Published on 26th June 2022
Magma / The Utopia Strong
The Garage, Highbury, London
Friday 17th and Saturday 18th June 2022
… and now, over to Philomena for the weather…
Only in the UK – or more specifically in the southern half of the UK – could you experience a 20 degree daytime temperature difference from one day to the next over a couple of otherwise benign June summer days. Friday was a SCORCHIO 34°C, Saturday was an anything but 14°C! Now, back to Roger in the studio.
Friday’s sweatbox weather may have had something to do with the somewhat glitchy nature of the night’s gig, and was the cause of the varying degrees of discomfort felt by the audience, and no doubt even more so by the bands under the hot stage lights.
Om surfers The Utopia Strong opened proceedings, and for the first five or so minutes, Steve Davis’s box of electronic strangeitude was struggling to get going. The box of tricks looked like an open 1950s travelling salesman’s suitcase, the wares on display being the internal organs of a recently eviscerated alien visitor. Eventually things were pulled out and plugged back in again, and what passes for normal service commenced.
A band like The Utopia Strong, who rely on communicating with the audience at a subliminal level in order to achieve their trademark transcendental loveliness, are always going to struggle a tad as a support act, as the subtler parts of the synth interactions twixt Michael York and Steve Davis requires the attention only a dedicated audience can give it. The difficulty presented by rising above general audience chatter was compounded on Friday night by the sauna-like surroundings making everyone a bit tetchy. Possibly realising this, the injection of dance beats seemed to capture the audience’s synapses, and Kavus Torabi’s attention grabbing shapes provided a natural focus. Mission was just about accomplished, but it was a bumpy ride at times.
For the Saturday show, The Utopia Strong got things off to a flyer, with Steve’s suitcase burbling away like it should. Their set was more controlled and fluid as a result, and it pulled in the audience far better than on Friday.
After a short break, the 11 (!) members of Magma walk across the small stage, and somehow manage to all fit on it without anyone falling off.
Friday night’s show definitely had problems with the sound which was, shall we say, somewhat rough around the edges. As far as I could tell, this did not affect the band. Not being a Magma fanboy, I don’t recognise a lot of what was played, but under the apparent musical direction of keyboard player Simon Goubert stage right, the ensemble were a well drilled unit. The steamy atmosphere may have contributed to Stella Vander’s mood, which at one point led to some stern finger wagging at one of her backing singers. It is frankly amazing that the Vanders, both well into their 70s still have such stamina, especially in tonight’s clammy conditions.
The musical fulcrum on which Magma’s music balances is the often phenomenal bass playing, and these two shows were no exception. The bass guitar is now wielded by Jimmy Top, son of Jannick, so no pressure there then, eh? Not that we need have worried for the guy is a flying-fingered wizard on his 5-string instrument.
The high point of Friday’s set was the 40-minute plus Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré. According to the setlist they played parts 1, 2, and 3. What? There’s more of it?! Boy, I’m glad they stopped where they did, as that musical marathon was a bit of an endurance test for my old bones in that heat, to say the least! For all that, it was an enjoyable if not spectacular night.
In recent years – Plague Years excluded, obviously – gig going for me is almost as much about who we’ll meet up with as it is the gig itself, and Saturday night in particular was the one for socialising, with a whole crowd of TPA Crew in attendance, not to mention the usual suspects in the audience. To up the pleasantness factor, it was a heck of a lot cooler, thank the Thunder God. Maybe because of that, and a combination of using the previous night’s experiences, the sound on Saturday was as good as it gets in the Garage.
Magma also seemed to be more relaxed and got into their hypnotic stride very quickly. As with the previous night, Stella as MC apologised for the total lack of Magma merchandise, and put it down to “your government”. I think we all know what that means, but as long as “we” keep voting like turkeys for Xmas, this sorry situation we’re all in can only get worse.
A major beneficiary of the much improved sound was Jimmy Top, with his father’s thunderous bottom end now much more in evidence. The only difference in the setlist from Friday was a significant one. Substituting one 40-minute epic for another. Saturday saw a tremendous version of Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh dominate the set and for me it provided the special moments that the previous night lacked, mainly due to the absence of Friday’s stamina sapping heat, and the near perfect sound balance.
All in all it was a great two days in the capital, with much tourist-hat-on wandering about in the daylight hours. You may wonder why we chose to go to both nights, but given the ages of the prime movers in this fascinating band, you never know when the next time might be, although Stella did say they wanted to play the Barbican at some point. Whether or not that was said tongue in cheek, what a fabulous prospect! Bring it on!
The Utopia Strong are opening for Magma on these dates, an intriguing prospect, and perhaps coming about as Steve Davis reportedly was the catalyst for the reforming of Magma in 1989. Their brand of ambient electronica seems like a good fit with a Magma crowd, and they are certainly well received.
They seem to be largely improvising, although based on a framework of some kind, but it all flows smoothly with keys, electronics and guitar all melding together to create otherworldly soundscapes. Kavus Torabi is enigmatic as ever, whilst Steve Davis and Michael J. York are hunched over their electronics like mad scientists. It’s all very enjoyable.
Magma are an enigma. The band who created their own language, spawned a new genre, and have influenced so many for fifty-odd years live on the fringes of progressive rock in a world of their own. I’m not the most knowledgeable fan, but I know enough to ensure I don’t miss them if they play anywhere remotely near me.
The last time I’d seen them was in the rather upmarket Cadogan Hall, an all seated venue and a very polite evening indeed, so I was slightly surprised to find that this time they were playing The Garage, a much more rock ’n’ roll prospect. To be honest, the venue is irrelevant, as Magma transport you to their world, and you’re lost in their music for an hour-and-a-half or so.
