Among the prog cognoscenti, Christian Vander’s fusion-inclined proggers Magma have always had their share of ardent fans (even Johnny Rotten’s claimed to be a fan).
But the great drummer’s side projects haven’t always been to the taste of even the keenest Magmaphiles. His early-80s project Offering didn’t agree with everyone, given its concentration on Coltrane-inspired improvisations, and piano and vocal-led pieces in which his virtuoso percussion skills sometimes took a back seat.
But this 30th anniversary reincarnation of Offering – captured at Le Triton last July - shows they deserved more attention. Sure, at first the whole thing verges on self-parody. The eponymous opening track sometimes sounds like they’ve launched a competition to fit the most notes and beats into a single bar, in no particular order. Watching the same track on the accompanying DVD, the grimacing, vein-poppingly passionate Vander and his closed-eyed bandmates look as if they’re each playing a separate song in their own heads. But once you persevere, you realise that these grooves are invariably hung on very simple, repetitive two or three-chord piano hooks, which soon dig deeper into you.
Joia’s quasi-religious vibe and tripped-out jazz inflections remind you of David Axelrod’s Electric Prunes, and allied to Vander’s impassioned scat improvisations, it all starts to resemble some sort of wild, meandering prayer. The same can be said for another highlight, the epic Another Day (Part 1), bulding slowly over 29 minutes into a frantic blur of tit-for-tat exchanges between Vander and wife Stella Vander that creates a real sense of rising panic, culminating in our hero wailing and screaming as if being sucked into a whirlpool of his own emotion, while discordant rhythm and piano stabs constantly crash into him and he taps out an imaginary sax solo on his microphone.
Clearly Offering is about doing whatever feels right at that moment, and sometimes that actually results in jams that wouldn’t sound out of place on daytime radio. Love In The Darkness is a smooth, soulful affair as Isabelle Feuillebois trills over the top of another sparse piano motif. Le Temps a Passé is a sweetly contemplative flute-and-keys reverie, and at the end of the main set, the musicians join voices on Ehn Deiss, a gently undulating, hymnal lament.
Still, we end on a suitably avant-garde high. The bonus track on the DVD film, Earth, sees Vander veer off from the bass-driven backing to howl maniacally at the moon, eyes rolling halfway out of his skull. Even at age 66, that seems to be his comfort zone. Long may he remain there.
Johnny Sharp ** **