Magma – Köhntarkösz (1974)
Magma: proper noun; “That band that made up their own language and won’t stop singing in it”. Were they to perform their mix of jazz-fusion, opera, etc. in English, or perhaps their native French, they probably would not have become nearly as popular. As it is, they seem to enjoy a healthy following, certainly more numerous and devoted than a lot of the bands I write on. More importantly, they seem to be my latest musical obsession (although Manilla Road is fighting tooth and nail for that role itself).
Köhntarkösz is of middling accessibility for a Magma album; while it has lengthy songs, it does not often have the overwhelming textures that many other Magma albums indulge in, nor does it strip things down to basics. It’s impossible to talk about this album without mentioning the 30 minute title track (split in twain on the original LP) that takes up most of its length, which is primarily dissonant and foreboding. Each part of the track is structured somewhat similarly, with a bombastic introduction, a quiet but tense rising action that climaxes in volume and velocity near the end, only to drop off into silence near the end. This sort of structure isn’t rare, mind you, but you don’t hear it very much in pop music (or much besides verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/coda), nor is it so often stretched out to this length outside classical traditions. In short, Magma is VERY dynamic, and this album is no exception.
This album is, on the other hand, not as modal as much of their work, i.e there are relatively few key changes. It’s the second movement of the Köhntark that skews towards this repetitive feel the most. Early on, it introduces a chord progression that drives it for most of its duration – first we hear it on its own, then with some vocals, then with extended solos, then with even more choirs; all the time speeding up until it comes to an abrupt end. Now, Magma has recorded multiple versions of the song “Köhntarkösz”, and the later ones have a choral section before the coda; apparently it had not yet been composed when the time came to record the original. Fans who cut their Kobaian teeth with one of the numerous live versions therefore might miss it here, but it probably won’t be a problem if you listen to this studio version first. More interesting (and useful) to the novice on such live albums are the variety of supporting compositions that Magma places around this album’s centerpiece – several of such were rerecorded in the more accessible studio format on 2004’s K.A. and 2009’s Ëmëhntëhtt-Re, and you may want to pick those up if you find this one rewarding. Remember, Köhntarkösz contains two more songs by default. Firstly, “Ork Alarm” is a dark, ominous, bass and keyboard driven work by the bassist (Jannick Top) that reminds me of the band Univers Zero, despite not being all that similar. The irony, of course, is that a founding member of Univers Zero, Daniel Denis, was a Magma alumni. The other song is “Coltrane Sundia”, which is a placid sounding requiem for John Coltrane, of all people. He doesn’t fit into Magma’s mythology, but Magma’s leader, Christian Vander has frequently cited his works as an influence.
Either way, whether you pick this one up depends on how interested you are in opera, jazz fusion, progressive rock, that sort of thing. While this album isn’t as dramatic or vocal-driven as your average Magma album, it still fits their signature sound, and is often considered one of the high points of their discography.