Concert of the Year – Magma at the Philharmonie de Paris, June 26, 2019
By Alek Nyberg
I’m a little bit biased. Magma has long been a personal favorite musical group of mine, and the year 2019 is a big one for them. 2019 marked the 50th year of the group’s existence, and to celebrate they put to tape “Zess,” one of their last unrecorded meisterwerks from the 70’s and planned a celebratory concert at the prestigious Philharmonie de Paris. As a recently graduated/liberated-from-University boy, I figured I deserved a little present for myself, and promptly bought tickets for the event.
Paris is fine, but I knew why I was there. The Philharmonie de Paris is an uber-modern venue, constructed in 2015 to bring a fresh, modern face to the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra performances in an attempt to attract a younger audience. It was also created in order to be a new venue for large scale, pseudo-arena acts (a concert series began the week after the Magma concert that included the likes of Kraftwerk, Thom Yorke, and I believe Charlotte Gainsbourg; don’t quote me on that). The building itself looks like a modern art museum, all angular shapes and overlapping surface slabs that I’m sure was a construction engineer’s nightmare. Even after exploring around the building, I have absolutely no mental construct of how the interior layout matches up with the exterior, which is pretty neat. The inside halls were a step up from your modern arena fare, darker lit, no exposed industrial bits, this was about as premium of an arena environment as you’d get.
After getting through a wonderfully handled language barrier to get an exclusive-for-the-show coffee mug, I promptly walked to my assigned seat on the balcony level of the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez. The stage area was pretty big. There were quite a few balcony areas, all hanging above the floor level on these undulating, wave-like platforms, and the ceiling itself had a beautiful asymmetric wave pattern, which I’m sure provided some sort of acoustic benefit. The stage itself was a beautiful sight. Two rafters flanked the side, one for the multitude of singers, the other filled with various brass and woodwind instruments. Next to the wind instruments was an acoustic grand piano, a guitar amp, and a drum set. On the other side was a vibraphone and an Ampeg SVT. Directly in the center were several microphones. Good times ahead.
We all knew the setlist, it had been announced several weeks prior. This wasn’t a rock concert, this was a program. I was sat in between two elder gentlemen who appeared to not be in the best mood. I knew this would be about a three hour concert, and was tempted to speak to them in order to not live in silence for the evening, but seeing their demeanor and the obvious language barrier between them and my elementary school knowledge level of the French language, I decided it was best to just let it be.
The lights dimmed right at seven, and our heroes for the evening got up on the stage, no dramatics, everyone walked on stage at the same time, smiles and all, waving at the crowd. They immediately launched into their 2012 album/piece Felicite Thosz, which being my least favorite piece of theirs, was fine. It’s a very light, largely major sounding piece that never really gets my heart pumping, until the last half where their piano player ripped a massive piano solo that straddled that perfect line between melodicism and cacophony that lead into a mind bending, constant meter-changing riff that transitions into a wonderful oom-pah vocal solo/build that brings the piece to its climax. Polka is only allowed if it follows directly from alien prog-rock semantics. This was followed by their vocal showcase piece “Hhai” which never fails to bring a tear to my eye, truly an uplifting song of the highest order. This segment was followed by an introduction by the lead female singer, Stella Vander, and because I have been fans of these people for so long, I have deified them to the point of forgetting that they are French. The entire introduction was in French, she talked quite a bit, there was a lot of clapping, and it sounded important, but how was I to know. Truly devastating.
After about a 15 minute break, the second segment began. This segment was essentially a highlight reel of a trilogy of pieces that were written in the 70’s, and combined it ended up being about a constant 55 minute piece of music. Wonderful. For those in the know, this consisted of essentially the first and last third of a piece called “Theusz Hamtaahk” (as of yet not recorded in studio), the second half of “Wurdah Itah” (my personal favorite of their albums, and one that’s rarely performed live, so this was quite ideal), and the last third of “Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh” (their most famous album). These pieces are highly modern classical influenced, think Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” filtered through spaceman Philip Glass arranged for fuzz bass and a hard bop drummer. The lead singer once again made a short spiel, and it was intermission time again.
After another 15 minutes, the third segment started. This is what we were all here for. This segment was dedicated to their new studio album, “Zess,” which is a pretty interesting piece of music. Back in the late 70’s, when it was largely written, Zess was essentially a Klingon-James Brown rock opera about the end of time. The piece is largely written around a two chord-vamp with a deceptively complex shuffle beat, of which I’m pretty sure the snare hits can’t be properly written using western notation technique. Over this vamp, Christian Vander (the main drummer and writer) gives an oratorio that builds in intensity, which is helped by an impact riff that is played when he gives the signal (kind of like James Brown’s screams on his old funky late 60’s/70’s singles).
