Magma at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco.

Last year we had the opportunity to see the acclaimed French band Magma on their first tour of the western US in well over a decade. But we didn’t have to wait that long for their second visit to San Francisco when they came to play the Great American Music Hall in mid March, less than a year later.


For those not familiar with Magma, the band is known for their unique combination of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and avant grade influences; and for having their own invented language for their songs: Kobaïan. Many of their classic songs tell the story of humans and aliens on a planet Kobaia and of the effort to save humankind from imminent self-destruction.

Bathed in changing monochromatic lights, the band moved through complex rhythms, odd meters, harmonies that almost but never quite resolve, and intricate vocal narratives, all with a ferocious energy that rarely let up during the entire show. Their intensity makes the quiet moments even stronger, and sometimes tense as it builds back up to the next climactic section. And the sections featuring vocal harmonies and the electronic piano can be quite luscious. And as always, drummer, founder and main composer Christian Vander held the center both geographically and musically.

Christian Vander, Magma

In addition to Vander, there were long time band members including Stella Vander, Isabelle Feuillebois and Hervé Aknin on voice. The were two new band members on guitar and electric piano, respectively, and one could tell they were having a great time. The audience, which filled the main floor as well as the balcony section of the venue, was heavy with devoted followers of the band, who clearly knew some of the lyrics in Kobaïan and the characteristic complex rhythms. But there were captivated newcomers as well (I myself have only been following the band for a couple of years). Compared to last year’s show at Slims, this performance was heavier with classic Magma songs, and perhaps more a nostalgic vibe. There were newer songs as well, including parts of a newer epic narrative separate from the original Kabaia saga. Overall it was a great evening for musicians and fans alike. We leave with Vander’s own comments on the tour:

“Magma is happy to return to the United States to play for Americans,” says Vander. “We know you are passionate, respectful and curious about music. We find you to be generous and open. It will be a joy for us to see you this year.”

I hope we met his expectations.

Magma was preceded by Helen Money, a one-woman rock performance featuring cello, voice and electronics. Her music is described as “doom metal”, a genre not usually associated with the cello, but it is a phrase that Helen Money (aka Alison Chesley) lives up to in her performance. The overall tone was dark and aggressive, but with some interesting moments combining her adept technique on the instrument with complex electronics. She did make use of looping to support the rhythm and harmony in several songs. While she shares Magma’s intensity and energy on stage, the two acts were quite contrasting, and thus this was a well selected opening act.

This was the second of three great shows we saw in the span of one week in mid March. You can read my article of the first show, featuring Esperanza Spalding here. In the coming days we will close with a report from Faust’s San Francisco show.

Magma in San Francisco

The acclaimed French band Magma recently toured the United States for the first time in quite a long time. And we at CatSynth were in attendance when the played at Slims in San Francisco about a month ago.

Magma at Slims in San Francisco

For those not familiar with Magma, it was founded in France in 1969 by drummer Christian Vander. Musically, the band combines some of the best aspects of jazz fusion and progressive rock from the early 1970s with a unique (and somewhat apocalyptic) vision. All the the lyrics are written in Kobaïan, a constructed language invented by Vander that reflects the story from the band’s first album in which settlers fleeing Earth settle on a planet Kobaïa. The vocal arrangements feature a mixture of complex solo vocals and rich choral sections, all the while backed by Vander’s drumming and intricate rhythm from the full band.

Christian Vander and Stella Vander

The overall energy level was intense to say the least, but the thing I noticed most was how tight they were at all times throughout the performance. This is especially key for the fusion aspects of their music, and something that I found quite inspiring. Take some of the more fast-paced and intricate examples from Herbie Hancock’s early 1970s bands, and layer the vocals on top with punctuated rock hits. Although these elements can be found in other bands of the era, there is something distinct about their sound that made it immediately recognizable upon entry to the venue (we were slightly late and they had already started the first song). It is also interesting to note that the music has a very optimistic quality (and a bit of exuberance) that belies the rather dark theme of the lyrics and concept for the band.

Magma bathed in light in San Francisco

Magma played to a packed house that evening. Slims is not a large venue, but it’s not the smallest either. There were definitely a lot of long time fans who clearly recognized the songs, but I’m sure some new listeners discovered them and hopefully went away wanting to hear more of them. For the overall experience and the musical inspiration, I am quite happy to have been in attendance.