THE CLICHÉ ABOUT FRANCE HAS LONG BEEN that it's incapable of producing Great Rock Music, a condition owing to the French language itself, which is too soft, too nuanced, to make the proper impact in a forceful rock way. Ironically, though, in 1969 France gave birth to a group called Magma, one of the heaviest bands the rock world has ever known, and simultaneously not a rock band at all.
The ensemble was formed in Paris by drummer Christian Vander, the stepson of French jazz pianist Maurice Vander. Christian had been playing jazz and pop professionally since his early teens — he received his first drum set from jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who stole it from his drummer. Vander gathered players from all over the country who were dissatisfied with the typical French habit of slavishly copying American or British rock and jazz musicians. At the time, he says, “everyone had flowers on their clothes, but I preferred to see flowers in the meadows.” Magma dressed in black.
A raven-haired, powerfully built man of swarthy hue and wolfish glare, Vander was and is of a darkly cosmological bent, and had an early fascination with Gurdjieff. Musically, Coltrane was everything to him, and Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones made a big impact on Vander's multilimbed, badass drum style. Not wishing to play jazz, exactly — he still considers it a specifically black American art form — for Magma he drew on the folkloric music of his Polish Gypsy forebears. The band's signature sound evolved via chanting, guttural vocals and much use of repetitive motifs pumped out on multiple acoustic and electric pianos and horns, atop militaristically hefty bass and drums.
But the French language — too soft, and Vander disliked the sound of English as well. So he made up his own tongue, a vaguely Germanic, craggily mellifluous thing called Kobaian. Vander's vision was grand, and apocalyptic: He developed a concept for Magma's recorded output, proposing a nine-part sci-fi-ish opus that would tell the story of the Kobaians, who'd fled the degradation of life on Earth and settled on another planet, only to find they'd dragged Earth's miseries along with them; the solution was annihilation. The opus was never completed; after the release of Part 4, Mëkanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh, the plan seems to have been abandoned, though the group continued to sing in Kobaian and a mixture of English, French and vocalese.
So, yes, concept albums, a made-up language, quasi-operatic vocals — these things naturally made American rock critics, with their folk chords and populist anthems, flee in droves. Yet Vander's arcane world-view was not that far removed from the eccentricities of the quintessentially hip Sun Ra, for example. At its best, Magma's music, in particular the above-mentioned MDK and the mysterious follow-up, the masterful Kohntarkosz, defined a sound roughly intersecting progressive jazz, Bartók and heavy metal, related texturally to Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson. Kohntarkosz, released in 1974, concerns an exploration of an Egyptian tomb, its serpentine, mozaical structure redolent of incense, mold and fire. As it plays so cryptically with time and countertime, it's a piece of music whose code you'll probably never decipher, and thus remains timeless.
Magma's sound grew wicked, culminating in the 18-minute metal masterpiece “De Futura” from the album Üdü Wüdü, written by the band's then-bassist Jannick Top, who tuned his bass down to C for an extra-heavy wallop. Vander's music could not, however, sustain all that dark hubris, and over the years Magma became more shaded, lyrical even. Band members for this technically demanding enterprise came and went; many of France's best players, including violinist Didier Lockwood and bassist Bernard Paganotti, joined the ranks. (In France, you had to have played with Magma in order to say that you were really a professional musician.)
Vander himself is without a doubt one of the three or four greatest drummers the Continent has ever produced. An audacious maelstrom of controlled polyrhythmic fury, he's a feral cross between Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Rashied Ali and, of course, Elvin Jones, and Magma can be recommended if only for the powerful originality of his instrumental chops. In recent years he's formed two other bands, Offering and the Christian Vander Trio, to further explore his jazz roots, and has engaged Magma in varied instrumental frameworks, including performances with large choirs and a version of MDK sung by a children's chorus.
Christian Vander's drive toward a deeply personal music mirrors that of his countryman Claude Debussy, who at one point began billing himself as “Claude Debussy, musicien français.” In order to create a new kind of music, Vander invented, finally, a music that was unique to France, yet rarely sounds remotely French. His vision has inspired an actual genre in France and Japan, called Zeuhl Music, with several bands adopting the Magma model of folkloric chants, twinkling ostinatos and raging rhythm sections.
Perhaps you've seen the band's logo, a crepuscular orb that reflects the music itself, where it's not always so obvious which is the sun and which is the moon.
Magma appears with Porcupine Tree at House of Blues on Tuesday, June 1. Check out www.seventhrecords.com for catalog ordering information.