Formed by drummer Christian Vander in Paris in 1969, Magma have made a career of defying convention, and the fact that they’re still actively recording and playing live today is an astonishing gift. Their music could arguably be labeled modern classical, progressive rock, free jazz, or even psychedelia, but it’s too big for any of those boxes. Even the band couldn’t come up with an earthly word to describe what they do. Instead they chose “zeuhl,” a term from Kobaïan, a language of Vander’s creation and the mother tongue of the fictional planet Kobaïa, where all the ensemble’s concept albums have taken place (since the 70s, many other forward-thinking, cataclysmic ensembles have adopted the term “zeuhl” too).
I’ve followed this otherworldly, ecologically minded band since I got hip to them in the 90s, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them twice. Magma’s 14th album, 2019’s Zess, had a somber, dystopian vibe, but the new Kãrtëhl (on their own Seventh Records) has a more positive musical outlook and a lighter musical tone. Opener “Hakëhn Deïs” begins with a jazzy drumbeat before launching into odd time signatures that’d turn Gentle Giant green with envy. Vander delivers its surprisingly melodic vocals alongside longtime collaborator Stella Vander (also his ex-wife), and the track builds to a grand, even sunny-sounding coda, with tasteful fuzz guitar edging its way in. Like most bands decades old, Magma have shifted lineups several times, and the relatively new group that appears on most of Kãrtëhl jelled in 2020. They already sound exuberant, though, and keyboardists Thierry Eliez and Simon Goubert highlight the samba-inspired, almost tropical feel of “Do Rïn Ilï Üss” with their complex, dueling lines.
That said, Magma’s familiar gloomy and mysterious side also appears on the new album, notably on the operatic “Walomëhndëm Warreï,” which uses a choir of voices to gigantic and almost frightening effect. “Wiï Mëlëhn Tü” opens with massive, trebly bass courtesy of Jimmy Top (son of original bassist Jannick Top), mixed with some bizarre, high-pitched vocal warbling. Christian Vander’s bluesy lead singing sounds pained, in contrast to the redemptive voice of Stella Vander and the chirpy melodies of a female choir. The album’s series of ups and downs ends with the joyful “Dëhndë,” which almost sounds like a conventional soul-pop song or a tune from a hippie musical. Once I adjusted to its blindingly bright mood, I marveled again at how wide-reaching Magma are. I should probably say “how wide-reaching Magma have always been,” because on the 1978 LP Attahk they delved into funk and soul, dividing their fans. Funnily enough, Kãrtëhl features two bonus tracks recorded that same year, both of them demos chosen from Vander’s archives. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the band’s creative process, and even though they’re stripped down to just piano and voice, they’re still so intricately thought-out and weird that they sometimes sound like overreaching Beach Boys arrangements written on angel dust. Many legacy artists lose the plot by this stage of their careers, but Magma have been charting their own path for so long that they always seem to know where they’re going—and Kãrtëhl is an exciting new entry in their oeuvre.
Magma’s Kãrtëhl is available through Bandcamp.