Magma – Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï – Live 1974 (1974/2014) [TrackList follows] – MIG/Radio Bremen 01102, (2 CDs) 47:37, 45:58 [7/8/14] ***1/2:
(Christian Vander – drums, vocals; Jannick Top – bass; Michel Graillier, Gerald Bikialo – keyboards; Claude Olmos – guitar; Klaus Blasquiz – vocals, percussion)
Paris-based progressive rock band Magma never made it easy for listeners and potential fans. While founder and drummer Christian Vander and his various bandmembers epitomized 1970s prog rock, his aspirations were extravagant even for a genre which often blended bombast and bravado. Similar groups kept concepts to a single project and created music meant to entice audiences, but Vander crafted a sci-fi tale—about an interstellar war between Earth and another distant world—originally plotted to course through 10 LPs. Vander even invented a language which utilized Slavonic and Germanic phonetic elements (thus a lot of umlauts), to help convey his idiosyncratic vision into existence. Thus, no one outside of the group could normally comprehend the extraterrestrial vocals nor grasp the large-scale narrative concerning interplanetary conflict, cosmic accord and religious reconciliations.
Predictably, Magma did not have commercial success, but over four decades has garnered a cult fan base which has enthusiasts from prog rock, doom metal, jazz fusion and other realms. Since Magma’s 1970 inception, there have been studio releases and concert documentation, including bootlegs. The latest, unearthed import set (on the MIG label) is the 2-CD Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï – Live 1974, an officially issued concert recorded at Radio Bremen Sendesaal on February 6th, 1974. This 93-minute live set was professionally and sonically improved and is an upgrade over still-circulating bootlegs.
The stage presentation is split in four sections. CD one has an opening tune and a 35-minute rendition of the Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh Suite; CD two has a 20-minute vocals/drum piece and an extended epic closer. The performance begins with the 12-minute “Sowiloï (soï soï),” which commences with an ominous voice, then a rhythmically intricate, fusion-jazz instrumental portion, followed by seemingly-improvised chanting which provides a droning quality atop both pre-written and unplanned music with several jazz-like tempo changes, dual keyboards, and prerequisite psychedelic (and dated) electric guitar soloing. This tune is Magma’s most fusion-oriented track. The highlight is the almost-complete translation of the Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh Suite, taken from Magma’s same-titled 1973 LP. The only segment missing is the suite’s seventh and final part, which was probably not played since it had exploratory studio effects which were impractical to do in a live setting. While there are many tonal textures, the accent is on Klaus Blasquiz’s repetitive vocals which have an operatic intonation. It’s impossible to tell what he’s singing, but his voice (supplemented by Vander’s deeper cadences) carries weight. Occasionally, guitarist Claude Olmos gains the reins in a style reminiscent of Bay Area artists such as Jerry Garcia or Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina. But generally, the music is fueled by Vander’s drumming, and Michel Graillier and Gerald Bikialo’s electric pianos.
The second disc is problematic, at least for those not initiated into Magma’s dominion. The 20-minute “Korusz II” is mainly a lengthy drum and percussion solo with sporadic sonorous vocalizations interlaced among percussive effects. Vander displays expert snare skills, technically intense tom-tom virtuosity and elaborate use of cymbals, integrated with chants and shouts. It is hard to imagine anyone but devoted Magma aficionados enjoying this overlong percussion demonstration. The second disc’s best workout is the nearly 26-minute “Theusz Hamtaahk,” where Magma’s essential inventiveness is exhibited. Blasquiz’s singing is more attentively aligned with the instrumental interplay of keys, drums, bass and guitar. The music rises up and rushes downward; the musicians push and heave against or at each other; and the arrangement drifts or escalates from jazz fusion to space rock, and from a hard rock province to an avant-rock domain. Magma fans will appreciate this finale-ending conclusion. The Radio Bremen engineers did a great job on this older recording. A multi-microphone setup on Vander’s drum kit supplies terrific sound for his complex drumming and percussion. The balance between keys, guitar, drums, vocals and bass is well done. The vocals sometimes seem too far in the front, although undoubtedly that is what the band wanted at the time. Lighter percussive bits are not buried, and heavier sounds (such as distorted bass) are not too excessive. The foldout digipak has a 12-page booklet with archival photos, biographical liner notes, short French footnotes, and a reprint of a German review of the Bremen broadcast.
CD 1: Sowiloï (soï soï); Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh: I. I Hortz Fur Dëhn Stëckëhn West II. Ïmah Sürï Dondaï III. Kobaïa Iss De Hündïn IV. Da Zeuhl Wortz Mëkanïk V. Nëbëhr Gudahtt VI. Mëkanïk Kömmandöh
CD 2: Korusz II (Drum Solo); Theusz Hamtaahk