Published on 14th August 2019
Magma – Zëss
Since the dawning of the new millennium, Christian Vander has been quite content to rest on his laurels, only re-entering the studio to re-record pieces that never made it to the studio back in the ’70s (and even some that were; see 2014’s re-imagining of Rïah Sahïltaahk). Not counting Rïah Sahïltaahk or 2015’s Slaǧ Tanƶ, this is actually the fourth Magma studio album to come out since the turn of the century, with Vander leisurely going into the Magma archives to bring out an ancient relic every few years.
While the age of the pieces recorded ensures the listener that they will indeed be listening to ‘classic’ Magma, there is a problem about releasing old music this way; you’re always going to want to release your best, most sellable stuff first, and leave the worst until later. That certainly seems to be how things have gone since 2004’s K.A, a breathtaking album that rivals Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh as Magma’s magnum opus. Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré, released five years later, was brooding and intense but not essential, basically a mish-mash of different ideas from the ’70s, including the excellent Hhaï. Félicité Thösz was a bit of a weirder one for Magma, with many moving parts and lyrics, never really letting the music flow.
And then we come to Zëss. If Félicité Thösz has too many moving parts, Zëss is at the other extreme. Vander has long used minimalism to great effect throughout the Magma catalogue, but Zëss sees him push the concept to its very limits. Five of the album’s seven interlinked ‘tracks’ see the group simply play the same two chords over and over while four feature the same repetitive yet irregular drumbeat played by – *gasp* – not Vander! In his place, quite unexpectedly, is Morgan Ågren from Kaipa and Devin Townsend’s band. If you’re more into complex, intricately written progressive rock, this album may push the boundaries of your patience, but that’s not to say the magical Magma formula isn’t in there somewhere.
Though it’s listed on the packaging as one 38-minute track, Zëss is actually partitioned into seven neatly divided sections, some of which share the same melody and rhythm. The introductory piece Ẁöhm Dëhm Zeuhl Stadium is dominated by piano and choral vocals, with space for Vander to orate in Kobaïan. This introduction might have more impact if it didn’t feel like a carbon copy of Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré Part 1. Both of these prologues seem to go on far too long, with the seemingly sole purpose of delaying the gratification of the meat of the track, with no recognisable themes heard elsewhere in each respective piece of music. Both pieces also abruptly and gracelessly just lead into the second part of the song, as if to say “OK, we’re ready to play now”. Similarities with Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré end here.
Da Zeuhl Ẁortz Dëhm Ẁrëhntt begins the musical pattern that you’ll hear repeated for the next 26 minutes with few interruptions. The first six of these minutes features something unusual: Vander speaking a language other than Kobaïan; French as it turns out. Already this seems like a betrayal of the Magma formula, but the fact that Vander chooses to continue in French for a full six minutes proves he’s doubled down on the decision. The English translation is provided in the CD booklet. It’s only in Dï Ẁööhr Spracer that he thankfully switches back to Kobaïan. As he further orates, we begin to hear swells from the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, which is possibly the best thing about this record. As Dï Ẁööhr Spracer draws to a close, we hear a brief eleven-second interlude which shakes the listener awake as the first interruption in the pattern after eleven minutes.
If you make it as far as Streüm Ündëts Ẁëhëm, you’ll find the earworm that will ultimately keep you coming back to this album; “Ëhmëhmöh nëhmëhsïn”. It’s just a line or two of Kobaïan, but it’s just so damn catchy. The next six minutes are devoted to the orchestra, who seem to bloom and blossom naturally over the pulsating rhythm. It’s rather busy, but captivating nonetheless. Zëss Mahntëhr Kantöhm brings back that earworm to make sure it’s fully planted in your brain. With more vocals, including the female voices heard at the beginning, this seems to be the most structured part of the repeated pattern, and plays like many a Magma tune heard in the past. The final two minutes of this part see some deviation away from the repeated pattern, rewarding the listener for their patience.
Zï Ïss Ẁöss Stëhëm features the same tempo but a more syncopated rhythm, almost as if to begin a dance. Female chants of “Sanctus sanctus” are heard under Vander’s Kobaïan scats until something truly bizarre happens: the chants are followed up by “Ϊëzüsz krïstüsz”. This is quite the game-changer and once again made me sit up in my seat. Is Vander really suggesting that the folk from the planet Kobaïa really worship Jesus… sorry Ϊëzüsz of Nazareth? Maybe this is the piece of the puzzle that Magma fans have needed all along to prove Kobaïans originally came from Earth. Songs that feature religious figures by name have always been iffy with me, and it’s why I’ve steered clear of Neal Morse’s solo career altogether.
With that controversial shocker out the way, the main portion of Zëss builds to a climactic finish, giving way to Dümgëhl Blaö, a surprisingly relaxing piece in a major key which appears to represent a slowly setting sun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word “Om” is featured heavily, once again bringing an Earth religion to Kobaïa, this time Hinduism. If anything, this just confuses matters further! While the piece is calming after the mounting tension of the previous half-hour, the call and response vocal parts are a little cringeworthy in places. As the singers chant “Om”, the piece slides away into nothingness.
The French subtitle of Zëss is ‘Le Jour de Néant’, literally “The Day of Nothingness”, and it can certainly feel like nothing is going on for large portions of this minimalistic work. Elsewhere, Vander makes questionable choices about the Kobaïa mythology in the lyrics and doesn’t even use Kobaïan to narrate in the first half. It borrows heavily from previous Magma exercises and yet manages to do less than any of them. Heck, let’s not forget that Vander doesn’t even unleash his drumming prowess on this record!
Despite all this, I actually quite enjoy Zëss in the right circumstances. If you’re trying to focus on work, the piece demands very little attention whilst keeping your brain active and actually seems to fly by. The way the piece builds slowly is actually pretty effective with more layers of sound introduced over a very long period of time. And the Kobaïan lyrics are so darn catchy that you’ll be singing along after just a couple of listens. Somehow, despite all the flawed aspects, it works. It doesn’t hold a candle to Magma’s masterworks, but it doesn’t need to. It’s perfectly content occupying its own space in the discography and still holds that classic Magma lustre. I would say that it’s well worth checking out the live version of this piece played in 1981 at breakneck tempo; this energised version may not feature an orchestra, but it might be truer to Vander’s earlier vision for the piece.
01. Ẁöhm Dëhm Zeuhl Stadium (4:55)
02. Da Zeuhl Ẁortz Dëhm Ẁrëhntt (6:22)
03. Dï Ẁööhr Spracer (5:12)
04. Streüm Ündëts Ẁëhëm (6:05)
05. Zëss Mahntëhr Kantöhm (8:09)
06. Zï Ïss Ẁöss Stëhëm (3:16)
07. Dümgëhl Blaö (3:59)
Total Time – 37:54
Christian Vander – Solo Vocals
Stella Vander – Solo Vocals, Vocals
Morgan Ågren – Drums
Simon Goubert – Piano
Philippe Bussonnet – Bass
Rudy Blas – Guitar
Isabelle Feuillebois – Vocals
Hervé Aknin – Vocals
Julie Vander – Vocals
Sandrine Destafanis – Vocals
Sylvie Fisichella – Vocals
Laura Guarrato – Vocals
Marcus Linon – Vocals
The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adam Klemens
Record Label: Seventh Records
Country of Origin: France
Date of Release: 28th June 2019