How is it possible that we have yet to write about a prog-rock band on TWBITW? Clearly, we’ve been slacking! Let’s fix that right now.
Like any weird band worth their salt, France’s Magma don’t really fit neatly into any one genre; they just get called prog-rock because they share a lot of prog bands’ fondness for long, meandering instrumental passages, weird time signatures and sci-fi imagery. But musically, they probably owe more to Sun Ra and Carl Orff and David Axelrod than they do to, say, King Crimson. Led by drummer, singer and all-around freakazoid Christian Vander, the band has been around in one form or another, off and on, since 1970, and continues to tour and release new material to this day, although most of their more recent output has been in the form of live albums and DVDs.
What really pushes the band into full-blown Weirdland, however, is the incredibly elaborate mythology Vander has built up around the group. All of Magma’s music tells various stories of the planet Kobaïa, which is settled by refugees from Earth in some distant future. And most of it is sung in a made-up language called Kobaïan, which fans of Magma have actually learned to decipher and speak to one another the way Trekkies speak Klingon. Magma’s music and Vander’s Kobaïan language have even inspired their own sub-genre of music, called “Zeuhl,” which is Kobaïan for “celestial.” Next time you hear a bunch of French dudes chanting nonsense lyrics over music that sounds sort of like Pat Metheny on acid, you’re probably listening to a Zeuhl band.
Here’s some great video of Magma performing in their heyday back in 1977, when this stuff probably didn’t sound quite so weird. It was the decade of Yes and Jethro Tull, after all. That’s Vander behind the drum kit—all kidding aside, you can see why a lot of other drummers worship the guy. Oh, and don’t skip the user comments, in which the Magma faithful offer up their translations of the lyrics. Apparently, it’s all secretly religious music.