Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stoodin's Baptism to Magma

Like a moth drawn to a volcanic flame, I found myself orbiting Magma ever closer and closer throughout the 70s...


In the early 1970s, a friend of mine was a dj at the local college station, WMON in Montgomery, West Virginia; from 7 pm to midnight (when they shut down the transmitter, believe it or not) he did a show he called, simply, "Free Form Progressive Rock." Of course, at that time no one knew exactly what "progressive rock" was, so one might hear Allman Bros, Van der Graaf Generator, the Doors and Black Oak Arkansas in any given hour. One night he told me the station had received an album "in Swedish" by a band called Magma; this disc was titled, ominously enough, "Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh" and came with a Swedish lyric sheet. Inside the gatefold cover was a wild science fiction scenario about Planet Kobaia, the prophet Nebehr Gudahtt, and other mysterious extraterrestrial figures. Neither of us knew the first word of Swedish, of course; the strange language looked more German to me, but I didn't know much of that, either.

"Play some of it tonight!" I requested, but Jeff refused: "I don't know what they're saying -- I might get in trouble with the FCC." However, he did play a brief sample of it over the telephone for me, placing the needle on the disc at random. I was familiar, by this time, with Van der Graaf, with Genesis, with EL P, with Yes, and a very few other prog bands; this thing sounded like someone had taken the brightest, best and most violent aspects of all those bands and distilled them to one incredible, utterly unique sound.

That was all I heard of Magma for two years.


Charleston, West Virginia has never been a hotbed of musical activity (George Crumb notwithstanding), but there were no less than 4 excellent record shops there in that far-off decade: Turner's Record Shop, Budget Tapes and Records, the huge and way,way,out selection in the basement of Galperin Music, and the predominantly classical record section at the rather more sophisticated Londeree Music.

I was at Galperin one Saturday afternoon, idly thumbing through the basement treasures, marvelling at all the uncanny groups from foreign countries, bands with names like Amon Duul II and Kraftwerk, Caravan and Goblin, Gong and Ange and Magma.


Immediately that tiny, telephone-tinny excerpt from two years prior came surging to mind, but this wasn't the album I'd heard so briefly back then. It had the same oddly sinister symbol on the cover, but it was all fire and molten rock. The cryptic title was more Swedish or German or Neptunian: "Kohntarkosz." And I really, really wanted "Kohntarkosz" to go home with me that day, believe me. Alas, I had already purchased Morton Subotnick's "Sidewinder" and Iannis Xenakis' "Electro-Acoustic Music" at the venerable Turner's, and there was no money left to persuade the disc to leave the comfort of the store. I left, vowing to return in a week.

About two months later I finally came back through the doors of Galperin Music, only to find the basement had been taken over by grand pianos, and the record section was gone.


So, if I recall correctly, I had just come from seeing "Logan's Run" -- filmed mostly in a Dallas shopping mall, it was what passed for the height of science fiction cinema in those days! -- and was wandering down Summers Street in Charleston, heading for the Greyhound Bus terminal and home. A small, strange sign caught my eye: "Unicorn Records." This heralded a little niche in the wall that was absolutely jampacked with records; I recognized the man behind the counter as no one less than Bob Jett, the guy who had run the Galperin Records shop. Sure enough, he had purchased all their old stock and set up his own little store, and somewhere in there, I knew, was that copy of "Kohntarkosz."

That night I very plainly remember putting the headphones on, cranking the stereo, and hearing a music that, at the time, had no other analogues in recorded history. I played it over and over, and at the end of it all, I only wanted more. The next week, when I got paid, I made another visit to Unicorn. The years had dulled the title of the record I'd come for, but even calling it "Mekanik Destructotronik Kommandoh" was sufficient for Jett to bring it out from beneath the counter, where it had been lurking in a box yet to be unpacked. So it was that, in the space of two weeks, I was exposed to two of the most awesome albums to come out of the great progressive Seventies, albums that would eventually spawn a new rock subgenre: ZEUHL.

And, yes, I did eventually discover the real name and purpose of that unknown language. For music like that, only glossolalia from the spirit world would suffice.

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