The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Three Songs No Flash

To Glimpse The Cleansing Flame: Mat Colegate On Magma Live
Mat Colegate , May 15th, 2015 09:14

Broken by the General Election result, Mat Colegate went to see Magma at London's Cadogan Hall and finds his soul lifted by their "essential spark of lawless weirdness"

"The kobaian language has emerged at the same time as the music. It is logical. It is a physiological language, a ritual, a form of universal Esperanto. It is a musical language. It is easy to sing, and at the same time it shall prevent that people start to think about what we mean with this text or that line. It is a form of music without semantics. It does not exclude." (Former Magma vocalist Klaus Blasquiz)

The 8th of May, 2015 and everyone is either callous or a cretin. A Conservative victory in the previous night's general election – which I couldn't face watching and thus heard about second hand via facebook, as if a never ending stream of mute, crippled veterans was filing past – feels like it has effectively sucker-punched the breath out of the British left. We were wrong. We were perhaps always wrong. And people don't care.

The tube ride to work in the morning feels like experiencing a psychedelic epiphany in reverse. Avenues of experience shrinking and shutting down around me. I stare numbly about the carriage attempting to get the measure of my fellow travellers. Trying to work out what sort of person it is that has so meaningfully and deliberately opted for the locked metal box.

Brown shoes bloke in the M&S suit: You don't care.

Woman fidgeting with the hem of her skirt, looking like a young Isabelle Huppert: You don't care.

Beard, glasses: I used to think you cared.

And you don't care and you don't care and he doesn't care and she doesn't care and you don't care.

And then, inevitably, comes the response, rising up from the gut like black sludge from a salt plane:

I hate you and I hate you and I hate you and I hate you and I hate you and I hate you and I hate you.

And so they win all over again. Forcing us into boxes marked 'for' and 'against'. And I dream of an escape to the kind of place where the never ending dynamic of 'us' and 'them' – the pointless chatter, the endless distrustful circling – has no relevance. Where the language is so sparkling fresh that new ideas for living spring from every sentence.

This evening Magma are playing a concert in Chelsea's Cadogan hall. By Sloane Square station, in the heart of The Lair of the White Worms. I imagine a sea of blue bunting, chumps on horseback chasing tramps into the construction tape surrounding billion pound town-house extensions, glimmers of cruel joy reflecting off sunglasses that cost more than the down payment on a flat. I don't get any of that. It's drizzling slightly and the people are indoors. It's all very quiet and very grey and very fucking British. In its reserve, in its inability to commit. It is the very opposite of Magma.

Later on I'm sat in the hall watching Magma perform what is for many their magnum opus, 1973's Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh. A frankly preposterous series of crescendos are occurring, as effortless and heavy as books being slammed shut, each leading inevitably into the next. The heady strangeness of the sound has as many antecedents in the paintings of Gustave Moreau, or the comics of Philippe Druillet as it does any musical influence, with its decadent lushness and skilled grasp of line and form, it's nonsensical vocalisations resembling the cries of mythical chimeras. This is a beyond-this-world-and-time music that contains a human and relatable fragility. A questioning spirit that stems from band leader and drummer Christian Vander's incorporation of gospel, soul music and the jazz of John Coltrane, not as a sop to any misleading notions of 'authenticity' but because Magma's music is essentially political – over brimming with anger and yearning and the desire to be free.

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin hypothesised that the single greatest controlling factor in human lives was language. That it was our obedience to strict rules of grammar and syntax that put the full stop on humanity ever being able to think beyond his mediocre surroundings and achieve escape. Vander's yearning for true freedom is so great that he went as far as to invent his own language. Magma's three vocalists are singing in Kobaian, a semi-nonsensical tongue invented by Vander in order to fully relate the tale of galactic exile told throughout the band's first nine albums. How much sense it all makes is impossible to fathom. Bits and pieces of French can occasionally be heard rising through the glossolalic broth, so it's difficult to see that it has much semantic integrity, but it's what it sounds like that counts. Faced with three singers hooting and swooping through some of Magma's most famed back catalogue, from Köntarkösz to MDK to 'Zombies' from 1976's Üdü Ẁüdü, you are elsewhere. The precise rumble of hypercharged jazz-influenced rock combined with all the whooping and hollering feels like total freedom. A massive breath of clean air before the inevitable submersion into a claustrophobic panic. It feels thrillingly, beautifully necessary.

Musically Magma are so singular that a whole genre was invented for them: 'Zeuhl' - Another nonsensical word and another testament to their singularity. Certainly 'prog' doesn't do this music justice. There's no bloodless, pole-up-the-hole showboating, no earnestness and certainly Magma groove far too hard to ever be mistaken for having anything to do with the horrible leaden clomp of fucking Genesis. Again, it's Vander's relationship with soul and funk that elevates Magma, that and the awesome drumming skills he exhibits, rolling around the kit with hectic force and mantric precision. Bassist Philippe Bussonnet is another essential cog, his freakishly supple fingers pummelling away at his fuzz-caked four string. Having never seen Magma live before it's a surprise to see so much noise coming from just eight people – vibes, electric guitar and a Fender Rhodes piano fill out the line-up - listening to their albums one imagines vast intergalactic choirs, 'The Chorus Of The Hebrew Slaves' as re-imagined by Michael Moorcock, but this relatively small scale allows them to manoeuvre all the quicker, delivering strafing runs of bombastic musical interplay before zooming back into the near silence of space.

The audience reaction is as close to ecstatic as any I've seen. Part of this of course is because Magma are the ultimate cult – the black robes sported in the early photos is a clue – and that everyone in their small circle of acolytes is eager to show their appreciation. But partly I think it's because, following what was one of the most draining and disappointing days in living memory, Magma are a dazzling reminder of that essential spark of lawless weirdness that runs through all great art. The real untouchable stuff that creates the rules entirely for itself and won't let anyone tell it how to be. Faced with five more years of blame and spiritual poverty, Magma are an incandescent reminder of the power and reach of the human imagination. A last glimpse of the flame before the doors slam shut.