Since their reformation in the late 1990s, Magma have played at various prestigious venues. While these stately rooms were perfectly suited to Christian Vander’s epic music, the news that this visionary French octet would play in far more intimate surroundings was met with great excitement.
Cafe Oto is, as the name suggests, a cafe, with no stage and only a modest PA. It’s renowned for staging experimental, avant‑garde, uncategorisable music, and so it’s an appropriate setting for Magma.
Now before I continue, let me nail my colours to the mast. Christian Vander is the greatest living drummer, anywhere. That his compositional prowess is equal to his ability behind the kit makes him nothing short of a genius. There are very few bands that have spawned their own genre and only one that has given birth to Zeuhl. Magma’s sound is not indescribable, on paper at least: it’s heavily through-composed, dense and polyrhythmic, with a strong grounding in jazz and elements of minimalism, gospel and modern classical. It is, however, the effect that this extraordinary, elemental music has on the listener that makes them unlike anything else.
While there has been something of a revolving door in terms of keyboard players, the 21st-century line-up rivals anything the band offered in the 1970s. Singers Isabelle Feuillebois and Stella Vander are on fine form, the latter’s soaring, angelic voice as spine-tingling as ever, and recent addition Hervé Aknin is powerful and commanding.
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The addition of Benoît Alziary’s vibraphone brings additional colour to the Magma palette. On a sadder note, due to his ongoing recovery from a brain tumour, there’s no James Mac Gaw on guitar. His replacement, Rudy Blas, nonetheless does a wonderful job.
Special mention must be given to superhuman bassist Philippe Bussonnet. He is a force of nature who’s taken Zeuhl bass playing beyond the stars.
The performance revolves around stunning renditions of Theusz Hamtaahk and Mekanïk Destruktïw` Kommandöh. Unlike the linear Krautrock approach, the use of repetition in Magma involves cycles of differing meters orbiting each other, at times beautiful and heavenly, at others terrifying and diabolical, but always propulsive and transcendental. It’s as much a psychedelic ritual as a performance.
Magma play with an unequalled intensity and ferocious passion. They are unselfconscious, sincere and utterly unique. Tonight, it often seems as though time itself is being compressed and expanded, and that the audience is being propelled into the sun.
In 30 times of watching this band, at the close of each show there is a sense of not quite believing what has just happened. Unsurprisingly, tonight is no exception.