Where to start?
Magma presents an otherworldly (pun unintended) kind of music that's utterly unique. There are some operatic chants, jazz-fusion leanings, classical/opera influences, insane polyrhythms, psychedelic textures, acid funk, wild electric rock and the metaphorical kitchen dish receptacle. Naturally it's also pretty confusing to sort through, so here's what I've gathered.
Sometime in the late 60s, drummer/composer Christian Vander had a bleak vision of humanity in the far future involving space travel, colonization and interplanetary wars. The original premise of Magma was not only to tell this massive story over the course of a projected ten albums, but to do it through this future culture's own music (called Zeuhl) and language (called Kobaian). Yep - they made up words for every song, and as a result the rest of us have only vague inferences and sporadic clues as to what it all means. The premise may seem hopelessly pretentious or nerdy, but if you can accept it, the music is really like nothing else out there. There's really no shallow end; the only thing to do is just dive in somewhere.
So then. It all starts with the end of the world.
Civilizations have to start somewhere...
The self-titled debut (retitled Kobaia in later printings) is a wacky, imaginative heap of off-the-wall 70s jazz fusion. It's fascinating in its way although it's not quite Zeuhl yet; perhaps it'll be worth a visit for the Magmaphile after you've explored what follows.
The story: Earth is in Very Bad Shape, and a bunch of people leave and try to build a more harmonious & enlightened society on a planet called Kobaia. Generations later they're asked to try to bring some of their advice & wisdom back to Earth, where humanity is still self-destructing and needs guidance.
Soon afterward came 1001 Degrees Centigrades, which was also largely jazzy madness but also showed some strong hints of the group finding their own voice. Maybe not the best of the best, but this is one that shouldn't be overlooked either.
The story: when a group of Kobaians come to Earth and try to help, they're imprisoned by the authorities and the remaining Kobaians have to use threats to secure everyone's release. Everyone gets away safe, but the visit and their ideas leave an impression on the Earthlings well afterwards.
The not-so-light ages
Up next was a trilogy under the name of Theusz Hamtaahk (Time of Hatred), which for some reason was done in reverse order. It starts with part III, one of their all-time masterpieces: Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh. This was a quantum leap into the future; that one-of-a-kind Zeuhl sound had finally arrived, and they pulled out all the stops with an ambitious suite of classical-chamber-jungle-chant-opera insanity. It's not to be confused with Mekanik Kommandoh, which is a less-developed studio version of the suite recorded several months earlier.
The story: an Earthling named Nebehr Gudahtt discovers the Kobaian religion and begins preaching its philosophy of living in peace and harmony. Of course it's met with violent resistance, although gradually more Earthlings become convinced by his message and decide to join him instead of fighting him.
Part II - Wurdah Itah (Dead Earth) was technically released as solo under Christian Vander's name, but it's a de facto Magma album, and every bit as great as the masterpieces that came before and after. This one drops the big arrangements and reduces everything to a basic sound, with just piano (acoustic and electric), bass, drums and voices. Essential.
Part I, "Theusz Hamtaahk" itself, was never released as an album in its own right but has popped up on several live releases.
Stargate meets the Matrix
Kohntarkosz brought a shift in sound; it's built mainly around minimalist trance-like chants with an epic, oceanic feel rather than the previous operatic classical sound. Otherworldly indeed. (It's actually the middle part of another trilogy - more on that later.)
The story: Kohntarkosz is an explorer who learns about Emehntett-Re, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who almost discovered the secret to immortality before dying. He decides to enter the king's tomb and try to complete the discovery himself. Then there's something about an invasion by alien machines on the side.
While Kohntarkosz and MDK can safely be considered the band's greatest (although I personally prefer the former a bit more), it's heady stuff for the newcomer. For a better intro, it's hard to beat Live 1975/Hhai (make sure you look for the two-disc edition). It's got the elements of all those previous albums wrapped up with superb playing and an infectious energy.
The other good intro is Udu Wudu, widely regarded as the last in their string of Great Classics. It's a little more accessible for those used to fusion and prog (and perhaps a little less unique) than the others, but still a wild and quite worthwhile ride.
The story: the big story seems to be falling by the wayside at this point. It's got something to do with time travel at least, so that's cool.
The unfortunate decline
Magma Attahk continued in the more straightforward (read: less imaginative/progressive) vein, incorporated more well-known styles into the brew and had some singing in Earth languages, so opinions are mixed. Check out some samples, but go for the masterpieces first.
The story: search me. I have no idea.
The early 80s mainly consisted of live material, such as Retrospektiv I & II I & II, Retrospektiw 3 (worthy, if not the best performances) and Concert Bobino 1981 (often referred to as the band's nadir), before they went back into the studio for Merci. This one had sadly lost most of what made Magma Magma - the Kobaian lyrics were mostly gone and it had a more straightforward modern-for-the-time sound, which makes it pretty dated now. I'd say leave it off the radar if you're not an obsessive completist.
After this the group went into hibernation for a while, notwithstanding a few archive live releases (BBC London 74, Theatre Du Taur 1975, Inedits) and the occasional one-off gig such as Les Voix-Concert 1992. And then....
The first inkling of new activity came in '98 with a single called Ektah. This led to the formation of a full-time new lineup and a triumphant series of live dates in 2000, for which occasion they finally presented the complete Theusz Hamtaahk trilogy for the first time. If you like the originals, definitely at least consider the box set (Theusz Hamtaahk Trilogy). The performance is superb.
Remember that Kohntarkosz was the middle part of its own trilogy? It seems that part I had been written back in the 70s, but it wasn't until 2004 that it was finally recorded and released as Kohntarkosz Anteria K.A.. It's safe to say this is a successful return to classic form & quality. Part III, Emehntehtt-Re, came next at the end of 2009. Same deal: a few bits & pieces had appeared on live releases in the 70s, but this is the first time it's all been presented as a whole.
June 2012 finally saw the latest all-new chapter of the saga, Felicite Thosz - actually a positive uplifting piece as its title suggests, coming across as a refreshing ray of sunshine to counterbalance the evil darkness of E-Re. Musically it leans more toward the jazz and classical realms than anything else, but if you've come this far, you know to take any such simple descriptions as a vague guideline at most. We can only wonder what insanity awaits next.
Videos: there are video counterparts to those live albums from '81 (Concert Bobino 1981) and 2000 (Theusz Hamtaahk Trilogy), although the ultimate piece de resistance is the series of Mythes Et Legendes, Mythes Et Legendes 2, Mythes & Legendes 3 and Mythes & Legendes 4. These come from 2005 when the band did a huge live career retrospective (or retrospektiw, if you prefer) spanning the entire catalogue. A similar live series was done in 2011, from which we should be seeing a volume V in late 2012.
Hope this all clears things up a least a little. If your taste runs to the weird and the inventive, this is some mighty fascinating stuff. Enjoy.