Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh: Zeuhl, Kobaïan, RIO, and the Strange Mythology of Christian Vander

Above: This guy is a fucking FREAK.

As the 60's drew to a close, the world of rock music was scattering in a million different directions, compelled by a new spirit of innovation and a whole lot of chemically-inspired creativity. Classically trained French drummer and scene outsider Christian Vander, obsessed with John Coltrane and free jazz, went in his own direction, forming a unique musical language that attracted some of the best players in the French music scene. But don't get me wrong here: I mean "unique musical language" quite LITERALLY.

Vander had a story to tell, a story that couldn't be shared from within the confines of modern language. Putting together a large musical collective he called Magma at the tail end of the 1960's, Vander's odd vision of linguistics as a musical tool, space travel, and Utopian societies found a voice.
From Vander's perspective, vocal arrangements in contemporary music needed to be used as accompaniment to instrumental arrangement, and not vice versa. Born from the seeds of scat singing and free-form improvisation, Magma's lyrics took on a life of their own, with Vander and company eventually developing their own language, which he called Kobaïan.
Through the course of several releases in the 1970's, including a self-titled double LP in 1970, 1001° Centigrades in 1971, Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh in 1973, Köhntarkösz in 1974, Üdü Wüdü in 1976, and Attahk in 1978, Magma told a sprawling tale of a small group of spiritually-minded humans in the far future, who must escape from Earth to save their race. These space travellers spoke Kobaïan as well, hence Magma was singing in their native tongue. Vander and Magma's strange ideas soon found popularity in the European prog rock scene of the early 70's, and still engross fans today. Take a look at this fan-created Kobaïan-English dictionary, if you don't believe me.

Magma's unique take on orchestral prog was dubbed Zeuhl, which in Kobaïan means "celestial music". Although I've been listening to Magma off and on for several years (an old friend who happened to be a Linguistics major turned me on to them), I never actually understood what "Zeuhl" meant until I was researching the Japanese Metal/Jazz/Zeuhl band Ruins a couple days ago. Since then, I've been pretty obsessed with it. More on that later.

Below: Magma in the studio.

Magma's influence on the French prog scene became more and more apparent as the 70's rocked on. The term "zeuhl" came to describe a certain type of music, a thundering, often-dissonant cacophony of classically-tinged weirdness practiced by Magma's countrymen Eskaton, Potemkine, and Eider Stellaire. Not all Zeuhl bands sang in invented languages, but it remained a common theme.
One of these bands, Dün, mixed Zeuhl with the mythology of Frank Herbert's novel, Dune, and produced a classic (and hard to find) record called Eros (above, right). Keep an eye out for that sucker on Illogical Contraption real soon.

Magma's revolving-door roster of band members produced its fair share of offshoots and side projects, including Weidorje (above), which featured the bass and keyboard players from Magma. They only managed to put out one self-titled album in 1978 (left), but it is considered a classic of the Zeuhl genre. In fact, "Weidorje" means "celestial wheel" in Kobaïan, and although Weidorje didn't actually sing in Kobaïan, their freestyle hoots and hollers weren't a far stretch.

Another Magma offshoot, Zao (no, not that one), appeared in 1971, releasing their debut album, entitled Z=7L (right), in 1973. Zao was made up of former members of Magma and remained active for over 20 years. In addition, Christian Vander himself formed several more bands over the years (Magma has been on-again off-again since the late 70's), including the aptly-named Christian Vander Trio, The Christian Vander Quarter, and Offering. He remains musically active (and really tripped-out) to this day.

The Zeuhl movement built the foundation for another movement in prog rock in the mid-to-late 70's, known as Rock In Opposition or RIO. Bands like Belgium's Univers Zero, England's Henry Cow, Italy's Stormy Six, and Magma's buddies Art Zoyd took the avant-garde compositions of Vander and his disciples and brandished them as a weapon against the music industry and popular trends of the time. RIO's artists saw disco and punk as threats to musical integrity, and worked outside the business to create some of the most inventive, complex, and original works of their time. The term "Rock In Opposition" was coined as a result of two large music festivals (one in Europe and one in Italy) of the same name, featuring all of the bands listed above and more. Today, RIO is still used to describe a certain sub-genre of prog rock, in reference to such bands as Thinking Plague and Guapo. In fact, modern weirdos Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's slogan, "Rock Against Rock", can be seen as a direct descendent.

Above: Univers Zero's 1979 album Heresie was a defining moment for the RIO movement. Many prog aficionados call it "the darkest album ever recorded" (look for that one on I.C. soon, too).
Check out a track off of Heresie below (shades of Penderecki, anyone?):

While the popularity of Zeuhl and RIO faded in the 1980's, a resurgence appeared courtesy of several Japanese freak-rock bands in the early 90's. The aforementioned Ruins (right - now Ruins Alone) write their lyrics in a completely self-constructed language as do the jazzy dorks in Bondage Fruit, Happy Family, and Shub-Niggurath.
These bands bandy about the term Zeuhl freely, and are quite open in their worship of Christian Vander's weird mythology. Japan's always a step ahead.

3 Ruins songs, live in Tokyo, 2002:

Left: Bondage Fruit.

So where will the Cult of Zeuhl rear it's shaggy, bespectacled head next? It's hard to say, but I hope I don't have to wait much longer.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm in the midst of a pretty heavy Zeuhl obsession at present. Resultingly, I've decided to launch a new weekly feature today: 'Prog Blog Wednesdays'. I'll be posting Zeuhl, RIO, and other weird prog classics from the 70's and beyond every Hump Day for the next couple months, including many of the albums mentioned in this post. You should check out ALL of them.



Cory said...

check out KA from 2004 its one of the best Magma releases hands down.

Ambassador MAGMA said...

Magma are one of my favorite bands. My friend's girlfriend actually saw them live and said Vander did a 45 minute drum SOLO that was NEVER BORING.

I never really listened to any other Zeuhl bands, but maintain a healthy Magma habit.

Somebody needs to make a Klingon to Kobaian dictionary ASAP

Anonymous said...

I'll be looking forward to those posts...

chrisc said...

i was also obsessed with Magma a few months ago and i still listen to their albums regularly.such a strange,unique and absolutely amazing band!i will definitely be looking forward to your tuesday posts.

Generic Viagra said...

This guy Vander was completely high on something to have made up a language like that but still am amazed on how many bands were influenced by them.

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Rully said...

This is a Zeuhl band from Indonesia that mostly influenced by Ruins but ellaborate the music also with ethnic variations. You should check it out!! Asian Zeuhl not only exist in Japan!