Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Magma—
Kohntarkosz


Released 1974 on A&M
The Seth Man, July 2000ce
Magma: they were truly from another planet, and I don’t just mean France. Mainman and drumming powerhouse Christian Vander led Magma as the musical keepers of the mythological history of his people, the people from planet Kobaia. They came in peace but were subjected to the cruelties of the baser elements of mankind on earth. Now the storyline is rather complicated, even though it’s related in English on their 1973 album, “Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh” and not in Kobaian, the language Magma conceived for their boggling free jazz/hyperspace jam sessions. Kobaian verges on a sort of Germanic Esperanto with all manner of umlauts, accents and hand-drawn hieroglyphics Magma used to communicate everything: lyrics, personnel and album titles. So it’s little wonder many people assumed they were a German group whose predilections for eccentric spelling was only overshadowed by their powerful and hypnotic free jazz blow outs that were totally OUT THERE.

“Kohntarkosz” was their fourth album, and possibly one of the craziest albums ever released in France, Earth or Kobaia, for that matter. It begins with two organs and a brief drum solo galore, furiously rolling all over the place, Vander catching cymbals between his teeth and spitting them out over the rippling bass of Jannick Top, a bass player whose capabilities in both dexterity and improvisational abilities are seemingly boundless. Then Stella Vander’s operatic voice begins, held and pinned within a constantly held, lone electric organ chord. Her voice will continually re-emerge throughout the album, and it’s always mournfully beautiful or a ghostly presence. Then Christian Vander starts speeding up, prodding his wife’s vocals into quickening their pace, and the stridently repeated phrases almost trick you into thinking your album is skipping. Three people are credited with a variety of keyboards on this album, and “Kohntarkosz Part One” is dominated by piano Cage-outs and the omnipresently-held organ chords and the ever muscular and aware Vander drumming, beating his march back to earth from Kobaia. Darkening thunderclouds are plunked through Top’s rumbling bass, sparse piano chording and drums that play off the creak-ola organ, all slow off beats and purely menacing. The organ then cuts through with a higher pitched, held-forever note until a start and stop of jarring, spaced off beats as Vander hits at the heart of his imagined enemy with his drums. More reverential female vocalising enters, scaling the heavens over the repetitious drum, bass and organ ensemblages, which suddenly peel away leaving a hole for the vocals. It goes down...further and further until the organ fries out and sends sparks sputtering everywhere. The main theme returns en masse, only to fall away (again) with the organ and suddenly the piano total McCoy Tyner in feel. Just as spatial but more regimented through the constant repetition that suspends time for the duration it’s being played. A brief piano passage and further Stella Vander angelic wailing gets doubled tracked and winds its way down. And this is just the first track of the album!

Oh, no: “Ork Alarm” follows, the other resident of side one. Toiling, great cellos start up the more evil than the monkey guard night watch from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on acid, Gorecki-like in it’s mournful, Eastern European-ness. It’s a Jannick Top composition, so Vander (the almost constant composer in Magma) has switched from his brutalised drum set to join in on the strident male chanting. Intense and ever-building, it accomplishes sheer, tortuous anticipation longer than you’d like and quickens the blood pressure like only Magma can. The angular cellos are still sawing away at the stilts of reason and little by little, Stella Vander starts mournfully crying as electronic staccato signal the dark clouds of Orks overhead; invasion and utter decimation is at hand. Stella scoops and hurriedly swaddles her Kobaian babes up, her cries becoming caught in the electri-fried guitar freak out. A low laugh from the nightmarish, blackened shapes emits a sinister “HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH” as trashcan percussion is bashed a few times until the recording cuts off.

This is one of the many places where you seriously run the risk of having your heart exploded by the sheer force of the swelling, building and overall concentrated weirdness Magma achieve through their insanely thought out arrangements.

“Kohntarkosz Part Two” opens side two mercifully QUIET. An early morning mist falls upon the survivors of last side’s Ork attack on a pebbled beach -- Normandy, perhaps -- as a quiet and flanged electric piano collects their thoughts in a background yet guiding sequence. Vander improvises slightly and arranges greatly with downplayed drumming all around the gentle piano, with not a hint of side one’s terrifying tension episodes. The drums and piano do begin to start laddering, but accompanied by Stella’s beautiful, clear and cool wailing. But her husband’s behind the kit, and he’s ever-intent on building, so when Top’s bass enters at top volume, Vander’s on it and they’re already going for broke in a crazy, heavy, jazz-metal freak storm with gigantic bass and Vander’s flinging his entire body into this jam with no boundaries except up. Electric organ starts Mike Ratledge-ing it up as the music dances around the simple piano refrains played with deliberate repetition and Vander’s pushing it all into an uncontrollable fuel fire and ever-building crescendo. The organ then speeds up its riffing as does everything else, and yet there’s no end in sight. The whole thing is poked through with constant, short rhythmic vocal punctuations that send the whole piece spinning, along with your head. They’re clearing invoking a great spirit. Then someone -- possibly Christian Vander -- starts free associating his Kobaian head off, ever quickening/sickening. This ranting in tongues continues unabated until the dead stop on a dime springboard into a crazy, McCoy Tyner craze-out that builds with everyone (Stella included) free-freaking out into an Coltranese break that plateaus and never, ever loses speed. Jannick Top is free-bassing all over the place with Vander, not to be outdone, is dervishingly drumming his kit into flatness until...

it all falls down into a huge Gothic pit of Tantra vocalese like late-seventies Popol Vuh. It is the utter end.

“Coltrane Sundia” (subtitled “John Coltrane Rest In Peace”) brings the entire record back down to the beauty of sunlight. An opening piano cascade spills forth light into the past three tracks of ultimate darkness. A restrained, volume-controlled guitar signals to the piano the end of all conflicts...And the mammoth, psychotic war that is “Kohntarkosz” is finally peaceably concluded.