A Musical Monument 35 Years in the Making:
Indisputably the most ambitious and complex creative project of the rock era, the French group Magma, over the course of its 40 year history, has related in bits and pieces an alternative spiritual history of the human race from the point of view of a future, enlightened civilization, passionately sung or chanted in its unique, emotionally evocative language (constructed by the group’s leader, Christian Vander.) Only in the last ten years have these works truly begun to coalesce into connected narratives in officially recorded form, cycles or trilogies that make apparent the “future history” (some label it secularly as ‘science fiction’ but considering the religious context of the music, I prefer ‘prophecy’) that Vander and his allied musicians relate. A huge step forward was the 2000 Trilogy at Trianon performance, which for the first time brought the Theusz Hamtaahk pieces together on CD and DVD. 2004’s Kontarkosz Anteria extended the Kohntarkosz narrative of 1974 by adding a prequel to the story of the archaeologist scholar who discovered and explored the tomb of Emehnteht-Re, then, after experiencing a life-altering vision within, determined to complete that ancient pharaoh’s spiritual work. In the liner notes to Kontarkosz Anteria, Vander noted that a third part of the story, an epic biography of Emehnteht-Re himself, already in part existed, consisting of works that had appeared under different titles on 1975’s Live/Hhai (Emehnteht-Re: Announcment, Hhai), 1976’s Udu Wudu (Zombies (Ghost Dance), Emehnteht-Re (extrait)—the latter a CD bonus track), and 1978’s Attahk (Rindoh). Tapes of live performances from 1977 reveal that Vander has indeed had the interconnection of these pieces in his mind since the time of their creation, and extended performances of Zombies from that year contain the original version of the latter part of the present work, never before recorded. Is this 2009 CD, then, little more than a compilation, a rehashing of old ground? The answer, emphatically, is ‘not at all!’ Not only does the linking of works previously recorded as isolated tracks utterly transform their context and meaning, unifying them while adding fully-conceived and organic musical bridges between them, but the versions of these works presented here are so wonderfully matured from their originals that there is simply no comparison. Emehntehtt-Re (aka “The King in the Land of the Dead”) is a masterpiece 35 years in the making, and it shows.
For the passionate Magma fan, this long-awaited release of the studio version of Emehntehtt-Re has been an event fraught with anticipation and anxiety. On the one hand, we’ve been listening to concert versions of the completed work for over two years now, and thought we knew pretty much what to expect in terms of general content, but still, the question hung heavy: would Vander and Co. get it right? Would the scintillating spirit of the live performances be captured in the sterile atmosphere of the studio? Would the production choices be too conservative, or else over-the-top, or would they achieve the proper balance in presenting this monumental work? I’m happy to report, after a week of delirious listening, that with only a few exceptions, Magma and Christian Vander got this one right. Not that this studio recording is without some shocks, even for jaded fans who thought they’d heard it all. Like the surprising addition of a second t in the name of its hero (previously known as ‘Emehnteht-Re’), there is much on this CD that may upset fans who thought they were already familiar with the work, and like that additional ‘t,’ some of these changes may at first seem a bit random, out of line with what we had been previously led to expect, and jarring. But that, in a nutshell, is Magma, who’ve never been content merely to repeat past years’ performances or studio versions of their works on tour, but constantly experiment and reinvent. Vander wastes no time in announcing that this studio version of Emehntehtt-Re will differ from live performances: following the first, explosive chord, his voice comes in unexpectedly, intoning a narrative text (in faux Egyptian?) that we have never heard before, which is repeated in a variation in the all-new Sehe section that now closes the work. In-between, as well, there are a number of alterations in vocalizations, instrumentations, arrangements and emphases that may take listeners familiar with the live Emehntehtt-Re aback. Nonetheless, though select changes may stand out as dramatic, the bulk of the choices made on this studio recording tend towards restraint and understatement, rather than bombast or obvious effects, and the results, with few exceptions, are to the work’s betterment. True, some efforts will be required of new listeners to catch the nuances and emotions in some of the more conservatively played sections (such as Rindoh), but what delightful hours of discovery await them.
