A new Magma release is always an event here at AMN Central. We put on a strong cup of coffee, pull the shades, and twiddle with the EQ until the mix is right. Or this is what I do – my family rolls their eyes and tries to put closed doors between them and the room I’m occupying for purpose of listening. In any event, Kãrtëhl was released as a physical CD two months ago, but finally as a digital download on the morning of December 3. The reason for the delay was to make it available in high-resolution, 32-bit WAV files. My audio equipment only supports up to 24-bit audio, so I settled with ye olde tried and true MP3s.
Like the majority of their post-2000 releases of “new” studio material, Magma has taken music originally composed in the 1970s and reworked / arranged it for the modern group. In this case, two of the tracks, Hakëhn Deïs and Dëhndë, are from 1978 as evidenced by their demos being included with the release. It seems as if the remaining four tracks are more recent creations given that writing credits on three of them are given to current members.
Said group is now quite vocal-heavy, featuring veterans Christian Vander on drums and vocals, Stella Vander and Hervé Aknin on lead vocals, and Isabelle Feuillebois also on vocals. Joining them are long-time collaborator Simon Goubert on keyboards, Thierry Eliez also on keyboards, Rudy Blas on guitar, and Jimmy Top on bass (Jimmy is the son of former Magma bassist Yannick Top, continuing a trend of Vander working with the children of former bandmates as well as his own daughter). Rounding out the lineup is the trio of Sylvie Fisichella, Laura Guarrato, on Caroline Indjein on vocals.
Ahead of its release, Magma was very open about Kãrtëhl being a much more upbeat and positive album than 2019’s apocalyptic Zess. After almost 3 years of COVID, lockdowns, isolation, and politics growing darker, we could use a shot in the arm of joy. Not that joy has ever been absent from the discography of Magma – I find that emotion to be a strong component even when the music is otherwise evocative of planet-wide cataclysm. But on this album, the exhilaration is more overt.
Case in point, Hakëhn Deïs is Happy Magma, with lively call-and-response singing over staggered rhythms. It is jazzy with more than a hint of the funk and soul that Vander was incorporating into his works in the late 1970s. There is ample repetition and catchiness coupled with the weird structures for which Magma is known. Do Rïn Ïlï üss is on the shorter side at under five minutes, and combines two distinct overlapping vocal patterns with a rolling bass. The descending chord patterns and drumming, however, suggest classic Magma. Irena Balladina continues the trend, with a bouncy, listenable form, soaring vocals, and a strange resemblance to melodies on the very first Magma album.
Things pick up quite a bit with Walömëhndêm, a track that has flourishes not unlike those of Zëss as well as bigger, more ominous choral aspects. But once it gets going with a complex bass line supporting staccato piano and voices, Walömëhndêm is a very intense offering, especially as it builds to crescendos toward the end. Wiï Mëlëhn Tü is in the same camp, starting with fluttering and alien vocalizations. Aknin joins with aggressive singing accompanied by a grinding bass riff from Top that would make his father proud. But the rest of the vocalists eventually temper and smooth this approach.
Dëhndë finishes off the album proper with a simple structure and a return to retro-funk/soul. This is the closest to pop music that Magma has gotten in a long time, with some singing seemingly in English. The bonus tracks consist of demo versions of Hakëhn Deïs and Dëhndë recorded in 1978, with Vander and Rene Garber providing vocals and Vander joining on piano. These are sparse pieces, with oddball scat singing and pounding chords. Not essential material, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.
So…bottom line…among Magma’s efforts of its modern era, I would put Kãrtëhl below the run of high points that were K.A., Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré, Zëss, and the two mid-twenty-teens EPs (Rïah Sahïltaahk and Šlaǧ Tanƶ). Instead, it is in line with the similarly song-oriented Félicité Thösz – another album that displays a different side of the band without losing the singular weirdness that it is Magma.