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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Magma - To Life, Death and Beyond: The Music of Magma

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Magma’s formation. While we’re in 2018, and seeing where we will be for the next years to come, it’s time to describe one of the most mind-blowing bands to come out of France like a gigantic cannon blast. Magma were the band that pushed boundaries and often overlooked in the history of the Progressive Rock genre. It’s mixtures between the sounds of; Avant-Garde, Jazz, Rock, Classical, and Opera. It’s almost as if the volcano has erupted at the right moment, at the right time for Magma to come out of the lava and bring it to life.

That and their 2017 documentary directed by Laurent Goldstein entitled, To Life, Death, and Beyond: The Music of Magma, is a very interesting documentary describing the history of the band. Among supporters including not just the fans that are being interviewed, but people like; Trey Gunn of King Crimson, Robert Trujillo of Metallica/Suicidal Tendencies, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys who are in the film to show their appreciation of this band that are still going strong.

This was a project that Laurent who admired this band for 40 years, went on the road with them during their 2016 tour which was called, The Endless Tour. This is a labor of love for Goldstein and believe me, he’s done it well. With the help of Kickstarter that went up to $26,296 by 386 backers, there are some moments in the film that made me open my eyes more about Christian Vander.

Vander, who founded the band, says in the opening line of the documentary, “We presented ourselves with nothing, we were in the silence, and the music spoke for us.” That’s what Magma did, they spoke to a spiritual vibration and audiences to embark on an adventure that is ready for them to embark on the planet Kobaia. It’s not just for audiences for them to embark on the planet, but knowing it is both the sound and vibrations that will send chills down the spine.

We get to discover Christian Vander’s childhood from the eastern suburbs of Paris called Nogent-sur-Marne. You get to see that he had a difficult childhood, and brought down by both his aunt and uncle at times, but it was music that saved him. It was both classical music and jazz. The house being with musicians including Flautist Bobby Jaspar, drummer and Coltrane alumni Elvin Jones who did a drum duet with Vander in a rare footage between the two of them that guided Vander his steps on being a drummer.

But it was the late great John Coltrane that became a big influence in Christian’s work from the moment he heard My Favorite Things and that was the light bulb that went on for him. It was like a breath of fresh air discovering the master’s work. Whenever he went through his rough times, his music guided him through those troubled times after his mom was sent to jail for stealing.

When Coltrane died in 1967, it deeply affected him and went through depression. But it wasn’t until he wanted to do something to move forward and that was where in the spring of 1969, while he was in Turin, Vander he needed to change his life around and that was where he returned to Paris. To form what would be known as Magma.

There are interviews with former members of Magma including Laurent Thibault, Klaus Blasquiz, Patrick Gauthier, Francis Moze, along with archive interviews with bassist Jannick Top, and keyboardist Michel Graillier to name a few. The DVD contains six chapters including some bonus features that on here. Before I get into that, while this documentary is a legacy honoring the legends of the Zeuhl masters, it’s also short.

Mind you, it’s great to see some of the footage of the various line-ups including Offering and their 1977 performance at the Hippodrome du Pantin in Paris, restored. But it’s not the complete story of Magma. I just wished this documentary was only 2 or 3 hours long instead of 1 hour and 37 minutes.  

Christian Vander has been around from day one. He’s still going strong playing the drums and keeping the Magma train going. There is not a single stop-sign for him. He’s very much like a conductor at times and letting the band members decide where he will go next. At times he would give them free-rein including two bass players during their 1981 performance at Bobino.

Now the bonus features. The bonus extras on the DVD contains Jean-Luc Chevalier playing Jannick Top’s composition on acoustic guitar of De Futura. You can see Jean-Luc really playing the piece sort of in the styles of Django Reinheardt chord-like structures, menacing sounds, bass riffs and improvisations he does. It’s not a bad take, but Jean-Luc can really nail down those changes.

Jello Biafra’s appreciation of Magma and his discovery of the band’s music that he puts up there with The Stooges, Hawkwind, MC5, and Sparks. Trey Gunn’s horizontal vibes on his Warr guitar bringing to mind his Crimson days. It’s very much as if Trey is embarking you on a solar system adventure playing and tapping through his instrument as far as he can go.

And one of the highlights on here is Patrick Gauthier playing one of his compositions On the Persian Markets beginning with the bells and clock chiming before Patrick goes through a dynamic piano concerto he does. It’s a challenging piece, but he nails it through the keys as if creating a score for one the silent film-era between Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton films during the 1910s and 1920s.

To Life, Death and Beyond: The Music of Magma is not a bad film, just not the whole story. But we begin to wonder if Christian has a few more tricks up his sleeve and when the time will be right to come full circle. 

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