Magma Put France on the Prog-Rock Map

Progressive rock started out as a largely British phenomenon in the late '60s but quickly mutated when it spread to the European continent and beyond. The artists who pioneered the genre attempted to bring artistic credibility to rock music either by infusing it with elements of classical-musical structure and daring use of tones and rhythms, or by incorporating the aesthetic and methods of jazz into the way the musicians worked together. They also warped the musical structures into realms reflecting the psychedelic experience or otherwise tried to take rock beyond its earliest forms. Bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer in England and the German Kosmische scene, with Can, Tangerine Dream, Faust, Kraftwerk and others, are most well known in the prog canon — but it was the band Magma that put Paris on the prog-rock map.

Magma was founded in 1969 following an especially turbulent period in the history of modern France. In putting together the band, drummer Christian Vander envisioned a kind of science-fiction scenario, which the band portrayed in its self-titled 1970 debut. In this story, a group of humans colonize the planet Kobaïa and develop their own language, Kobaïan — a language that Magma actually created and has used to write its lyrics ever since. A hybrid of Slavic and Germanic languages, Kobaïan gives Magma's album and song titles a unique yet vaguely familiar look and sound. But why invent a whole new language for a band?

“French wasn’t expressive enough for the sound of the music Christian [Vander] had in his head,” offers longtime singer Stella Vander. “Kobaïan is a language that is constantly evolving, and the sounds/words come organically when he’s composing. However, some sounds/words come back, and after a while, we can decipher their meaning. The words are written to fit to the music, to make it sound right.”

Though this element of the band has been in place from the beginning, it reached its greatest expression when the choir section of the band became an essential component of the sound with its third album, 1973's epochal Mëkanïk Dëstruktï? Kömmandöh, which was also Stella Vander's first recorded outing with the group. 

Vander had grown up singing, and she had a bit of a music career before she met her future husband, Christian. She was still a teen when prog got off the ground, and it wasn't really on her radar, nor was it what she necessarily imagined doing as a singer.

“I wasn’t into prog at all. I didn’t even know it existed,” confesses Vander. “I was mainly into jazz and also Stax and Motown sound. Funny enough, these are part of the influences in Magma’s sound. The band was casting [for] female singers without finding any. I was singing in the room next door one day, and Christian realized that I was totally able to sing all Magma’s music very easily. So I became kind of a choir director on MDK.”

The jazz influence synched up with the band well, in particular the group's special resonance with the music of John Coltrane and that artist's own relentless imagination, creativity and palpable passion.

“It's the energy, the fury of playing, the construction, the 'sound,' the long-term vision that is inspiring,” says Vander on the influence of the legendary saxophonist. “The music of John Coltrane is an inexhaustible source, a force that conquers all.”

The element of improv has been at the heart of Magma's composition and performance, and that combination of musicianship and intuitive execution were influential on John Lydon of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. as well as bands like Opeth, Ulver and Porcupine Tree. Its music, seemingly spontaneous but never noodly, is called Zeuhl, a word taken from the Kobaïan language. Because of that, the music often resonates more with avant-garde prog acts like Henry Cow or Denver's own Thinking Plague

“Magma [uses] a great deal of intuitive playing that demands quite a lot of technical [skill],” says Vander. “It’s not about theory at all. Once you’ve properly written the music, you just have to throw away all [the] paperwork.”

Vander is also one of the few women who has been involved in the prog scene since the early days, continuing with Magma past its split in 1983 and through its reconvening in 1996 into the present day. In the current era of the band, Vander has been involved in the production end of the music and the management of the band as well as one of its primary creative contributors — none of these roles being new for her.

“I always had [those roles],” concludes Vander. “But being a woman in a rock band in the '70s was quite difficult. Being a woman still isn’t easy today, and often, even though it’s a woman’s band, led by a woman, you will always find someone to say that she’s only part of the band and does only part of the job. All the work I was doing wasn’t really acknowledged by the band, except maybe for Christian. The creation of Seventh records in the '80s with Francis Linon and Christian made it all clear.”

Magma plays with Helen Money at 8 p.m. (doors at 7 p.m.) on Tuesday, March 22, at the Gothic Theatre; 3263 S Broadway, 303-788-0984; $25-30, $35 day of show. 

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.