Deep Dive: Magma

Hamtaï! Welcome back to Deep Dive, my series where I explore the extended studio discographies of the giants of progressive rock and metal. I’ve got a weird one for you today: Magma, the founders of zeuhl. 

For those who don’t feel like reading massive entries in their entirety, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end of this piece. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and this contextual element is often overlooked in many ranked-lists.

Magma has always been a weird band. I’ll delve into what exactly zeuhl is below, but even beyond the structural strangeness of their music, the band’s composition has varied wildly over the years. At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists 12 current members and 22 former members; and Rate Your Music names 11 current members with a staggering 89 former members. Much of this can be attributed to their frequent shifts in sound, ranging from their very wind instrument-heavy first albums, to mid-career funk experiments, to later albums which prominently featured vibraphone. Multiple vocalists have always been a signature element of their sound as well.

Magma has been incredibly consistent across their career, in terms of the quality of their work. Even their worst album isn’t all that bad. I’ll also give a quick shout-out to their live performances. I saw Magma on their 2016 US tour, and that was one of the absolute best live shows I’ve ever seen, only seriously challenged by my experiences seeing Rush and Moonsorrow. This column only covers studio output in any depth, but the live albums Hhaï and Retrospektïẁ (I-III) are some of their best work. I’m a big enough fan that I personally own the 12-disc live box set Köhnzert Zünd.

Before we get going, though, I’m sure those of you unfamiliar with Magma are asking…

Continue reading “Deep Dive: Magma”

Album Review: Cratophane – Cratophane

Band: Cratophane | Album: Cratophane | Genre: Zeuhl, RIO, Progressive rock | Year: 2022

From: France | Label: Baboon Fish Label

For fans of: PoiL, Magma, Elder

Bandcamp

One of the great things about the decentralization of the music industry has been the ability of niche record labels to proliferate. As evidenced by the minuscule amount of good zeuhl from the 1980s, if you played an unpopular genre of music, it was tough to get your recordings a proper release. Now, though, I can name several labels that either specialize in or put out a significant amount of zeuhl. Soleil Zeuhl is the oldest of these, founded in 1999. More recent ones include Dur et Doux, Guerssen (primarily doing reissues of obscure past releases), and today’s focus, Baboon Fish.

Baboon Fish Label is a French zeuhl label that, lately, has averaged about one release a year. What this label lacks in quantity, they make up for in quality. They released an album by Nebulous Sun last year, which made it onto my year-end list; and I also am quite fond of their 2017 release from The Orvalians. The most recent release from this label is the self-titled debut from self-described “angular rock” band Cratophane. That “angular” label describes a lot of what Baboon Fish specializes in, and it’s especially fitting for this experimental instrumental act.

Continue reading “Album Review: Cratophane – Cratophane”

Album Review: Somalgia – Inverted World

Band: Somalgia | Album:Inverted World | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock | Year: 2021

From: UK | Label: Repose Records

For fans of: Sigh, Porcupine Tree, Kesem

Bandcamp

Records like this one are why I’m glad I decided to lump music released in December 2021 with 2022 for my year-end list-making purposes. I’m often in a bit of a rush getting my draft lists off to my editors, and trying to find new music in the midst of that is a fool’s errand. Somalgia’s debut album–Inverted World– was released in mid-December, and it’s a fantastic blend of genres, including progressive rock, black metal, trip-hop, and psychedelia.

Somalgia is an English duo who go so far as to label their music “post-genre.” It’s certainly a diverse release, especially as far as progressive rock and progressive metal go; but they’re not doing the stereotype of pretentious prog-rockers any favors with this sort of posturing. The lyrics are also a bit 14-year-old-who-just-saw-The-Matrix-and-is-now-a-conspiracy-theorist for my taste. The band has used the NPC wojak meme multiple times on their Instagram, as well as engaging in some 5G conspiracy. I get the feeling it would likely be unproductive for me to engage in political discussions with whomever wrote the lyrics.

