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Magma - Magma [Aka: Kobaļa] CD (album) cover





4.05 | 468 ratings

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3 stars Magma's début album, an ambitious double LP, is absolutely stuffed to brimming point with ideas and potential - to the extent that you get a strong impression of all the band members jockeying for position in the 'compositional steeplechase'! Christian Vander wrote most of the pieces on the record, but he's not yet the inspired monomaniac leader of the group.

The band's sound hasn't yet developed into full-on Zeuhl (which has an unearthly combination of intricacy and heaviness, with a dash of spirituality). All the ingredients are there, but they're not immediately easy to discern in amongst the jazziness of this music. Jazz tends to spotlight one instrument after another, rather than weaving a close-knit texture in which all the instruments in the ensemble are just elements of some kind of notional 'larger instrument' (which is something I hear sometimes in 'Zeuhl proper'!). There is a 'lightness' to this music - maybe it's the airy flute and guitar, or maybe the production is serving the 'jazz queueing system' in which each instrument is clearly highlighted and everyone gets their turn to shine. But then again, every so often, something Zeuhlish solidifies and floats to the top of the primordial soup!

Alongside the very obvious jazz influences, there are several other things that make this record sound totally different from later Magma. For one thing, the voice here is really just another instrument - the band hasn't yet instituted the flamboyantly anthemic recitations and shimmering choral parts that are a hallmark of Magma's classic style. Much of the time, Klaus Blasquiz is practically 'humming the tune' rather than belting out the urgent, percussive, indecipherable poetry of future epics.

Another difference is the album's somewhat episodic feel, rather as though everyone is taking turns to explore their own compositional ideas, one after the other. Instead of containing longer pieces that might fill an LP side, the music is presented in shorter sections. At first, I found this lent a rather jumpy, incoherent atmosphere: in many of the pieces, the style of the music changes literally every few bars rather than having that stylistic consistency that takes over on later albums where only one or two people are in charge. The experience of listening to this music can have a rather chopped-up feel, instead of the overarching unity that you might expect from Magma. But it's always the way that anything unfamiliar in music can sound like no more than 'the sum of its parts' until you've heard it a few times. Once you've familiarised yourself with it a little, if there is an overall pattern in there, it will start to show itself. Now that I've listened to this album a few more times, somehow the conventional jazz elements are less tricky to reconcile with. well, whatever the other stuff is! Not 'Zeuhl proper', as mentioned, but something 'not of this Earth', for sure! It really is like jazz filtered through another culture. Maybe we should just think of it as 'extra-terrestrial jazz'!

One other interesting thing to note is that at times, the effect of this album is like hearing the soundtrack to 'Magma: the Off-Broadway Musical'! Or maybe 'Magma: the Modern Ballet'. It is much more straightforwardly narrative-sounding than some of their stuff, and each song has its précis telling you what it's about. At times you can almost imagine sets and costumes and 'interpretive dance routines' - this music feels more literal and less symbolic than later Magma efforts.

This review has ended up being really too long, but that's because it's very hard to pin down what this music is, or what it's trying to be. Maybe the people making it weren't quite sure of that yet themselves! Anyway, it's certainly an album that requires repeated listening before you can come to any sort of meaningful opinion about it. It really is strange sounding music - all the stranger for occasionally sounding totally conventional (rather like the soundtrack to a 1970s TV drama!), only to flip over to the Horror Channel without warning and unleash Christian Vander in full-on 'insulted pterodactyl' screeching mode! I'm giving it three stars, because although there are many great ideas on this album, and although its ingredients are top notch, it lacks the coherence - the consonance - that would, on later Magma albums, allow this interesting, nameless mixture to evolve into something of power and substance. In fact, I suspect this album will only make complete sense when viewed alongside everything else in the Magma discography. Maybe it's the glossary to the rest of their output - baldly advertising the discrete elements that eventually fused together to make Zeuhl.

song_of_copper | 3/5 |


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