A new Magma release is almost always a monumental occasion. In fact, in a rare dabbling with physical media, I ordered the CD of Zess to be able to listen to it as soon as possible. For those on the fence of whether to obtain the actual CD, the packaging is excellent and includes a detailed booklet in both French and English with translations of the Kobaian lyrics. (Magma is the originator of Zeuhl music and most albums are sung in their made-up language, Kobaian.)
The album marks the 50th anniversary of the group, still led by Christian Vander with long-time member Stella Vander. Given that the Vanders are not young anymore – though still quite actively touring – one has to wonder whether this will be the last Magma studio album. The lyrics foreshadow as much. Speculation aside, Zess stands on its own as a singular entry in the group’s discography – first because Christian does not play drums, and second because of the addition of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Vanders provide lead vocals over the seven interlinked tracks, with Christian taking the lion’s share of that role, as well as narration and compositions. As the album progresses, he artfully blends spoken word with singing. Morgan Agren fills in on drums, while established collaborators Simon Goubert and Phillipe Boussonnet play keyboards and bass, respectively. New to the group is Rudy Blas on guitar. Backing vocalists include Magma veterans Isabelle Feuillebois, Herve Aknin, and Julie Vander along with four others.
The music of Magma is hard to explain to someone who has never heard it. Over the years, references to Carl Orff, Richard Wagner, and John Coltrane have been made, though the modern incarnation of the group has tended to eschew the latter’s influence. With the orchestra, the Orff comparison probably works best, but here the classical music is mostly in the background providing textural accompaniment until the album’s climax during the fifth and sixth tracks (more on that later). But picture Orff performed by a progressive rock group with a heavy vocal emphasis. And the singers do not sing as much as chant or scat. Indeed, the voices in Magma have taken on larger and larger roles over the years, becoming yet more instruments for Vander to employ.
Zess broods with an unusual intensity. It begins with an angularly lilting chorus accompanied by piano chording and orchestral swells. Christian starts his narration at this point and the orchestra drops into the background for a piece largely featuring a repetitive drum, bass, and keyboard pattern supporting his emotive storytelling (which begins in French before switching to Kobaian in the third track).
At this point, the potency of Zess comes into its own and Christan scats over swelling strings and more complex melodics breaks, layered harmonies, and punctuated choral lines into the next piece. And it is the two penultimate parts of Zess that unleash the power of Magma with Christan and Stella leading the singers through waves of horns and strings grounded by Agren’s driving, snare-heavy drumming. This reaches a metaphysical pinnacle with Christian singing over vocal patterns from the other singers, which are accompanied by the band and orchestra operating at full bore. A short coda with call-and-response arrangements finishes the album.
Light and dark, joy and pain, the cosmic and the earthbound. Magma.
Like much of Christian’s post-2000 writing, Zess is not a new composition. Parts of it have been floating around since 1977 and can be heard in different forms on various live releases and bootlegs. But there can be no doubt that this is the definitive edition.
Is this the swan song for Magma? Hard to say and I certainly hope not. The group has a concert schedule that extends through the end of the year, so that is a good sign. In the mean time, Zess is yet another high point of the group’s discography – not just an album but an intellectual and spiritual experience.