(All Album Reviews by Reginod)
After NEARFEST 2003 there can be no doubt: Magma rules.
I'm convinced further that they've been ruling for quite some time now. Performed by drummer/visionary Christian Vander and (at least) 6 other musicians in April of 1971, 1.001║ Centigrades enduringly testifies to the irreplaceable value of the art of composition; it also reveals a staggering level of harmonic unity among the band. In that regard it is a rare musical gem, even from a band that reached such breathtaking heights as Magma.
Balanced instrumentation is critical to the aforementioned unity. The musical palette on this, the group's second album, consists of Klaus Blasquiz on chant and percussion; Franšois Cahen on piano and Fender electric piano; Francis Moze on electric bass; Teddy Lasry on clarinet, sax, flute and voice; Jeff Seffer on sax and bass clarinet; and Louis Tosca on trumpet.
Vander, of course, is the engine at the heart of Magma. His 21:45 composition "R´ah Sah´ltaahk" opens the album and establishes a high standard of required musicianship. It is also the most vocal-laden piece on the album, and perhaps the least accessible in the initial listening phase. Many different moods are conveyed by pacing that moves from fast to slow to fast to moderate to slow to fast again, going through several distinctive sections, shifting through different time signatures, often coming to abrupt starts and stops, but miraculously never destroying the flow of the piece. Each instrument occupies a unique harmonic space while perfectly complementing every note or beat played by the others. At about the 11:30 mark, all is broken down to a spacey minimum, out of which Koba´an chants drift into a tense, almost tribal section. The ensemble then kicks into a gallop and the tension continues to build during the piece's climatic final minutes, released only after the brass and voices collide in a delirious and delicious cacophony.
Lasry's "'Iss' Lanse´ Do´a" introduces side two of the album. Odd percussion, moaning chants and chance notes from the brass section fade in while Moze weaves the bass pattern upon which the opening section is built. Cahen joins in on the Fender, solidifying the rhythmic foundation, while Vander lurks just beneath the surface. The brass then comes to the fore, announcing the primary melody. Just as the instruments begin to separate in dissonance, all is brought to a semi-halt. A second section ensues astride another bass line from Moze, with Vander picking up the pace slightly. A Heavenly Koba´an chant draws the listener further into the music before a deeply ominous, full-throated proclamation provides a counterpoint to the established melody. From there the band launches into a dizzying, five-count section driven relentlessly by Vander, matched melodically by Cahen and Moze, and punctuated by the brass. At the piece's conclusion, all is again brought to a halt, with the sound of a clock in the background ticking away the final seconds.
The three pieces on 1.001║ Centigrades were each crafted carefully by a separate, individual composer. Cahen's "Ki ¤ahl Í L´ahk" closes the album in a joyous and glorious fashion, demonstrating again the seeming ease with which this band walked a musical tightrope between harmony and cacophony, consonance and dissonance, chaos and control. The bass and bass clarinet work together in the opening minutes to provide a counterpoint to the piano and chants; a rather mellow melody is sung about 2:30 into the piece. With Vander churning away, the band once again seems as if it's on the verge of flying apart before settling into a sublime cruise for the last four minutes. Everything that is great about 1.001║ Centigrades is crystallized in this all-too-brief section, which is at once haunting, bittersweet and beautiful (Moze's bass on this section alone is worth well more than the price of the album; it is not to be missed).
It is rather puzzling to me that 1.001║ Centigrades does not receive more raves from the Magma-loving community; perhaps it gets overshadowed by the admittedly astounding wall of Zeuhl that followed on the band's next several albums. Maybe Vander's vision wasn't fully realized at this point, but to my ears, I'm not sure that Magma was ever more perfectly balanced.
Halfway between avant-jazz and zeuhl, we find 1001░ Centigrades. Very much like its predecessor, Koba´a, it moves with slick rapidity, weaving through complex compositions, wild arrangements, and stark splashes of beauty. Comprised of three monster tracks: all outstanding, but none standing out, this second attempt at zeuhl lands much, much closer to the mark, but pales in comparison to the bullseye which is Mekan´k Destrukt´w Kommand÷h. The zeuhl hallmarks begin to appear, though are still overpowered by the jazz and avant-garde leanings (the former much more than the latter this time). Again, the concept or story is not a silly murder mystery, nor an irrelevant ode or complaint, like too many concept albums are, but instead is a relevant and complex tale emphasizing mankind's need to progress, and highlighting our faults.
The story of this release directly continues that of the previous release. Our Koba´an protagonists were just leaving with the newly acquainted Earthlings back for the ancient realm of their forefathers. The Earthlings had asked them to return to Earth with them to share their wisdom, teach their methods, and, in a certain sense, preach their way of life. As it now stands, Earth had fallen to depths never before reached, and Koba´a's population was infinitely advanced to Earth's: on political, social, spiritual, and technological grounds. The story of this chapter begins with the trip to Earth, and the bright welcome they are met with. The Koba´ans tell the tale of their ancestors' leave-taking, explain the progress they've made since, share their philosophies on the betterment of mankind, and how purity and spiritual enlightenment are the best, if not the only, means to growth, peace, and a perfect civilization.
At first, it sounds as if the Earthlings are sincerely considering these words, but within moments of sharing their speech with the world during a meeting with government, or some other form of high-ranking authority, they are arrested, imprisoned, and their spacecraft is immediately apprehended. Our protagonists, now prisoners, somehow manage to communicate with the Koba´ans back home, who quickly organize a retrieval effort. Now, at a civil meeting between the Earthling and Koba´an authorities, the Koba´a demand their kinsmen be released, or if not, the Koba´ans will unleash their ultimate weapon and destroy them. The details of this ultimate weapon are unclear. We don't know if it's some sort of Death Star, or another really advanced arm that will destroy the planet or wipe out its inhabitants, or something simpler and harder to conceptualize as a weapon.
At any rate, the Earthlings buy this story of an Ultimate Weapon, and release the Koba´ans immediately. The only condition the Earthlings demanded was that their entire people vow to never return to Earth. Thus ends this tale, but where it ends, another begins. The trilogy of Theusz Hamtaahk, which will be released in reverse chronological order (the first installment being never released apart from live recordings) pick up the threads this story ended with. The next release, Mekan´k Destrukt´w Kommand÷h, is the last installment in this trilogy, yet was recorded and released first.
Many people feel that concepts are irrelevant if the music doesn't support them. Who cares if the worst band in the world's new album has the best story ever: it's the worst band in the world! Rest assured that every moment of music here (and, truly every second of music ever released by Magma - apart from Merci) is brilliant. Unlike Koba´a, which was mainly an avant-jazz, this one is more of a jazz/zeuhl hybrid, with the avant-garde patches toned down. Horns still playing a very important role, along with a slightly more prominent bass, and a larger reliance on keys, this release is a step above (or perhaps just a step away) from the last. Drumming is still top-notch from Vander, as is all playing from all musicians.
1001░ Centigrades is an addictive, rhythmically strong, jazzy release. The sound quality is very good for its time, the production and packaging is brilliant (the booklet and its contents look great), and the music is probably a bit more accessible (especially to jazz fans) than the preceding and proceeding releases. Know, however, that accessibility does not equal music prowess.