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Zeuhl, the most challenging and densest of progressive rock subgenres, elicits intense reactions from most who have listened to this truly unique music form.  The word, Zeuhl, means celestial in the contrived language, Kobaian, which was constructed as the lyrical medium for Zeuhl music.  The music, its unique language, and its challenging motifs are the exclusive creative effort of one musician, Christian Vander.

No other music form can be so undeniably linked to one individual as Zeuhl is inextricably tied to French drummer, vocalist, and mult-instrumentalist, Vander. Through his band, Magma, Vander, beginning in 1970 and continuing, has consistently released albums with a tireless dedication to his unique vision.  His vision, although not shared by every listener, is undeniably a transformative force in progressive rock which has influenced dozens of imitators and culled a dedicated, loyal fan following.

Vander was moved to make his musical statement in 1967 following the death of his idol, John Coltrane.  In a April 2009 interview with Wire, Vander observed ” The year John Coltrane died. It seemed to me that afterwards, it was as though music had to try to start all over again. Someone had to pick up the pieces, go on searching in the way that he had.”  With their first release “Kobaia” in 1970, Magma confrontationally went for the listener’s jugular with a dense arrangement of tight, thumping rhythm courtesy of Vander (drums) and Francis Moze (bass), call-response and scatting vocals by Klaus Blazquiz and Vander, and vast amounts of soloing excursions by all involved.  Thematically, the double vinyl debut begins the Vander created mythology of Kobaia, a world beyond beset by existential threats, imprisonment of Earth, and the struggle to overcome. 

Future releases from the band continue along these lines and do much to advance the mythology and the intensity of the music.  Aside from the Kobaian vocals which shift from Wagnerian operatic blasts to shrill falsettos, the music is more conventional although not less entertaining. Some fans suffer through the vocal passages in order to bask in the driving, relentless rhythm and the impeccable musicianship Vander was able to attract through the years to perform on his pet project.  Jannick Top (bass), Blazquiz, and Christian’s wife, Stella (vocals), have each emerged as early and significant contributors to the Zeuhl style.

To most observers, the third release in the Kobaian mythology, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh" (1973) solidifies the Zeuhl sound and serves as the benchmark by which other albums are measured.  Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, or M.D.K. to the Magma fan base, is a tour de force of blistering drumming, booming bass, and of course, those off-putting unrestrained vocals that shock even Captain Beefheart fans. The music is repetitive and hypnotic with occasional interruptions of trumpet blasts or piano solos and owes its roots to jazz with hints of minimalism.  Although a more gradual introduction to Zeuhl might be beneficial with initiation to the debut release, one’s journey to Kobaia isn’t complete until you drive out your significant other with a 30 second exposure to M.D.K. weirdness.
Other recommendations from the extensive Magma catalogue include:  “1001 Centigrades” (1971), “Live” (1975),“Kohntarkosz” (1974), and “Inedits” (1977).  The remainder of the releases are very derivative of the Magma sound but satisfying never-the-less with the exception of the 1984 release of “Merci” which lacks progressive elements in an attempt to provide a more mainstream product. Following this disappointing album, Vander disbanded the group.

In 2001, Magma reformed and begin performing live to the delight of its fans.  Several excellent shows have been released since that time on DVR under the “Mythes et Legendes” series.  The impeccable production value of these releases allows the viewer to experience the intensity of a Magma performance and feature the classic line-up of Top, Christian, Stella, and Blasquiz.

Magma’s comparisons to Zappa, Carl Orff (a 20th century German composer), or even their progressive French progressive contemporaries, Gong, are neither relevant nor useful. Magma delivers the real deal: an indescribable mixture of oppressive drone and opera with Sci-Fi themes served with jazz elements of scatting, horn sections, and frenetic soloing. The overall effect seeks to convert your initial revulsion into a perverse fascination, and finally ardent devotion to the infectious grooves, droning chants, and dizzying soloing. Unfortunately, many listeners don’t make past the shock of hearing Christian’s quirky falsetto streaming an endless succession of unrecognizable words. Consequently, Magma had minimal commercial success and none of the popularity of classic progressive acts such as Yes, Genesis, and ELP.

Magma’s influence in pushing the boundaries of acceptance have helped shape future groups like Belgium’s Univers Zero practiontioners of demonic chamber music and Art Zoyd a French rock in opposition outfit.  Both groups are highly recommended.  Other groups, including projects from Jannik Top, are more formulaic and strive to imitate rather than break new ground. Despite the large collection of imitators, Magma remains the undisputed master of Zeuhl.  If you find this brief overview interesting or at the very least, confusing, please take the next ship departing for Kobaia and enjoy the journey.  There doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.  

Article made by Tim O'Brien / 2013
© Copyright 2013

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