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Magma - Félicité Thösz CD (album) cover





4.08 | 406 ratings

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5 stars In my definition of what makes for moving music, Magma has always been the perfect mix of power and grace, combining gut-rumbling bass and a knockout flurry of drum rhythms with soaring, otherworldly vocals and spiraling melodic lines. So it was curious for me to see in reactions to the new pieces played on the 2009-2011 tour how neatly fans were divided into the 'power' and 'grace' types. Those rocked by the DeFutura sound gravitated immediately to the power chords of Slag Tanz (Fire Dance), the show opener, while those carried off to the clouds by Magma's vocal layering were taken away by Felicite Thosz. For the sake of full disclosure, I suppose I must classify myself as a Type 2, though Slag Tanz strongly grew on me as it developed, and virtually every month's performance of it was full of wondrous new surprises. Type 1's, however, did not tend to cross over, and some of the vitriol against Felicite Thosz on blogs and video comments was downright surprising, coming from self-defined fans (a jingle for a toothpaste ad?? Are you kidding me?)

Now, I'd be the first to join the haters if this album were a sell-out or venture into the bland. But it's anything but. It's quintessential Magma, if a magnification of one side--brighter, more joyful--of their sound that has been there all along, to the detriment, perhaps, of those subterranean, throbbing mysteries with which it's been typically allied. Felicite Thosz can best be characterized as a rococo development in Magma's typically baroque output: flowery, elegant, layered, full of colors and energy, and the superbly layered studio recording amplifies these aspects even more than the live performances. Let us not confuse real expressions of love and joy for their cheaper equivalents in toothpaste ads or pop music, however: it must be underlined that Felicite is a complex, rich treatment of these brighter (and thus in many ways more difficult) themes, not flatly idealized or smarmy. Thus, I can say with confidence that this album represents a development of the Magma sound, a positive growth, not a digression or regression to Christian Vander's Offering or solo albums as some would have it.

Admitting that I knew this lyrical, lilting piece note by note before the release, I was still surprised by many aspects of the studio recording. First and foremost, unlike all of the concert recordings I had enjoyed, no vibraphone! In fact, this meant that the piece's opening was substantially different from the live performances, and I was not immediately taken by the new, less interesting, single-note chant opening (although it works in its own way, as the intrusion of power cords on a background line that takes us by force from the mundane to another, more powerful plane of reality.) Second surprise: in place of the vibraphone, the best piano playing on any Magma album to date. It's hard to overstate the brilliance of the piano throughout this album, and it acts as the perfect complement to the vocal lines. The live versions with electric piano simply do not have the depth and subtlety of the real thing. Third surprise: layering. You could hear a bit of it in the live performances, but to have every voice and instrument clear in the studio mix amplifies some of the amazing harmonies in this composition. Although I've always liked the piece, the studio album gave me reasons to like it to the nth degree more. The only surprise not really to my liking is the new, cacophonous ending of the piece, which feels like a short, tacked-on bit to satisfy those who might think it otherwise too bright and mainstream'although it may be an attempt to fit this brighter sequence within a context of Magma's vision of the spiritual decline and destruction of the planet. At any rate, I've never minded Magma's ventures into dissonance (in fact, I really enjoy them), but this last bit seems so out of context it's almost like a surprise ending, as if we're drawing back from a screen on which delightful images are playing to realize that they're playing in a post-apocalyptic nightmare world of superstition and crumbling civilization.

(Review intermission: Speaking of short and tacked-on, the Felicite Thosz 'album' also includes the four minute piece 'Les Hommes sont Venus,' which to my knowledge has never been played by Magma before, and sounded to me at first listen like one of those quickly crafted, rationally constructed compositions on Vander's solo albums. That said, the short little rondo has grown on me, and there are moments of musical brilliance in it. It definitely shows Magma in a softer, more 'classical' mode in this "album"--ironic quote marks as it's only about 30 min. long!)

Against the rich fabric of vocal and instrumental lines in this remarkable composition, two sections clearly stand out as highlights. The first is, of course, Stella Vander's soaring vocals that close out the first section of the piece (before the piano solo), which led some to say that the composition was just a vehicle for her vocal prowess. I disagree with this assessment, as Stella's vocal flight grows naturally out of the sections preceding it, right back to the beginning of the piece in fact. Nevertheless, it does stand out from all that precedes it, taking the piece into another dimension. The second standout section is Christian's vocal part, accompanied by some well-timed piano swells. Magma fans always go nuts when Christian emerges from behind the kit to sing, and in this case, the excitement is well justified. In a remarkable mix of jazz scat and operatic tenor, Christian delivers a performance that makes this album (quite literally) a gift from god. He seems to be channeling a spirit of life so full of joy that you cannot help having your heart flutter by the time he gets to the final ecstatic line, and the alternation of holding back and release along the way is simply masterful. Even if you're not a fan of the full Felicite, for its mellowness and lyricism, if you simply play track 9, you will be treated to something truly special.

It never ceases to amaze me that a band as talented as Magma and a composer as gifted as Christian Vander do not get more attention in the United States'if not for a true appreciation of their profundity, then at least for a superficial appreciation of the strangeness of a group that has prophesized musically in a constructed language for the last 40+ years! Given the lyrical, gentle nature of Felicite Thosz, I am almost tempted to think this could be the album that breaks through to popular consciousness. But then I look around me, hear what people are actually listening to, and I think, no, the world is not ready for Kobaia yet. But some of us are fortunate to have learned Magma's unique idiom, and to us, Felicite is nothing less than an outline of the human soul.

WurdahItah | 5/5 |


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