Since their arrival from the planet Kobaia in 1970, Magma have always hovered on the periphery of things, a changing collection of enigmatic outsiders in which the strange and the unconventional has been an intrinsic part of Christian Vander’s vision for the group. The guttural brutality of the angular motifs that characterises their sprawling discography was always too troublesome for the mainstream, and even some more open-minded prog fans.
Vander’s informed by a skewed take on the rapturous, beatific choruses of tenor sax jazz giant John Coltrane as much as the rock music of his day. For over four decades he’s been at the helm of a multifaceted ritualistic music given to outbursts of primal emotion and unrelenting repetition. Add his insistence on having his sci-fi-inspired lyrics sung in the invented cosmic tongue of Kobaïan, and the very things that made them a bad bet commercially have undoubtedly delivered a bountiful cache of cultish exoticism.
Though Félicité Thösz begins with a customary thump and shrill impassioned chorus, a surprising degree of light dominates the dark terrain that usually comes with a Magma album. During the title piece’s 28 minutes, composed by Vander a decade ago, early sections have a glistening, pastoral feel that gently modulates between male and female voices. Rather than the expected climactic apocalyptic thunder, the entire ensemble break out into a swinging, 60s-style, tambourine-shaking pop song, the kind close-harmony vocal group The 5th Dimension used to excel at.
Absurdly infectious, Tëha’s sunny, finger-clicking tune, led by Stella Vander’s rising soprano, is both beautiful and bizarre. In the hands of anyone else it’d be innocuous. Only with Magma could something so apparently charming sound so seditious. A transition point comes after the lush romanticism of a solo piano interlude. From thereon we’re pitched into an atavistic chorale whose massed chants are pinioned between spiking relentless chords.
Vander has always employed a brash, occasionally awkward theatricality in his writing. Yet often it’s these cathartic excesses that provides so many remarkable listening moments. It seems with Félicité Thösz the imposing glower usually found on the face of Zuehl’s progenitor, has been tempered with a knowing wink of the eye, as we ricochet from one point of the musical dial to another.
Be it the simple lyricism of Orff; Bernstein-style high kicks; Vander’s own splenetic Brecht-Weill soliloquy during Öhst and even the subtle evocation of Stockhausen’s Stimmung on the album’s closing track. All typically bracing, all typically Magma.