Magma is a singular entity for a number of reasons. How many rock bands have been around for over 50 years, still led by their founding member and main composer, sing in a made-up language, and have created their own genre of music (Zeuhl) that has been extensively recorded by others worldwide? Said genre combines elements of jazz, classical, progressive rock, minimalism, and soul played in searing complex lines with a heavy emphasis on vocals, and is nothing short of pure joy.
In early February 2020, Magma embarked on a European tour. The lineup was new, with six vocalists (Stella Vander, Hervé Aknin, Isabelle Feuillebois, Sandrine Destefanis, Sylvie Fisichella, and Laura Guarrato), two keyboardists (Simon Goubert, Thierry Eliez), guitar (Rudy Blas), bass (Jimmy Top – son of former bassist Yannick Top), and drums (Christian Vander, of course). They played half a dozen shows, and then COVID happened. Eskähl was recorded from their performances in Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Perpignan.
The album begins with a shortened version of the classic Theusz Hamtaahk Trilogy (Theusz Hamtaahk, Ẁurdah Ïtah, and Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh). Since each of these pieces is album-length and has been heavily recorded, little is lost in these excerpts. The result still takes up all of the first disc, clocking in at just under an hour. Nonetheless, here is where the expanded chorus comes into play, as the vocals are tight and rely less on the power of Hervé Aknin than recent smaller ensembles. The material includes the first portion Theusz Hamtaahk, and the latter sections ofẀurdah Ïtah and MDK. A high point, of course, is the intense finale to MDK.
The second disc kicks off with Kobaïa, a jazzy track from Magma’s first album, which has been performed live over the last few years. This version is one of the better ones, perhaps again due to the expanded vocal presence and tasteful guitar / keyboard interplay in the more open-ended passages. Following in the jazz arc are covers of McCoy Tyner’s For Tomorrow and Michel Graillier’s Auroville. The former is a 70’s piece in which Tyner used wordless vocals, and in retrospect, the original does sound a bit like Magma as a result. The latter is a more melancholy and low-key offering, and it is a departure for Vander and company. The final track, Troller Tanz, returns to classic Magma form with its psychedelic breaks, chants, and driving bass lines.
Not unlike Magma’s music and even Magma itself (with four children of 70’s members having been in the band since 2000), things come full circle. If all goes well, Magma hits the road again in October, scheduled to play over a dozen shows in France and Belgium. Godspeed.
If the goal of Eskähl is to hold us over until Magma can return to recording and performing, then mission accomplished. But this album stands out from the many live snapshots of the band over the last 50 years in that it provides a side not often shown in addition to classic material.