Band: Magma | Album: Zëss (Le jour du néant) | Genre: Zeuhl, Symphonic music | Year: 2019
From: Paris, France | Label: Seventh Records
Magma are the founders of the zeuhl genre. Over the span of their 50-year career, they’ve been remarkably consistent in both their strange character and high quality of output. Strongly rooted in jazz and heavy on hypnotic jamming, their studio recordings were often taken to new heights in live settings, such as the version of “Köhntarkösz” on their album Live/Hhaï. Live performances have also seen epics be debuted and developed before reaching a studio album. Their 2009 album Ëmëhntëtt-Ré began life in the 1970s at live shows, and “Šlag Tanz” was debuted live several years before it was recorded. “Theusz Hamtaahk” as yet remains unrecorded in the studio. Zëss similarly began as a live-only epic in the ‘70s.
“Zëss” struck me as an odd choice for Magma to record. The live recordings I’d heard came off as long-winded, meandering, and repetitious, and this was a critique I’d seen elsewhere online. I think the band may have been aware of this criticism, so they enlisted the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to add some texture and dynamism. Distinct to Zëss, band founder Christian Vander takes lead vocals over the span of the entire album. There are the usual female vocals in the background, but Vander remains at the forefront. He also does not play drums here, another first for the band.
The 37 minutes of Zëss are presented as one huge song, though there are seven distinct movements therein. It’s also a big improvement over the archival live versions I’d heard. Magma have never been a particularly guitar-forward band, but the guitar is nearly muted on this album. Piano and the orchestra take center stage beneath Vander’s vocals. Hearing just how naturally strings fit in with Magma’s sound, I’m shocked the band had never attempted such an integration before.
Vocals on Zëss are presented both in French and Kobaïan, Christian Vander’s invented language which has featured on every one of the band’s albums (except Merci, but there’s a reason no one talks about that album). The music flows smoothly over the course of the album. The orchestra lends a certain fluidity, and the jazzy percussion, while not Vander’s, is befitting of the band.
As big of an improvement over the early recordings of this song as it may be, “Zëss” does still retain some weaknesses. It isn’t able to fully escape all the tedium of those old recordings. Certain points on this massive epic begin to feel superfluous or needlessly extended. The barely-noticeable guitar hampered the band’s ability to put some oomph behind the moments that were meant to be menacing. The orchestra certainly could add a creepy, spooky vibe, but a splash of something distorted may have helped drive the point home.
Zëss ties up some of the loose ends in the Kobaïa storyline that’s run through band’s music since their 1969 debut. (Or so I’ve been told. I’m not exactly fluent in Kobaïan.) I’d consider this to be Magma’s second-weakest album, but their discography has been so incredibly strong (aside from the aforementioned Merci) that it’s still good. There are some moments of monotony, and the lush strings may reduce some impact, but Christian Vander has demonstrated that he’s still able to conjure up something weird and interesting half a century after his band debuted.