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Christian Vander - Tristan Et Iseult [Aka: Ẁurdah ¤tah] (OST) CD (album) cover


Christian Vander



4.18 | 333 ratings

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4 stars I've put off writing this review, simply because the I find the music on this album so touching and awe-inspiring that I'm in danger of drooling out one of those unrestrained and unhelpful reviews that betray a complete and utter lack of judgement on the part of the reviewer. (What's that you say...? Nothing new there.? Oh well. all I can do is try!) But as entirely personal as any review must inevitably be, this one will be perhaps even more personal than usual. I promise to keep the dribbling and raving to an absolute minimum, though.! The usual pre-amble apologising for any unwitting pretension applies, naturally.

First of all, context: you most likely already know that this album is credited to Christian Vander, but it is accepted as a Magma album. It's the core of the band, shorn of all fripperies and fol-de-rols. Also, it's supposedly the soundtrack to the (apparently 'so bad it's BAD') movie 'Tristan et Iseult'. However, since the guy who made the film half-inched the band's somewhat unrefined rehearsal tapes to use in the actual movie, and also since the content of the music has about as much to do with Tristan and Iseult as it does with Charley's Aunt, I wouldn't let that distract you for a single second. In reality, it is, as the booklet says, the second movement of the 'Theusz Hamtaahk' trilogy, and is therefore categorically not a love story. (Try Youtube for some quite unintentionally-hilarious clips from the film!)

Secondly, I'll move on to the sound of the album. Magma's music finds its expression in an extremely varied palette of different moods, styles, orchestrations and textures, across all their albums. Whilst this arrangement fits firmly into what I delight in calling their 'doom oratorio' period (!), it's rather different from the thick, dark surge of 'Mekan´k Destrukt´w Kommand÷h'. On this record, only four musicians are credited, instead of the small regiment of players on 'MDK'. That doesn't mean that this music sounds sparse or bare - but it is very much more subtle, clear, elegant and controlled than 'MDK'. No bumptious choruses here - no blaring brass - and absolutely no ragged edges. It's very devotional, pure-sounding and extremely emotional (sort of as if the usual hysteria is being countered very firmly by melancholy). 'Discipline' is an oft-bandied word where Magma is concerned. I guess normally, it is used to refer to the all-powerful, controlled-and-controlling rhythms. But the discipline on this record seems to have permeated every aspect of it. Somewhat like poetry - poised - constrained by a complex meter.

The most obvious idiosyncracy in the arrangement is the way the piano is pushed to the forefront. And it's used so effectively - the endlessly shifting, chiming layers add a sort of emotional current, a tidal swell, to the music. Chords bleed into chords, pressing every sentimental button, but never to excess. Somehow there is a greatly cathartic element to 'Wurdah ¤tah', but not to an unpleasant or unbearable degree. The piano never quite goes too far in circling around these intense feelings. Then there's the bass - Jannick Top in perfectly restrained mode. Let's face it, sometimes he is just a big show off. And who could blame him, given what he can do? But here his every contribution is discreet, almost modest. This piece would not support a full-on Zeuhl Bass Tantrum, and the more-reserved-than-usual playing is absolutely right here.

No Vander composition would be complete of course without mind-boggling percussion, and this is no exception. Again, however, this is not your customary Zeuhl Fireworks Extravaganza! Suitable descriptors would be soft, tender, subtle, sensitive. That's not to say that any sloppiness or sentimentality creeps in, though.

Now, the voices! It's been said by many others that despite the reduced ranks performing on this album, it feels even more 'choral' than ever. You don't need a gaggle of singers, it seems, to produce this effect - just the breathtaking combination of complete precision and heartfelt emotion that is managed here. You'll hear a surprising amount of Christian Vander's singing voice (well, maybe not 'surprising', given that it's his record and all.). That rapt little trill that he does at the end of a note decorates many a phrase. The warmth, drama and range of Klaus Blasquiz is everywhere too, enhanced and supported by Stella Vander's eloquently changeable, soft-then-strident voice. Again, every note is apposite - nothing unnecessary is attempted, and nothing is lacking either.

Thirdly, how about the mood of this album? Many people call this piece 'distilled essence of Magma', and it is, but more than that it's 'distilled essence of Vander'. There's that ebb and flow of unquenchable feeling, the progressive/narrative feel to the structure, with all the typically-Vanderish ritual/devotional repetitions and mind-jarring rhythmic contradictions, all somehow concentrated and purified and made into 'more than the sum of their parts'. The first time I heard this record, my mental image of it was of a private ritual, for the 'inner circle' only of some kind of mystical cult. Magma is possibly the definitive 'cult band' - inspiring devotion and revulsion in equal measure, and replete with iconography (and of course the ultimate in secret words - the Koba´an language). On this record, they inhabit that 'cult' air so completely that you feel you are eavesdropping on a secret ceremony. By contrast, 'MDK' is like a public service broadcast of some kind of enthusiastic Koba´an carol service! (That, by the way, is no criticism - I always feel as though 'MDK' is designed for singing along, joining in - there's a 'municipal' quality to it that I really love!)

Well, after all those words, I'd better come to a swift conclusion. I don't want you all collapsing with boredom! (Or is it too late for that, I wonder?!) Ok, so here goes. This has become the record that I put on if I have had a particularly bad, emotionally-draining day. As I listen to it, I can feel some kind of balance and calmness returning to me, a certain subdued relaxation - starting from the toes up! In this music, the two key Magma elements (precision and emotion) are so finely balanced, it is so well-executed (via a composition of undeniable clarity and quality, and nigh-perfect performances), that I almost feel it could be their best album - except of course that all of Magma's really great albums are pretty much equally great. Picking a favourite/'the best' is impossible. If you like to start your acquaintance with a band by diving into the 'real stuff' (as opposed to 'easing in gently' - so to speak! - with something more 'palatable'), then you might give this a go as your first Magma. Especially if you are not fazed by 'weird music'. (Weird is only a matter of opinion, after all.) I know if I'd heard this first, I'd have loved it straight away. My heart wants to give it five stars, but because it's not the sort of thing everybody will jump for joy over, I think I'll give it four. This is a sublime album; maybe not essential for all, but I recommend it wholeheartedly.

song_of_copper | 4/5 |


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