Political gripes aside, Inverted World has a lot of fantastic music on it; and it’s situations like this one where I’m glad I’m good at just tuning words out most of the time.

Continue reading “Album Review: Somalgia – Inverted World”

Odds & Ends: December 27, 2021

Band: Band of Rain | Album: The Sun King | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp

This is decent, mid-tempo prog that goes more for atmosphere than technicality. (That’s not to disparage the bandmembers’ instrumental chops, though.) The overall sound is lush, and the band skillfully layers different textures and melodies. I also appreciate the many touches of jazz scattered throughout this record. The vocals come off as fairly weak, unfortunately, which does hamper this release, along with a general sense that everything here is too long.

Score: 65/100

Band: Fanatism | Album: Inverted Evolution | Genre: Progressive rock, Krautrock | Bandcamp

Inverted Evolution has an unhurried pace which allows the band to stretch out and weave wonderful atmospheres. This Swedish act draws heavily from ‘70s hard rock in a lot of their musical vocabulary, but elements of jazz, post-punk, and gothic rock are readily evident, too. Eerie synths, hypnotic rhythms, and progressive song structures are hallmarks of this album. The ending is a little weak (though not bad), but beyond this hiccup, it’s a strong release.

Score: 77/100

Continue reading “Odds & Ends: December 27, 2021”

Odds & Ends: September 6, 2021

Band: Antinode | Album:The Canary the Named the Stars | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp

The three songs on this long EP/short LP are solid, spacey progressive rock with subtle touches of jazz, metal, and indie rock. I’m a big fan of the instrumental tones and textures, and despite the songs’ lengths, they never feel like they’re dragging. There’s significant internal variation on all three tracks, and there’s a natural flow to the way the compositions evolve.

Score: 81/100

Band: Big Big Train | Album: Common Ground | Genre: Neo-prog, Progressive rock | Bandcamp

I have never understood the appeal of Big Big Train. They’ve got the occasional decent song here or there, but I’ve never enjoyed an entire BBT album. They often come off as saccharine and glossy, like a worse version of Spock’s Beard. Maybe I’m too much of a dour Debbie Downer to enjoy such unashamedly major-key music, but the opening “The Strangest Times” exemplifies my lack of fondness for this act. It’s bright, sunny piano-pop that doesn’t strike me as particularly proggy in any definition of the word. Successive tracks are significantly better, though it’s still not exactly my cup of tea. Much of this album comes off as soulless and plain, to say nothing of the bloat. The band sounds stuck in the mid-’90s’ prog scene, a sound which was fine for its time but was rightfully cast aside at the turn of the century. The lushness hobbles the band’s ability to make any real splash, and everything on here has been done much better previously by other artists, often half a century ago.

Score: 51/100

Continue reading “Odds & Ends: September 6, 2021”

Album Review: Papangu – Holoceno

Band: Papngu | Album:Holoceno | Genre: Progressive metal, Zeuhl | Year: 2021

From: João Pessoa, Brazil | Label: Independent

For fans of: Mastodon, Magma, ‘70s King Crimson, Oranssi Pazuzu

Bandcamp

Zeuhl and metal are two genres which I’ve long felt would make fantastic bedfellows, but almost every instance of an attempted fusion I’ve found has been lackluster. Magma’s Šlag Tanz EP bills itself as jazz-metal, and that’s not too far off the mark; and the bands ni and PoiL frequently have moments where these two styles merge. Most other attempts at blending zeuhl and metal have come off as muddled, meandering morasses of aimless dissonance and irregular drumming.

Brazil’s Papangu, though, might be the best-realized example of zeuhl metal I’ve run across to date. Holoceno, their debut album, has been seven years in the making, and it tells the story of an environmental apocalypse–something Brazilians would understandably have on their minds.

Continue reading “Album Review: Papangu – Holoceno”