As the piece progresses, solos are traded off by various instruments, and then it becomes more compositional as soul-vocal interjections and written melodies are introduced, traded off, and expanded upon until the piece expires around the 35-minute mark. This new version, however, is significantly different in tone. The funk is largely gone (personally I liked the funk, but I understand if a bunch of 50-70 something French people aren’t really feeling the funk anymore), and it’s replaced by an orchestral, more resigned feel, as if it’s more accepting about the impending death of the universe instead of facing it with shrieking, ecstatic existential terror.
The performance itself is quite good. Live, the woodwinds and brass replace the full orchestra of the studio version, which I’m fine with since I’m a smaller ensemble kind of guy, and they add a slight jazziness that I always thought was necessary with the piece. The oratorio section was incredible, more intense than the studio album, and boy was Mr. Vander feeling it. His body was shaking, his arms were twisting in odd shapes, his facial expressions were inhuman, truly the perfect performance. As the piece went on however, there were several missed cues, several impacts points ignored by the drummer (for this piece, Morgan Agren of the Mats/Morgan group) and bassist, and even Mr. Vander himself missed some vocal lines. Do I care? Kind of. But this man was living this music, it was not a lazy performance, he was completely enraptured in the piece. He truly was like a giddy child, excited to finally be performing this piece in a prestigious setting in front of probably around 1000 ecstatic fans, and that was honestly one of the most beautiful things these eyes have seen. The piece ended with a newly added, relatively hopeful sounding finale ending in an “Om.” After a lovely run through of the piece “Ehn Deiss,” a variation on the final theme of Zess, complete with a wonderful flute solo, the concert was done. Bows, smiles, waves, and they were off.
How was the sound? Really bad. It’s a concert hall, they’re a rock band with like, eight singers, two pianos, a vibraphone, a heavily distorted bass guitar and guitar, a cymbal-heavy drum set, and a horn section, that’s not a good combination for sound clarity, but it didn’t matter, the performances were great, and it shined through the mud. I was there for three and a half hours, it felt like one. Highly recommended, except it’s not going to happen again. Should’ve been there.
THE MELTING POT
Molly Pitcher’s Top 7 Protest Songs the FCC Won’t Let You Hear on the Radio
FCC rules haven’t budged for decades. George Carlin’s “seven deadly words” were coined in 1972 but they remain taboo today on the radio. Here’s my top seven favorite songs from 2019 that I can’t play for you on the radio. As a bonus, you can watch some great music videos!
3 Years Sober – Vic Mensa:
Vic Mensa cross dresses in a Confederate flag and is groped by a Joe Biden look-alike in the music video for this fierce description of fighting addiction. Hip-hop doesn’t always treat the LGBT community kindly, sadly, so watching Vic’s portrayal of a trans woman facing violence from police and criminals alike is a welcome departure from the norm.
Arabesque – Coldplay:
French-Algerian artist Stromae and Femi Kuti add vocals to this call for understanding that all humanity is the same with the refrain, “we share the same blood.” With Kuti’s horn section blowing hypnotically behind them, you’ll find this is one of the catchiest tunes you’re not allowed to hear due to the “F-word” appearing in the final minutes.
The Great Unknown – Wookiefoot:
Wookiefoot is not just a band—they describe themselves as “a circus, a philosophy, and a community of globe trekking bliss junkies and believers that are the fuel to keep this Tribadelic Spaceship going.” They released this world-beat encouraging song as a single this year.
The Year of the Woman – Dispatch:
Roots band Dispatch frequently has political themes in their work. The music video for this new release features news clips of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination hearing, Brock Turner’s rape trial, and iconic heroines including Greta Thunberg, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Gloria Steinem and more, all over a driving beat of indignation.
13th Century Metal – Brittany Howard:
Alabama Shakes went on hiatus in 2018 so that lead singer Brittany Howard could release her solo album “Jaime.” This jazzy spoken word piece is her affirmation to stay positive and fierce: “I promise to think before I speak / To be wary of who I give my energy to / Because it is needed for a greater cause / And that cause is to spread the enlightenment / Of love, compassion, and humanity.” She sings she is “tired of this bull****,” and aren’t we all?
Blind Leading the Blind – Mumford and Sons:
British folk rock band Mumford & Sons released this single in October. The lyrics challenge apathy and cynicism with an insistent forceful melody that can’t be heard on the radio due to the inclusion of the “F-word.”
This Land – Gary Clark Jr:
Gary Clark Jr. fuses rock, hip-hop, roots music and blues. His 2019 album “This Land” has been nominated for four Grammys, and the title track is responsible for three of those. The wailing bluesy guitar with a hip-hop chant over the top is mesmerizing. Paired with the imagery of young black children facing the Confederate flag, it’s one of the most powerful political songs of the year.