Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Come and live with us: Magma live
"Definitely you can come and live with us
All you gotta do is help out with the chores…"
—Dirty Projectors, "Temecula Sunrise"
I thought of the line above while watching Magma at Highline Ballroom last night. The impression I kept getting, over and over, from this most idiosyncratic of old-guard progressive-rock bands (check the eye-popping facts if you haven't heard of them: French, around since ’69, built around an invented mythology and language, etc.) was of a commune: a self-sustaining civilization based on a shared commitment to beauty and, just as important, industriousness. "Definitely you can come and live with us," the furiously intricate yet highly supple jazz-rock epics (ranging in mood from the eerie to the imperious to the flat-out goofy) churned out by bandleader Christian Vander & Co. seemed to say, "but please understand that we're going to put you to work." You know those often absurd-seeming, state-sanctioned images of Communist life from China or the former Soviet Union, where everyone's happy and busy and also pretty much anonymous? That was how this incarnation of Magma—Vander (at left in the pic above) on drums and his wife, Stella (to his right), on vocals, along with a vibraphonist, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a bassist and two more singers (one male and one female)—felt to me.
But the X-factor, the thing that made it joyous and wonderful instead of creepy, was the passion of the playing. Prior to seeing this show, Magma had always seemed merely like the coolest idea to me. Anyone who spends any time digging for information about progressive rock, as I have for a good while now, eventually runs up against Magma, like some weird, impenetrable bedrock. Those lean, proggy riffs and vaguely musty fusion-isms always sounded like an appealing throwback, but the Kobaïan chant and the fact that Magma never seemed to rock in as balls-out a manner as, say, Yes, always ended up leaving me a little numb.
Live, though, you get volume, and also, crucially, you get Vander. A hulking, sweaty and frequently smiling man, he is an utter thrill to watch. Cymbals positioned high and at precarious angles, their faces nearly perpendicular to the stage. I wrote a little while back about the Vaz drummer Jeff Mooridian, and how his native position on the kit was playing snare, bass and some furious 16th-note pattern on the high hat. Vander's native territory is that perpetual staple of prog drumming, the steely, syncopated groove smashed out on the China cymbal and bass drum simultaneously, with the snare filling in the space. You really hear, in this man, the grand lineage of jazz-rock: Despite Vander's constant professions of love for Elvin Jones, what I heard was a lot of Bruford, a lot of Cobham and on the quieter passages, a lot of Tony Williams. (I've often opined that the same drummer can't really play both rock and jazz convincingly, but Vander comes about as close as anyone I've ever heard, bringing the requisite bombast for the former and a very genuine sense of touch and buoyancy, as demanded by the latter.) But, one wonders, given Magma's 1969 vintage, who was it that influenced whom?
The band played for about two hours, and yes, it was exhausting at times and hammy at others. But I was consoled by the notion of witnessing something absolutely singular. To nod to the great Rick Astley ("You wouldn't get this from any other guy"), you wouldn't get this from any other band, namely such a deep, committed demonstration of what PROG means, entirely unobscured by pop and for that matter, "classic rock." Sure you could go see the latter-day Yes (I've never had the pleasure—I'm sure it's amazing), but this is something much more grassroots, much more cult, something closer to the sublime, Zenned-out nerddom at the core of prog. It's nothing less than motivational speech in musical form: an overwhelming pageant of human achievement, i.e., "You too can accomplish such brilliance if you eat your Wheaties and practice every day." Definitely you can come and live with us, say the Vanders and their cohorts, busy erecting their otherworldly architecture—it won't be easy, but the sacrifices just might be worth it.
Some background: a great 2002 interview with Christian Vander.