The work begins with what was formerly known as Emehnteht-Re: Announcement, a stately-yet-chilling introduction to the Egyptian pharaoh that emphasizes both his magnificence and otherworldliness. The chorus of meticulously articulated voices here (as in many other moments on the album) is simply stunning, blasting ahead like a wind in a sandstorm to announce the King, while the subsequent percussion and descending male voices give the impression of the regal procession following after, advancing in leisurely stages. At about 3:00 in length, this is one of the shorter recordings of Announcement (contrast 8:00 for the Live/Hhai version) but it serves its purpose and moves on quickly, as opposed to the sometimes droning/meandering 1975 performances. A brief bridge then takes us into Rindoh, which must be counted as one of the most changed pieces from its original manifestation (on 1978’s Attahk), where a much thicker operatic trilling and heavier playing in my opinion mars a delicate work. Frankly, however, although a vast improvement in studio versions, I found this recording of Rindoh too plain and conservative, lacking in beauty and spirit in comparison with live versions. As with Announcement, it seems that the Vanders went here for tightness and restraint, for whereas in concert, Stella Vander’s impassioned vocals remind me viscerally of lovers who are tragically torn apart, the elegant but cool vocals here leave me largely unmoved. Particularly, the closing section at 5:55, which sounds haunting enough to give shivers in concert, here has only a faint note of tragedy. As this was one of my favorite concert moments, this cooler Rindoh left me just that, cold. And while on my few complaints, I should mention the erratic division of tracks on this CD, by which these two pieces are gathered as Emehntehtt-Re,Part I. The new division of the work, which willfully seeks to override the previous titles given to the parts, simply doesn’t work. The actual divisions are still apparent enough musically to make the new title divisions meaningless, and if the full, 51 minute piece was divided merely for the convenience of the listener, a much better job should have been done in splitting the sections meaningfully. With this division, for example, one cannot skip right to the Zombies section without going through the lengthy Hhai, etc.
Emehntehtt-Re,Part II (consisting of works formerly titled Emehnteht-Re (extrait), Hhai and Zombies) for example, does not at all hold together logically as a single part, each with a strikingly different tone and mood. The first section, which has always been one of my favorites of the work, a youthful, effervescent and soulful celebration, remains so in this version, despite substantial differences in vocalization from Udu Wudu. Vander’s vocal energy and crisp articulations have wonderful synergy with the flowing chorus here, and even his infamous falsetto is nicely restrained when he resorts to it for a moment of ecstasy. But the moment that floored me when I first heard this CD and continues to floor me is the bridge between this section and Hhai. Whereas a single female voice had previously announced the upcoming Hhai, here the bubbling chorus from the previous section picks up this part with great energy, resulting in a few moments of absolutely orgasmic harmony in which—as with the best of Magma—my mind seems for an instant to separate from my body and go soaring through the clouds. Hhai itself, a heartfelt pledge of faith and fealty to sacred principles, continues the restrained approach that characterizes the album as whole, in this case, however, much to the benefit of the work. Gone, for example, are those solos between dueling synthesizers that characterized Hhai’s live versions, ever on the edge of cheesiness and sometimes crossing over, and taking the place of bombast is a pure expression of spiritual certainty and strength, full of genuine feeling instead of hyperbole. This, the first studio version of Hhai, should absolutely now be considered the definitive one (and what a shame that it was not separated as a track so that we could enjoy it as such). I was also pleased to see in the booklet with lyrics accompanying the CD (a nice boon!) that I was correct about Vander using English phases in this piece: “to believe in God” and “a love supreme”—the latter a reference to Vander’s musical saint, John Coltrane.
From Hhai—the proud hero, full of spiritual certainty, heading off on a sacred venture— the mood rapidly darkens to Zombies (Ghost Dance), the macabre tones of which describe a disturbing and disorienting journey to the underworld (indeed, Ementet is the Egyptian word for the Land of the Dead). This sudden shift of atmosphere leads the listener to consider the narrative and beliefs behind the work (hardly transparent from the Kobaian lyrics alone). Christian Vander has described the piece as relating the efforts of an Egyptian King, Emehntehtt-Re, to gain the secrets of immortality, a quest in which he is ultimately slain, just as he was about to achieve success. Such a mythic narrative is reminiscent of many ancient tales, most notably the Epic of Gilgamesh or Orpheus and Euridyce, which involve perilous journeys into the world of the dead, where the hero inevitably fails in his quest to overcome death. The ancient Egyptians, of course, were obsessed with what occurs after death and finding the keys to awaken immortality, believing that a heart of pure feeling, which united spirit and body, was essential for this purpose. Souls were held to be innately eternal, and could migrate, but were judged by fearful celestial figures after death, and if found wanting, the transmigrating heart could be eaten and kept from moving on. On the other hand, realization of one’s true immortality could be individually gained by achieving gnosis, a full unity of body and spirit. To what extent Vander’s composition was influenced by such beliefs from the Egyptian funerary text Spells for Coming Forth into the Light (popularly known as The Book of the Dead) can only be surmised, but in a work that names itself after Ementet, such background should be kept in mind.
