Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Magma—
Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh


Released 1973 on A&M
The Seth Man, July 2002ce
Magma’s third album was where their sound kicked out the jazz and became as stark as the monochromatic sleeve of gold and black that it housed. A band whose albums documented their own personal mythology revolving around events between Earth and their home planet of Kobaia, it was on “Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh” where they truly hit upon a unique sound unfettered by the jazz-based perimeters of their previous horn-based constructs. This album sounds like the largest hammer of the universe set into motion by the act of repetition to truly exhaustive degrees -- a dark epic whose rhythms echoed from within the bowels of interstellar slave ship galleys recounting ancient polarities locked in eternal conflict and draped in mysterious operatic chants. The brass instrumentation that dominated their first two albums are here cut back and sparingly integrated into the intensely regimented rhythm-dominated pieces of free flow momentum with no silence to divide them into separate songs. It’s the equivalent of a musical death march as performed by marathon runners outfitted in full body armour as black robed maidens bedecked with metal breastplates wail lamentably by torchlight while recounting their past victories...not to mention their future tragedies. Subtitled ‘The Third Movement of Theusz Hamtaahk’ and sung in their mythic tongue of Kobaian, “Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh” is one unflaggingly dark and spiritual cataclysm, so hold onto your hat and head and try to follow along with the lyric sheet, if you dare...

“Hortz Fur Dehn Steken West” opens the album with two pianos playing a repetitious cycle much like an M.C. Escher infinite staircase that continually descends and ascends with its only accomplishment keeping robotically chanting figures walking in place forever. It creates a mechanical feel of chains and pulleys being rung when Magma’s vocalist/drummer Christian Vander megaphonically barks out an introductory narrative. The first brass arrangement blares out the first of many fanfares as though signaling imminent darkness when the five-piece female choir makes its first appearance. One quick change in textures and rhythms later, the pianos fall away to begin another chant with Stella Vander’s voice emerging to the fore emitting strangulated verse beyond her range as though bearing twins from her glottis. And the whole time Magma’s newly acquired bassist Jannick Top will quietly provide deftly plucked high-tension bass string patterning to quietly imbue the entire album with perfect tone, timing and inner strength. Another fanfare of horns and the chorus becomes even more rigorously rhythmic that follow a confounding series of jarring time signatures which only serve to heighten its already towering friction. But it does simmer back down into wordless wailing only to build over and over until eventually folding back into itself and a brief calm. For no reason, Christian Vander starts operatically gibbering right before the calming intro piano link of “Ima Suri Dondai,” then yet another fanfare that makes you wrongly think the song is just about to end but no way: now the female chorus is huge and coos skyward, subsequently tangling with a swinging sixties-type horn arrangement that is noteworthy as it’s this otherwise insanely heavy album’s ‘lightest’ moment. But it’s still a dense thicket to be passed through until the reaches of “Kobaia Is De Hundin” with its quiet piano and background cymbal flourishes. However, the Magma engine room is not content with the concept of brief respite and very soon the choir, bass, percussion and everybody else contributes their own small yet highly focused part to their alien groove as Christian Vander powers from behind on his under-recorded, overwrought drumming against Jannick Top’s hectic counterpoint, causing the front line brass and vocals to spire only higher and higher. A Christian Vander chant begins to muscularly knead and build as though he’s stirring a huge cauldron with the words. A brief coda of organ, piano and guitar draw out and gently fade, ending sweetly just after the final sung name of their homeland so very far away...

Beginning the second side of the album is a reiteration of the chorus from the previous track, placed at the onset of the powerful female invocation “Da Zeuhl Wortz Mekanik.” Xylophones and cymbals tinkle all around the voices of Stella Vander leading the choral of four women, who start to dance rhythmically around the instrumental accompaniment shimmying from side to side as the tinkling percussion rings their dance with torchlight. Stella’s lead voice becomes a cat in white heat as she leads her sister chorus into a polyphonic whirlwind whose circular repetition make it seem as though the entire band are orbiting around a main nucleus of rhythmic energy, the instruments and vocals mere circling protons and neutrons to the atom dance that is Magma. It comes close to splitting on several occasions, but is always able to maintain a higher sense of control and purpose to keep it from falling or spinning off its axis. The track finally simmers as the main theme continues quietly on piano into “Nebehr Gudahtt” where Christian Vander vocalises over quiet wisps of electric organ, chiming guitar and an immaculately fixed pulse of plucked out bass notes. Gentle swirls of repetitious organ keep it all distantly quiet but so obviously perched on the edge of another freaked out build once more that it makes the relative quiet and calm fairly unbearable. Oh, you just know it’s gonna start shifting up in speed and velocity until it threatens to tear itself up through audio metal fatigue. Stella’s pained, hoarse cries rival Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz’s operatic whinnying on “Phallus Dei” at their most crazed. The drums move to center clatter as hollering comes from all sides along with a dense cluster of low brass rhythms. It builds to an unbearable plateau and Christian and Stella are soon locked together in thick-tongued screams and shrieks and the pulse just keeps steadfast as ever. Without a pause to regroup, it steps down in pace for “Mekanik Kommandoh.” Now the chorus and brass have broken down from sentences to phrases in rapid-fire volleying, trading off tight and quick beyond any reasonable call and response. The brass grows in shadow length, and then everything is slammed into top gear until it is a merry-go-round speeding wildly out of control: The blaring horns are scored to spin the flaming pinwheel faster and faster as staccato guitar bursts and percolating bass frills from Jannick Top all conspire to keep it rotating even faster still into the most fiercely molten moment on the album. Running alongside are the voices, keeping a remarkable pace as though urged on by running for their lives and not for their dinner. Claude Olmos tears off a restrained, guitar solo squealing insanely in its half-erased-ness right before the chorus issues a final, triumphant fanfare at long last (which I imagine could only be performed with raised fists) resplendent with amyl-nitrate popping bass filigrees.

It all then quickly dissolves into the aftermath-like calm of “Kreuhn Kohrmahn Iss De Hundin.” Piano notes and low, rumbling Gothic drones scan a low and darkened horizon as women wail and voices rise into screams as the slow epilogue drags itself along while bass notes still crackle among the dying embers. Finally, all voices vanish as a funeral drum with errant bass runs builds into a hard and scraping rhythm of granite blocks. Low horns bleat and blast, as though summoning the thick psychic gates of final judgment to slowly grind and tear the ground beneath as they close with a sense of total finality. The sole refugee of this apocalypse is a single strand of high frequency feedback that trails off the album and through your head, leaving you with either a sense of drained release or purpose fulfilled.