They need a reasonable sized stage to fit all eleven of the performers, and more than half provide either lead or backing vocals, so it’s a very choral sound. The band are tight, the vocal arrangements complex, and the songs long, but the overall effect is to make you lose yourself entirely for the duration of the show.
There is a joyous spirituality to the music which will not be denied, and you can see the passion and joy on the band’s faces as the performance goes on. Close analysis is impossible, as they are simply unique and unfathomable, yet undeniably brilliant. The whole circus is driven by Christian Vander from behind the drums, and one wonders whether he ever really thought the band would endure through the decades and still be revered today.
I somehow doubt it, but thank goodness they are still creating music today. The last song of the main set is the one I know best, the seminal Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh which is utterly brilliant. It evolves over 40-odd minutes, gradually building to a climax which is astonishing, and as it finally ends, we are exhausted but exhilarated. I think that goes for the band too.
Could there be anything more daunting for Romford’s premier modular synthesiserist (and by coincidence former world snooker champ) Steve Davis than supporting his beloved Magma? Even non-Magma fans are familiar with Davis’ love for the band so one would assume that his palms were sweatier than before a tricky semi-final at the Crucible as he sat behind his suitcase of wires and knobs at an equally sweaty Garage on Friday night with The Utopia Strong.
Glasses on, his face a picture of concentration as the first knobs were twiddled and jacks nudged tantalisingly into their sockets. But never fear as Steve is assisted by uber-experienced musical minds in Kavus Torabi and Michael J. York as they ease into the first part of a selection of soothing sounds. There would no doubt be beads of sweat on these furrowed brows at any time, but with temperatures pushing waaaay beyond 30 degrees, both band and audience baked in the Highbury heat.
With Torabi’s vocals adding a Gong-like psychedelic edge, his easy guitar riffs and textural sounds gave direction, harmonium and electronic doo-dads building on the soundscapes and movements created by Davis. Likewise, York’s selection of wind instruments provided an organic edge within the swirling electronic sounds. It’s a heady brew and the trio’s collaborative ethic works well, encouraging words and looks helping to inspire leaps to new heights with rhythmic pulses getting heads nodding and much movement in the crowd.
The set worked beautifully on both nights, but for me the Saturday was the pick, much more focused and somewhat more direct, but shorter as a result, which was a shame as they could certainly have held my interest for much longer.
There’s something just so ‘other’ about Magma. Otherworldly? Certainly, as you’d expect from music that bases its origins in planetary struggle, intrigue, adversity and finding one’s place in the Universe, but there’s also something more earthy going on too.
Christian Vander’s genius throughout the five-plus decades of his band’s existence has been to continue reinventing it, looking for new parts to the story and finding new ways of delivering it. As with the driving power of his still inimitable drumming, he continues to summon up the energy and enthusiasm to still move forward, despite now being in his mid-70s. He’s clearly as mad as a box of frog’s legs, but I wouldn’t have him any other way and am thankful that we can still enjoy performances of his idiosyncratic and often obtuse musical oeuvre.
The current line-up is expanded to a massive 11-piece, with seven (count ’em!) vocalists – eight if you count the individual vocal performances from Mr Vander himself. The lead singers continue to be the long established pairing of Hervé Aknin and the immaculate wonderfulness of Stella Vander, who belies her 71 years with ease.
They are supported by the ever dependable Isabelle Feuillebois and the addition of three new female voices, plus occasional contributions from keyboardist Thierry Eliez. The choral beauty of a lot of Magma’s music is brought to full fruition with this line-up, the performances all exemplary and the result crammed with personality and dexterity. The new yet-to-be-released material bodes well for the forthcoming album due in October and the classic Magma texts are vividly recreated anew. It’s just breath-taking.
Instrumentally, Christian Vander leads a band that beautifully delivers, watching him intently as he drives the music forward. The piano of Simon Goubert is central as he seemingly takes on the musical director role to keep the vast ensemble on track. The two keyboard players lock together with real finesse and there’s a genuine bond in this group, with Jimmy (son of Jannick) Top’s bass channelling his father’s low-end DNA. Guitarist Rudy Blas is sometimes a little low in the mix, but his contributions when called upon to step forward are fluidly on-point and noteworthy.
While the first night is somewhat hampered by the heat, it also delivers an outstanding take on most of Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré, ending the main set to leave the crowd stunned. This glorious set-piece makes way for a brilliant version of the uber-classic Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh on Saturday and it’s like hearing it for the first time – just wonderful. With a fine version of K.A I both nights, the encore sees Goubert and the singers support Christian Vander as he steps forward to vocally deliver The Night We Died from the ’80s era Merci album in his own inimitable style. Lovely to see and the crowd reacted with joy.
What a fabulous couple of nights. As with every time I’ve seen them previously, I can’t wait to see Magma again.
[Unknown – new piece]
The Night We Died
[Unknown – new piece]
(followed by band intro)
Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh
The Night We Died
Christian Vander – Drums, Vocals
Stella Vander – Vocals
Rudy Blas – Guitar
Thierry Eliez – Keyboards, Vocals
Simon Goubert – Keyboards
Jimmy Top – Bass
Hervé Aknin – Vocals
Isabelle Feuillebois – Vocals
Caroline Szymkowiak-Indjein – Vocals
Sylvie Fisichella – Vocals
Laura Guarrato – Vocals
[Photos by Jez Rowden, Rosamund Tomlins and Graham Thomas]