To me, Zombies (Ghost Dance) evokes the hero’s passage through legions of slow-moving but nonetheless terrifying guardian soldiers, who gather in his way and grasp at him in an effort to intimidate his entry into their world. The movements of these somnambulant, unfeeling dead are represented through lyrics consisting mostly of inarticulate ‘hey-ho’s ‘om’s and ‘ah’s, punctuated by wicked base lines and frenetic percussion evoking terror. Like Rindoh, the studio version here is a night-and-day improvement over its predecessor, which was marred with excessive special effects of the synthesizer. Vander’s new version is not without some startling effects, however, particularly in the broken and jammed musical patterns at 20:30, which evoke in an ‘in-your-face’ manner the interchangeability of the masses of the dead spirits, and the impossibility of defeating them when one simply takes the place of the previous. The 21st minute of Emehntehtt-Re, Part II develops into a breakthrough, however, with the introduction of a variation on a theme from the 1974 Kohntarkosz, the first of many references to this work that suggest that the hero of the present work is laying the spiritual foundation that the hero of the next will discover and extend.
Emehntehtt-Re Part III, which thematically belongs with the preceding Zombies (Ghost Dance) continues and develops its dark, gothic tones, taking them, incredibly, into yet more sinister territory. The exact narrative content of this thirteen minute section is beyond me, but it is clear that it represents the crux of the work, a struggle of heart and mind against dark, seductive forces without or within, from out of which certain crucial spiritual insights ultimately emerge. Until recent years not heard outside of a few 1977 concert recordings, this section is notably the most musically intense of the work (and perhaps one of Magma’s most complex compositions), consisting of themes that wonderfully develop, split, interplay and overlap—before collapsing onto one another and falling apart entirely in the gasping and drowning vocals at 11:11, out of which rises a soaring resolution. If two, competing forces can be separated in this intense mingling, one is epitomized by the dark, aggressive voice at 3:55 and 9:30 that chants “Wor / ehlio sohn deh wir / ehlio sohn deh wor deh wir / ehlio sohn d’ohm,” whereas the other is characterized by variations of the upwardly rising themes from Kohntarkosz, which grow clearer and gain strength at 8:00, tangle with the dark theme again after 9:30, break apart and ultimately emerge, stronger than ever and seemingly triumphant (now shot through with refrains from the opening of Hhai) at the close.
After all of this intensity, Emehntehtt-Re IV is initially a return to lyricism and seemingly the aftermath of the conflict, a celebration of breakthrough. The initial crescendo of the rapidly cycling bright Kohntarkosz theme at :50 seems to represent a falling through time and space, or waking from a dream, but takes a sudden, dark downturn at its close, as though the hero did not emerge where he expected. This is followed by a beautiful solo full of bittersweet lament. We hear the hero furiously recording his discovery (the Kohntarkosz theme), perhaps realizing that his time is limited, followed by a sudden snap and single-note trailing vocal, representing the death blow and hero’s shock. What has happened here? Was the breakthrough a dream, or genuine, and the King assassinated by a more earthly force? Is this his punishment for transmitting the secrets of the divine to humans, to be ultimately picked up centuries later by Kohntarkosz?
Funehrarium Kanht, an entirely new section of the work heard only in concert recordings of the past several years, is simultaneously a dark, mournful funeral procession (an inversion of the initial procession of Announcement), pulsing with pain and grief, and the draining away of the hero’s life blood, with every panicked but slowing beat of his heart. The studio version, with a faster tempo and more muffled sound, is vastly superior to the clanging, clashing concert version, which seems to drag on forever. Vander’s warbling voice at the close, similar to that at the end of The Night We Died, represents both extreme mourning and the brutal instant of the hero’s life force leaving him.
Sehe, a brief, narrative conclusion to this profound work, spoken over haunting moans and clanging machinery, announces through slight variations on the words of the initial opening the changed state of the hero, now trapped in a gloomy underworld and awaiting salvation. My personal belief is that the chronology and deeply bleak ending of this piece hint that it should be considered the first in the Kohntarkosz cycle, followed by K.A. and then Kohntarkosz, with its soaring, triumphant conclusion.
One final choice that bears discussion is the release of this monumental work as a combination CD/DVD set. Magma fans and serious musicians will enjoying this “making of” DVD for the behind-the-scenes insights it gives to the band (who will ever forget the scene of the 61-year-old Christian Vander dancing to Zombies?) and its recording process. The DVD seems designed to show us Vander’s relations with his younger musicians, and his meticulous perfectionism in the recording process. Although there are slight revelations of musical and narrative intent here and there, one wishes the DVD was less of a ‘home movie in the studio’ and more of a history and description of the work, as the title Phases, seemed to promise. Indeed, the most important “phase” is left out here, the recording of the vocals and most of the percussion. One also wishes, for the underappreciated Magma’s own sake, that this DVD had been listed as an optional add-on with the CD, for although appreciative fans know the true value of this set and won’t hesitate, others may balk at the price.
Should you be one of them, let me inform you, categorically, that for all the potential to change your life and thoughts on music that this recording holds, you should not hesitate to pay such a piddling fee one hundredfold. So stop reading, what are you waiting for??
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