Kãrtëhl is Magma’s 15th studio album.
Founded in 1969, avant-prog pioneer Magma’s myth since the 1970s has been that the band’s path will end with the release of the epic meisterwerk Zëss. The myth was driven by the band’s main honcho drummer/singer/composer Christian Vander himself. Zëss, rumoured for decades, was finally released in 2019 and although the theme of the album was as apocalyptic as expected, Magma continued to tour the world even after the release of the album, playing to packed halls. And as we now can see Zëss wasn’t even the band’s last album.
Kãrtëhl is one of those albums for whose existence we can thank the corona virus. Like so many other bands, Magma had to suspend touring for almost two years due to the pandemic. During this period, Vander launched ”Operation Kãrtëhl”. In practice, this meant that Vander informed the current members of the band that he wanted them to write new material for Magma. This is exceptional because I would estimate that at least 90% percent of all Magma music has been composed by Vander. The last non-Vander composed song can be found on the Merci album from 1984.
Three members of Magma took up Vander’s challenge and so of Kãrtëhl’s six songs, only half are by Zébehn Straïn Dë Geustaah himself this time. Two of Vander’s three compositions date back to 1978 when Magma was making a follow-up to Attahk. For one reason or another the sessions went nowhere and the next Magma album had to wait until 1984 when the aforementioned Merci was released. The fact that Vander is digging through his old archives is nothing new in itself. Magma took a long break after Merci and the next new studio album K.A was not released until 2004. Since then, Magma has been active basically non-stop, releasing three full-length studio albums and two EPs. Most of the material on these albums can be traced back to the 70s. Vander was therefore incredibly prolific at that time.
We’ll come back to the music itself and who wrote what, but first let’s look at who is playing music of Magma today. For some mysterious reason, Vander delegated the drumming on Zëss to Swedish virtuoso Morgan Ågren. Now, however, Vander is back on the drum kit and he also sings a lot on the album. Vocals are also shared with Stella Vander Linon (Christian and Stella were previously married) and Hervé Aknin. Both already Magma veterans. They are supported on backing vocals by a quartet of Isabelle Feuillebois, Sylvie Fisichella, Laura Guarrato and Caroline Indjein. On keyboards, the classically trained Simon Goubert, who made his debut on Zëss (Goubert has also played in Vander’s band b), and on Magma, newcomer Thierry Eliez. Eliez is also a classically trained musician, but has after his training pursued a career mainly in jazz. On guitar, Rudy Blas, who succeeded magnificent James Mac Gaw (1968-2021), will continue with Zëss. On bass guitar, Jimmy Top, son of Jannick Top, who played in Magma in the late 70s, will make his studio debut.
The first thing I noticed when listening to Kãrtëhl is that finally Magma’s studio album sounds really good in terms of sound. Finally Vander’s drums sound like they should. We had to to wait 50 years for that! The drums sound crisp and clear. Drums are also positioned quite high in the mix. Even on an equal footing with the vocals. And why not, Vander is still one of the most elegant and powerful drummers in the world. The soundscape of the album is nicely balanced and warm. Interestingly, for the first time Stella Vander Linon is credited as the producer of the album. Stella’s current husband Francis Linon is responsible for the recording and mixing. Linon is also known as Venux Deluxe. Under that alias, Linon worked for Gong in the 70s.
After the sounds, the next thing that came to my mind was the cheerfulness of the music. After the dark Zëss, Kãrtëhl sounds downright jubilant. Kãrtëhl is competing with Félicité Thösz for the title of the band’s brightest album in Magma’s discography.
Stylistically, Kãrtëhl feels very much like a cross between Félicité Thösz and the aforementioned Attahk. This is unsurprising when you consider that two of the songs on the album were originally composed just after Attahk. Perhaps Attahk deliberately formed a kind of model for the whole album. The differences with Attahk are at least as great as the similarities, though. Whereas Attahk often sounds very aggressive and at times very, very strange, Kãrtëhl’s approach is much softer and more restrained. What Attahk does have in common, however, are relatively short (4-9 min.) songs that flirt with pop music structures and clear influences from soul, funk and even gospel music.
As is typical for Magma in the 2000s, Kãrtëhl again has a very dominant vocal role. The five vocalists on the album are almost constantly in voice. The vocal parts often carry both melody and rhythm and are at their best a really beautiful listen. Despite this, the album would have benefited from slightly longer instrumental sections.
There are also no very strange vocal parts this time around. Falsettos, screams or warlike chants are a thing of the past. At least this time. Kãrtëhl’s vocals are softly flowing and soulful. The soul influences that Magma has occasionally cultivated in the past are more than ever present on this album. A good example of this is the album opener ’Hakëhn Deïs’ which, in keeping with its nickname ’Stevie Vander’, is a lovely and gentle soul-zeuhl piece sung by Vander himself. Vander’s singing is skilful, but with age there is a hint of fragility in his voice that brings a new humanity to the music. With Kãrtëhl, Magma is closer to Earth than ever before, even though the language is still the fictional language of the planet Kobaia.
