander is the head shaman.  Those who can't get on this music's aggressive wavelength might find his manic intensity subject for ridicule.  If you can, it's thrilling to see an artist so completely in the zone, so absorbed in organised sound as a magnet for spiritual energy.

Christian Vander
Christian Vander

   Ardor in performance is well served by a masterful combination of dramatic close ups and the highlighting of surreal contrasts and non-sequiturs.  Vander's shots are often juxtaposed with the other drummer Clement Bailly like some Apollonian-Dionysian double act.  Bailly's face is a model of steely self-possession, accentuated by authoritarian moustache and shades under a protopunk mohawk; Vander's a shifting portrait of grimaces, grand mal twitching and wild-eyed, ecstatic entrancement, his limbs flailing at the kit with frenzied, but unerringly accurate abandon: what Iggy Pop might have become if he'd stayed behind the drum kit and not allowed his raging id an entire stage to prowl on.  Cutaways to the female backing vocalists show them swinging their arms to this thuggish, Dante-esque funk as though it was the latest bubblegum pop hit.  The clip's final switch to pulsating strobe is intercut with photographic stills from the world's trouble spots.  Starving African children and Viet Cong prisoners follow upon subliminal flashes of Vander's haunting strobe-lit stare and the girls air drumming, as though psychically linked to their leader's visionary state, over a synthesizer's air siren-like wail.  Visual metaphors perfectly matched with the music's apocalyptic fervor.  It's one of the best music videos of the 70s.


   Magma's style of rhythmic complexity and operatic drama has given rise to the genre of zuehl whose chief luminaries such as Ruins have in turn extended its influence into the realms of math rock and progressive metal.  The building of tension common to these genres through the cognitive destabilisation of rhythmic asymmetry has its origin in Magma's driving force, but there's an emotional remoteness in much of the math rock genre outside of Slint and Don Caballero's more Beefheartian currents.  By contrast, Vander drew inspiration for his highly spiritual music from his personal hero, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and the American soul of Motown and James Brown. A gradual evolution is discernable from the early albums (Kobaïa1001º Centigrades) which mixed chamber jazz-rock in the style of Frank Zappa and Soft Machine with proto-Laibach totalitarian chanting and military marches out of Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for The Battle of Algiers.  By the time of K.A. the group were still cruising over similar warm two-chord vamps as Third-era Softs. Köhntarkösz saw the introduction of avant-funkier elements that found their most gloriously malign expression in 'De Futura'.  The two-part, 30-minute title track's dense canvas of glistening Fender Rhodes patterns and paroxysmal rhythms suggests Miles Davis' electric period, a music whose psychedelic globalism had the blues as its spiritual core.  Psychedelia teased formal mutation out of traditional blues for other artists in the late 1960s as well.  The version of Howlin' Wolf's 'Smokestack Lightning' from The Howlin' Wolf Album (1968) extends its core riff beyond the original's tight cycle within a standard metric boundary into a rambling, serpentine form.  The more typical, sleazy blues-funk motif that comes in later in 'De Futura' is like the 'Smokestack Lightning' original of the more steeply contoured anti-melody.  Elongated syntax over suspended groove is given even more baroque form in this primary theme, a sci-fi synth motif as iconic as Pierre Henry's 'Psyche Rock' has become since its evocation in the title tune of animated television series Futurama, and as filled with jaunty dread as Miles' 'Black Satin'.

   It took someone who was part of the Magma body corporate but not its leader to write 'De Futura'. The way it intuits the utopian-dystopian dialectic in Vander's Kobaïan mythopoeics and finds churning expression for its irresolvable frustration (Jannick Top appropriately named his later solo project Infernal Machine) suggests a lieutenant's objectivity rather than a commander's investment. In previous Magma albums, expressions of spiritual elation and optimistic joy are often undercut by angst and unease.  Sonic depictions of Herculean struggle are rewarded with hallelujah choruses, only for the celebrations to be invaded by snarling goblins.  There's a constant uncertainty in this rhythmic urgency - an expression of elan vital or the death drive?  Its dualism has never been more perfectly sublimated than in 'De Futura', whose knotty guitar and bass riffs are like math problems that nag at the conscience as well as the intellect.  Of the zuehl groups that followed, Ruins invested this concept of music as tricky equation with a manic, hyper-cartoonish vibe that readily found a home on John Zorn's Tzadik label.  Only Shub-Niggurath went all the way into its darkness, forming a link in Messiaenic angularity with atmospheric black metal on Southern Lord.

Üdü Wüdü

   Vander's vision of humanity's future struggles towards spiritual awakening, with its bizarre depictions of messiahs who urge on mass suicide, has attracted its share of fascist accusations.  It has a sensibility formed in an understanding that the battle for supremacy between fascism and democracy is an ongoing one; not consigned to history, but continuing in each individual psyche.  His narrative for Magma is too convoluted and eccentric to interpret it as an attempt to expunge the historical stain of Vichy collaborationism as it's possible to hear an exorcism of the Third Reich's unquiet geist in the darker side of cosmic krautrock (i.e. Neu!'s 'Negativland' with its modern-day jackhammers unearthing stone tapes of Nuremburg rallies; the ghastly punning title of Amon Duul II's 'Soap Shop Rock' and the music's supernatural threat and Wagnerian digressions; Can's Tago Mago - surely one of rock's great concept albums of the unconscious - with its Vodoun rhythms rendered with relentless martial precision, its Crowleyian world domination incantations floating in echo so spatially vast as to suggest the psychoacoustic equivalent of cosmic background radiation). Nevertheless, Vander's music contains enough multivalent scope to render it as timeless in its emotional appeal as these other worthy examples of troubled 70s progressivism.

(C) By Jonathon Kromka. 2015