Friday, 25th January 2013
Theatre de Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, France
It is always nice to witness a band on their home soil and for this evening's events the lovely theatre in the small town of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux near
the Belgian border was the perfect setting for my first experience of live Magma.
With snow thick on the ground what seemed to be a sell-out crowd hurried into the 300 or so seat venue,
happy to be in out of the cold and clearly anticipating a great night.
First up support act Cheikh de Staël, a quartet from just up the road in Lille,
performed a bizarre yet very entertaining set that got the evening off to a fine start. I know nothing about them but the drummer appeared first,
the focal point of the band and quite the clown he did most of the talking and seemed to
go down very well with the French crowd but unfortunately and to my shame my lack of language skills meant that I couldn't catch the jokes.
The rest of the band strolled on in an odd array of stage costumes: the double-bass (always nice to see) player dressed in a dog suit,
saxophonist with a pig mask and blood spattered apron and guitarist in cave man skins and a gimp mask!
I certainly wasn't expecting that. It took a while to get used to their eclectic mix of jazz, metal and avant garde sounds but after a couple of numbers I was hooked.
The band were incredibly tight and pulled off the jagged rhythms, time changes and free jazz stops and starts with some style.
Central to it all the various antics of the drummer drove the set along.
At one point his stick skittered off the cymbal, across the stage and into the front row.
He immediately left his stool and jumped down into the audience to retrieve it.
The sax player used his circular breathing technique to good effect,
leaving the stage at one point to run around the auditorium and the whole band put in a thumping display
of mind-melting music that certainly warmed up the crowd on a chilly evening.
A quick changeover and the current octet formation of Magma appeared on stage to be greeted by warm applause and cheers from the partisan crowd.
The band had plenty of space to spread out, Christian Vander at the back flanked by guitarist James MacGaw
and master bassist Philipe Bussonnet with keyboardist Bruno Ruder and xylophone player Benoît Alziary completing a horseshoe
formation and facing each other across the stage. This left the enthralling vocalists Hervé Aknin,
Stella Vander and Isabelle Feuillebois across the front of the stage.
From very early on during opener Rïah Sahïltaahk the levels were sorted out and the sound for the rest of the evening was superb,
as was the particularly effective lighting.
As a bonus this venue has the most comfortable seats I've probably ever sat in so there was no wriggling about and rearranging yourself,
just sit back and let the majesty of this most unique of bands wash over you.
From where I was near the centre of the third row my view of Christian Vander was obscured by Stella,
Isabelle and their table of percussion instruments and Bussonnet was partly hidden behind Ruder.
This was certainly a shame but they more than made themselves heard in a stunning display that shook the building; this really is a rhythm section to die for.
Bussonnet completely nailing his parts and producing some awesome playing, in the style of Magma legend Jannick Top when required,
while Vander is simply a force of nature urging the music along to new and unknown territories.
It was an absolute pleasure to see the interaction between the two with Bussonnet keeping a close watch on Vander's many twists and turns.
During the course of two hours or so the music unfolded over what amounted to four pieces,
the highlight of which for me being a quite wonderful reading of the whole of Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh that just left me staggered.
The band played beautifully throughout the performance and all of the pieces came to life,
the addition of xylophone to the line-up being particularly effective with the dazzling Alziary playing off Ruder,
the two watching and reacting to each others work.
Guitar doesn't have quite the integral role in Magma that it does in more traditional rock bands but James MacGaw
certainly made his presence felt with tasteful and incisive lines successfully holding together some of the more outlandish elements
of Magma's music and dealing well with a broken string near the end of M.D.K..
With the band delivering the music with emotive precision the difficult job of the vocalists was also pulled off with style.
Stella was supreme in her solo parts, majestic and linking beautifully with Isabelle to form the foundation of the choral sections
of M.D.K. in particular. Recent recruit Hervé Aknin looked slightly nervous but was just superb,
a rich and warm voice with a commanding timbre that he used to good effect.
Christian took a couple of solo vocals, his scat style and unusual inflections fitting perfectly with the music.
A special moment.
After the scene was set with Rïah Sahïltaahk the evening really bedded in with the whole of their latest album,
Félicité Thösz, the more mellow tones of this extended suite sitting well against and in marked contrast to the more rhythmic and choral M.D.K..
Where M.D.K. simply stuns Félicité Thösz builds and unfolds, a beautiful piece during which the singers excell.
As the pivotal moment of the set M.D.K. raged while the singers worked their magic recreating the choral sections.
I don't think I've ever seen such a spectacular vocal display and Stella in particular pulled it off with a serene calmness that made it all the more impressive.
The band left the stage to a storm of applause and came back for a thumping encore of Slag Tanz leaving a standing ovation in their wake and calls for a further encore.
For most (other than a couple of small children huddled in their seats along the row from me!) the two hours had gone by far too quickly and the demands for further music,
led by the drummer from Cheikh de Staël up in the balcony, continued long after the band had left the stage.
Magma would have needed to play all night to satisfy everyone.
Wow, this gig was so much more than I could ever have hoped for and well worth the lengthy trip across the Channel.
I hope this isn't the last time I have the opportunity to experience a gig like this from a truly unique and wonderful band.
One of the best performances I have ever seen.
Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh
Magma Official Website
Cheikh de Staël Myspace
Theatre de Saint-Amand-les-Eaux