The soul feelings also return on the album’s closing track ”Dëhndë” which, along with ”Hakëhn Deïs”, is the second song on the album that Vander demoed back in 1978. Dëhndë” is also a gentle and soft song where soul-pop meets gospel. Naturally spiced up with Magma’s own Zeuhl style.
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The third Vander composition on the album, ”Irena Balladina”, also offers no cosmic drama in the spirit of good old mekanikal destrüktion. ”Irene Balladina” is also quite relaxed music and, as its name suggests, again in the ballad style. Stylistically, it is a kind of light jazz, again bringing back memories of Stevie Wonder’s music. The song has a very romantic sound and is downright sweet at times. I have to admit that at least occasionally when listening to the song, my thoughts have drifted back to the good old Love Boat TV series. ”Irena Balladina” must be one of the few Magma songs that would not evoke feelings of dread and widespread spilling of the drinks by the bourgeois audience on cruise ship music nights. Has Vander become a soft romantic in his old age? Is Irene perhaps his new sweetheart?
(Note: I have since writing this originally learned that Irene was name of the Vander’s mother.)
Well, perhaps I painted too bleak a picture of ”Irene Balladina”. It’s not at all unpleasant to listen to, but it’s clearly the album’s least interesting composition. And as it is Vander’s only entirely new song on Kãrtëhl, it makes you wonder if he is running out of gas as a composer?
Fortunately, Vander’s bandmates rose to the challenge of Operation Kãrtël with flags flying. In particular, keyboardist Thierry Eliezie’s dramatic composition ”Walomëhndëm Warreï” pays tribute to Magma’s history. Eliez manages to encapsulate in seven minutes much of what makes Magma’s long epics so magnificent. The operatic vocals, undulating electric piano patterns and Vander’s unpredictably clanging drums are all Magma intact without the result sounding like forced pastiche. The band’s new bassist Jimmy Top gets to shine on the track with his gorgeous complex bass pattern that carries the song through its middle part. Top also does a good job on the album, although his bass guitar playing doesn’t have the same verve as Magma’s most bad-ass bass players like Philippe Bussonnet.
The band’s other keyboard player Simon Goubert also excels as a composer on his own song ”Wiï Mëlëhn Tü” which, at just over eight minutes, is the longest song on the album. After a strange stuttering vocal intro (the weirdness is still present now and then!), Hervé Aknin takes over the solo responsibility with a rhythmically tense singing. ’Wiï Mëlëhn Tü’ effectively builds a menacing atmosphere with its slow tempo and Vander’s overbearing drumming. Halfway through Aknin and Stella Vander sing a duet and oh how beautiful Stella’s voice still sounds! Finally, ”Wiï Mëlëhn Tü” is successfully built up to an intense finale where electric guitarist Rudy Blas, who is otherwise left out on the album, gets to solo in a jazz-inspired way.
And when vocalist Aknin also succeeds quite nicely as a composer in his cheerful song ”Do Rïn Ilï Üss”, one can’t help but wonder how well the band’s musicians have internalized Magma’s style. Of course, the seamless connection to Magma’s history is certainly helped by the fact that Maestro Vander himself is still at the helm of the operation.
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The CD edition is accompanied by the original demos of ”Hakëhn Deïs” and ”Dëhndën”. The somewhat skeletal and minimalist interpretations of these songs sound far stranger than Kãrtëhl’s versions finished decades later. The vocalist is René Garber, to whom Vander has dedicated Kãrtëhl.
It’s always difficult to judge new albums by bands you love, bands whose music you’ve been listening to for decades. The power of expectation is overwhelming, no matter how hard you try to contain it. Kãrtëhl, too, seemed to me to be a disappointment on first listen. It wasn’t as intense, aggressive, strange or groundbreaking as I would have hoped. However, after several listens I have once again realised the old truth that it’s not what an album isn’t, but what it is that counts. Kãrtëhl may not be breaking new ground for Magma in a dramatic way, but it still manages to wiggle interestingly between familiar features of the band in a sufficiently fresh way. Kãrtëhl serves up idiosyncratic beauty in a way that only Magma can. At 51, Magma is still going strong.
Best songs: ’Hakëhn Deïs’, ’Do Rïn Ilï Üss’, ’Walomëhndëm Warreï’, ’Wiï Mëlëhn Tü’
Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI
This review has been translated into English with the help of DeepL Translator. You can read the original Finnish version here.
- Hakëhn Deïs
- Do Rïn Ilï Üss
- Irena Balladina
- Walomëhndëm Warreï
- Wiï Mëlëhn Tü
- Hakëhn Deïs (1978 demo)
- Dëhndë (1978 demo)
Christian Vander: drums, vocals, tambourine Stella Vander: vocals, backing vocals, bells Hervé Aknin: vokaalit, backing vocals Isabelle Feuillebois: backing vocals Sylvie Fisichella: backing vocals Laura Guarrato: backing vocals Caroline Indjein: backing vocals Rudy Blas: guitar Thierry Eliez: piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, keyboards Simon Goubert: piano, Fender Rhodes -electric piano, keyboards Jimmy Top: bass guitar