Heard of concept albums?  Magma was a concept band.  Even though Magma threaded itself among the warp and weft of ultra-progressive rock in the early 1970s – King Crimson, Soft Machine, Gong, Henry Cow, and Frank Zappa – it labored in cultish obscurity, even among progressive rock fans.  This was the band to which you gravitated if you dug “21st Century Schizoid Man” but thought it was too pop.

A group of mostly French musicians formed the band that became Magma after John Coltrane’s death in 1967, having been inspired by the jazz icon to do something more fulfilling than their current gigs backing pop singers like Johnny Hallyday.  The leader was Christian Vander, a drummer of Polish Gypsy extraction who had studied with Chet Baker in Paris and was obsessed with Coltrane.  He started a commune, and the eight members developed their concept and music for several months before committing it to vinyl.

The band supposedly existed to tell the sci-fi story of the Utopian planet Kobaia, to which a group of intrepid Earthmen flee in the not-too-distant future as life on Earth becomes untenable.  The first set of albums tell the story – in Kobaian, a language that Vander invented, which sounds like a cross between German, Polish, and Klingon – and featured a surfeit of gratuitous diacritical marks long before heavy metal acts like Mötley Crüe.

The length of Magma’s “classic period” is a matter of honest debate among fans, but most say that it started with the band’s second album, 1001o Centigrades from 1971 and ended with 1976’s Üdü Ẁüdü.  Others narrow it to the three albums: Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh (1973), Köhntarkösz (1974), and Magma Live (a/k/a Live/Hhaï) (1975), the latter being allowed in for its high proportion of original material and excellent sound quality.

Side one of  1001o Centigrades established the band’s signature style, known as Zeuhl (pronounced either “Tsoil” or as a German would pronounce “Zöhl”) for the Kobaian word for “celestial music.”  It consisted of Carl Orff-style medievalist chanting put together with a jazzy rhythm section and influences from the likes of Stockhausen, Bartok, and eastern European folk music.  There were guitarists in the band, but they didn’t get solos.  The overall feel is heavily arranged doomy storm-trooper death march.  The music is utterly unusual, nothing like progressive rock a la Yes, Genesis, or Pink Floyd, and most definitely an acquired taste.

Magma ran out of steam and fell out of favor, like most progressive rock, by the end of the 1970s.  Vander half-heartedly tried the pop sellout route (1984’s Merci) and then gave up.

Fast forward to the 2000s, after two things happened.  First, the Magma “diaspora” and other musicians picked up where Christian Vander left off and formed their own Zeuhl-influenced bands (Weidorje, Univers Zero, Ruins, Shub-Niggurath, and a few others).  Then a few edgy alt-rock bands of the 1990s started to cover some of Magma’s shorter cuts, showing selective historical mining in the same way that other alt-rockers “found” Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.

It was time to bring Magma back.  Vander did so, with his wife Stella on vocals, some young musicians from a band called Don’t Die that played Magma covers, and two children of the great bassist Bernard Paganotti from the glory period.  Magma achieved its resurrection without selling out (Genesis), phoning it in (Floyd), or releasing cardboard rehashes of their glory days (Yes).

Of the classic prog bands, only King Crimson produced recent music that retained the vitality and creativity of its 70s peak.  Yet while Crimson did it by redefining its sound for the current era, Magma resurrected the style for which it had become known and made it fresh through modern-day sound quality.  Magma’s music was so different from other bands’ that it never sounded “dated” and therefore wasn’t in need of  redefinition.

The first Magma comeback album was K.A. (Köhntarkösz Anteria), from 2004.  The material for this album was written before Köhntarkösz in the mid-70s but was never recorded in its entirety at that time.  Lyrically it was supposed to be a prequel to Köhntarkösz.

K.A. comes across as an ecstatic space oratorio, complete with chants of “Allelujah!”  The leaden feel of the original Zeuhl period is given a welcome facelift in the form of lighter, jazzier arrangements and far better sound quality.  Vander’s drumming — a skill he neglected during Magma’s hiatus — is inspired and shows a return to his jazz roots.  The third and final movement is especially intense and impressive.  The album only suffers from weak guitar and keyboard soloing, though new bassist Philippe Bussonet stands with the best Magma bassists over the years — Paganotti, Jannick Top, and Francis Moze — which is saying something.

Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê (2009) was released as a CD and as a DVD, the latter showing the sessions and the music being developed. Much of the material here had appeared on Magma Live, Üdü Ẁüdü, and elsewhere, but Vander changed the arrangements and knitted the parts together into a suite.  Vander’s drumming and singing show the subtlety and maturity gained over thirty-plus years since the music was originally recorded.  If you can get past the language barrier (hint: don’t even bother listening to the words, just treat them as sounds), then Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê serves as a high-quality anthology of the band’s best material, and therefore an ideal entry point for newcomers into this absolutely unique and fascinating musical vision.

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