Album review: Magma – Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh

A jazz fusion ensemble interprets Verdi’s Requiem in the original Klingon.

  • Genre: Zeuhl (progressive rock/jazz fusion/contemporary classical/avant-garde)
  • Country: France
  • Release date: December 1973 (reissued 2013)
  • Label: A&M (reissued on vinyl by Jazz Village)
  • Format: 12” vinyl
  • Catalog number: JV33570070


    • Klaus Blasquiz – vocals, percussion
    • Stella Vander – vocals
    • Muriel Streisfeld – vocals
    • Evelyne Razymovski – vocals
    • Michele Saulnier – vocals


  • René Garber – bass clarinet, vocals
  • Teddy Lasry – brass section leader, flute
  • (brass section uncredited)
  • Jean-Luc Manderlier – piano, organ
  • Benoît Widemann – keyboards
  • Claude Olmos – guitar
  • Jannick Top – bass
  • Christian Vander – drums, vocals, organ, percussion



Hortz Fur Dëhn Štekëhn Ẁešt 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up



Ïma Süri Dondaï 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up



Kobaïa Ïss de Hündïn



Da Zeuhl Ẁortz Mekanïk



Nebëhr Gudahtt



Mëkanïk Kömmandöh 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up



Kreühn Köhrmahn Ïss de Hündïn


Total running time:


Brian Eno once said about the Velvet Underground’s debut album, that it initially sold only 30,000 copies but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies formed a band.” So it was also with Magma, but Magma were much, much weirder than the Velvet Underground. Andy Warhol wouldn’t have known what to make of these guys. Magma were one of the most important and influential of the avant-garde European jazz and rock groups of the 1970s, pioneering the genre of zeuhl, which is a very strange mixture of jazz fusion, prog rock, contemporary classical, Romantic opera, and freaky psychedelia but can mostly be thought of as “music that sounds like Magma”. The zeuhl scene (which persists to this day in bands like Universal Totem Orchestra and Setna) itself helped give rise to Rock in Opposition and much of the avant-garde progressive rock and metal of the ‘80s and later—early RIO leading lights Univers Zero all came out of zeuhl music, for instance.

Magma are not an easy band to get into, I remember reading one review of this album that called it “the music of lunatics”, and considering what mental states and exotic drugs are required to produce the bizarre and convoluted mythology that underpins Magma’s music (more on that later), there might be some truth to that. Magma themselves even seemed to recognize that and created an album under the name Univeria Zekt that started as mostly textbook jazz fusion and introduces zeuhl elements little by little, as a way to get listeners accustomed to the Magma sound. If it does click with you, this can be some truly transporting, otherworldly, and beautiful (if often in a dark and somewhat disturbing way) music.


Magma, 1973.


Magma as a band is the brainchild of drummer, composer, occasional keyboardist, and backing vocalist Christian Vander, as a vehicle for both his unique, groundbreaking musical ideas and his errr, “unique”, frankly bizarre science fiction fantasy world of Kobaïa, a planet in the distant future where refugees from a doomed Earth have settled to create a more enlightened society. With the Kobaïan setting comes the Kobaïan language, a guttural mishmash of French, German, Hungarian, English, and bits and pieces of other languages, filled with spitty consonant clusters and vowels bent by umlauts. All of the lyrics on their classic ‘70s albums and their post-reunion new albums (leaving aside the spotty Attahk and awful Merci from the ‘80s) are delivered in this Mitteleuropean-flavored yet alien tongue, and printed with no translation whatsoever. If you’re lucky there will be a brief synopsis of the album’s plot (they are always concept albums), but that’s in untranslated French, so anglophones are out of luck. Depending on how you feel about obsessively detailed sci-fi imaginings, this may be for the best.

Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh is Magma’s most famous album and probably the most definitive example of the zeuhl idea. Pounding, incessant martial rhythms and a truly gigantic fuzzed-out bass guitar sound drive forward a true rock opera in the most literal sense of the word, with a big choir (such as an obscure French rock band could afford, anyway) and soloists, with wind instruments that behave as a classical brass section rather than a jazz horn section, providing harmony and occasionally introducing melodic themes. The mood is bombastic, grandiose, grim, and violent, as metal as metal could be were it not for the fact that this album is completely lacking in any sort of distorted guitar, and in fact the guitar here is very much a supporting instrument, played in a jazz idiom with a clean tone, providing mostly basic comping and some brief leads.

Instead, the focus is mostly on the interplay of the singers and the rhythm section, with the rest of the band (probably the biggest lineup Magma ever had—one might even call it an orchestra) providing a complex multi-layered harmonic backdrop or overture-like thematic statements. There’s no jamming here like there is on many of their other albums, no back-and-forth between instrumental solos or improvising on a groove, everything is very tightly planned out and regimented. Even the track divisions are more of a courtesy to the listener as any indication of actual “songs”, as the entire album flows together as a unified composition that flows neatly from scene to scene (much like a real opera). Also like a real opera is the singing, which is delivered entirely in a Wagnerian operatic idiom, which helps immensely with this sort of music as the standardized, uniform quality of operatic singing allows the voices to blend and harmonize seamlessly, whereas your typical rock/metal opera like Avantasia or Ayreon would create mashes together rock singers of highly individual and distinct styles who clash against one another—here it’s the material that is the important part, the singers merely exist to deliver it. Would that the singers had a bit more training, however—their technique is nowhere near as sophisticated as on later albums, and soprano Stella Vander in particular botches her high notes regularly, her head voice dissolving into a harsh shriek. Not good.

The rock part of this rock opera comes mostly from the bass, piano, and drums, which provide a massive rhythmic impulse that resembles the brutality of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring multiplied a hundredfold by 20th century technology. Christian Vander’s drums and occasional anciliary percussion mix classical, rock, jazz, and military band rhythms freely, supple and subtle when they need to be, crushing and hammering in the climaxes, always perfectly on time. The bass, played by Jannick Top, has one of the most utterly huge tones I’ve ever heard, a wall of fuzzed-out distortion the equal of two guitar players but still tight enough to not drown the mix in mud. The piano playing here shows the piano’s abilities as a percussion instrument, backing up the rhythm section with one hand while mediating between it and the rest of the band with the other. There are occasional interjections of electric piano and Hammond organ, but ordinary piano provides the vast majority of the keyboard work.

The production is excellent and fitting with the band’s jazz roots, prioritizing fidelity and soundstage over stylization. Every instrument is clearly audible and distinguishable from the others, even when they’re all sounding at once, a feat Yes could rarely accomplish with ten times the money. The drum production deserves particular praise, as all of the fine details of the cymbals and trap drums are preserved, instead of dissolving into a high-pitched ringing like so many other albums. Even Jannick Top’s distorted bass doesn’t intrude into the other instruments’ space—with a less sophisticated mix it would have likely dominated the entire sound. The Jazz Village vinyl reissue’s sound quality is excellent, and I highly doubt the original pressing could exceed it. There is almost no noise and the sound remains clear and agreeable even at extreme volumes.

Structurally, this has scant resemblance to any kind of rock or jazz music. It’s mostly built out of ostinatos, upon which are built layers and layers of harmonies and recitative vocal passages, the tension building and building, higher and higher, louder and louder, faster and faster, until the passage consummates in a massive eruption of energy—massed vocals, piano, bass, drums, winds all working to leave the listener completely overpowered. The magic comes in the resolution coming always on time and being both consistent with what came before and a musically interesting departure. Certain motifs and lyrical phrases recur, always reinterpreted or cast in a new light, to help tie the composition together. The marriage of Wagnerian motivic development and psychedelic histrionics works beautifully, and by keeping the whole thing fairly brief (39 minutes instead of several hours) it’s made much more listenable than an actual Wagner opera, with very little fat.

The musical concept behind this album, such as can be understood by an English speaker with only a few sentences on the album jacket and the internet, is that a “Great Prophet” named Nebehr Gudahtt, centuries after the departure of the original Kobaïan settlers, has foreseen the “final judgment of humanity for its cruelty, its vulgarity, its uselenessness, and lack of humility” (so says the only bit of English explaining the story on the jacket), and called upon all of humanity to embrace the worship of the Celestial Being Kreühn Köhrmahn (God, basically) and the teachings of the Kobaïans before it’s too late—yeah it’s basically the Book of Revelation in space, complete with the ending where humanity transcends its mortal form and…something. The whole album gives off the feeling of futuristic devotional music, less a true opera than an operatic mass like Verdi’s Requiem. Lyrics are not delivered in stanzas or paragraphs, but in repeated, mantra-like phrases whose sound seems as important as their literal meaning, like the endless chants of “Kyrie eleison” and the like at a mass.

It’s hard to pick out particular highlights from this album, as it works mostly as a single composition, and thus the tracks are both similar to one another and lack any sort of rock song structure that would let them function as independent units, but “Ïma Süri Dondaï” is the closest to being a self-contained “single”, with its catchy opening theme and sense of internal momentum. It’s also the most melodic movement of the album, with a greater density of themes and less dissonance than the others. Another particularly memorable part is the two-part finale, starting with “Mëkanïk Kömmandöh”. After the ludicrous, hysterical freakout of “Nebëhr Gudahtt” (which, I must warn, will not make a lick of sense except in the context of the rest of the album), the music settles onto a percussion-driven ostinato that gradually builds up, breaking out of the typical marching tempo of the album, surging faster and faster, into a riveting triumphant climax reminiscent of the very end of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the music switching from brooding minor to soaring major and exploding into an exuberant, almost danceable celebration with horn fanfares aplenty and the album’s only genuine guitar solo, ending on a massive ritardando before immediately launching into the hymn “Kreühn Köhrmahn Ïss de Hündïn”, a moment of serenity after the Sturm und Drang of the rest of the album, the tension build up over the course of the album finally released. Not even Stella Vander’s questionable singing can spoil the beauty of this piece as it builds into an ecstatic chorus and then gradually fades away.

Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh is strange, off-kilter, obtuse, but also beautiful, a tapestry of weird and wonderful musical imagery and a masterwork of composition that has spawned legions of followers and imitators. It is not for everyone, perhaps not for most people, but for those who get it, there is little else in the entirety of recorded music that can so powerfully and completely transport you to another time, another place, another state of mind. Highly recommended for fans of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and challenging, advanced music in general.

Rating: 90%


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