ALBUM REVIEW: Magik Markers – ‘2020’: New England noiseniks’ filthy return

HARTFORD, Connecticut, doesn’t necessarily spring to mind straight away when you think great US rawk ‘n’ roll; maybe Memphis, which is always, always Memphistennessee when you think of it; the Big Apple, so good they named it twice, home to, crucible of – oh! So much, so many; the Big Easy, New Orleans, way down south; Seattle and Portland, the epitome of modern alt.rock cool. Hartford, ah, not so much.

But actually that’s hugely unfair. Living Colour’s bass under-pinner Doug Wimbish is a Hartfordite; so too Blue Note sax deity Jackie McLean. The Porcaro brothers, who comprise a great deal of Toto, also. Come on, critical rehabilitation is well under way; they really are a whole sight cooler than they were even ten years ago.

And then there’s Magik Markers. Magik Markers, the woozy, psychedelic noise-rock trio of singer-guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, bassist John Shaw and drummer Pete Nolan. Now they’re proper raggedy-ass, scuzzy rawk’n’roll of the highest stripe. They began as a basement band way back in 2001, and did the great thing of never forgetting that sometimes a ragged and frayed edge is exactly what you need in a noisy guitar band. Forget cleaning it up later in the digital rinser. Keep it emotive, tough, dirty

They secured a well-dovetailed tour support with Sonic Youth in 2004; released their debut vinyl outing, I Trust My Guitar, Etc, for Thurston’s Ecstatic Peace a year later. There was a slew of purchasable material through the noughties, some self-released, some for labels such as Three Lobed Recordings; they found a righteous home at Chicago’s Drag City, where they released a couple of crackers in the shape of 2009’s Balf Quarry (which featured the mesmeric drone of “Shells”, among others; and 2013’s Surrender To The Fantasy. And then … nuttin’. Nyet. Nada. There were whispers of retreating to tilling the soil; master’s degrees gained; apiculture, even. The new release racks remained devoid. We were, silently, saddened.

… that’s until July 2020 dawned, virus-ravaged. With everyone crawling the covid walls, and what … six years away, Drag City dropped the download-only, four-track, Isolated From Exterior Time EP. It was righteous, greasy, trippy, heavy with smoke; I wanted there to be vinyl. We reviewed it here and said: “Speaking as an inhabitant of the British Isles … you wonder how we can never capture or ever produce the raggedy-ass, shredding, loose, stoned, hallucinatory glory of bands like Magik Markers. 

“It’s a very American tradition, and we’ll forever be in awe of the special tonal and musical language it brings.”

Now there’s a proper, full-length release on the horizon. One you can hold in your hands. The title? Succinct, apt: 2020. The cover, weirdly, features a trio of digitally highly stylised Victorian rugby players. Why is this?

We were so quizzical we asked Elisa, who told us: “Rugby as specific sport – more an as an idea – was peripheral to the image itself.

“I read a book about Robert Delaunay and how during the Belle Époque France was gripped by this desire for physical full contact sport, and had this frenzied interest in it and other violent aggressive sports – it mentioned the Rousseau painting [The Football Players, upon which the cover is based] and just talked about how violent physical sport gripped cultural attention.

“It quoted this book from the time, Les Jeunes gens d’Aujour’hui which ‘exemplifies this glorification of exertion and violence’, stating these sports encouraged ‘courage and sangfroid, the lesson of suffering … of being able to recognize fatal defiance in the eyes of the ‘other.’ It returns to us finally our taste for blood’’.

“It made me laugh in my brain because the title of the book from 1912 or whatever was basically translatable as Youth of Today, also the name of a legendary youth crew hardcore band from Connecticut; and I just thought it was funny, like those could be lyrics – this sort of melodramatic teen bloodlust vibe, masculine and full contact, coming out of a time of a lot of prosperity and tech innovation, 1980/90s vs 1880/90s – as bodies become more peripheral to innovation that excludes the body – plus that sort of fatal sadness there, that both these young bloodlust, physical body presence desiring generations would be hit with crazy violence and too much blood/body really soon in World War One and America’s endless post 9/1 1perma-wars and regular public shoot-em-ups plus the now times. 

“I just liked the plowing forward kind of weird perspective, its a kind of adversarial perspective, being charged, and it is violent but so tidy it becomes comical.

“Our friend who is an awesome artist in his own right, Philipe LaPierre, created the amalgam cover image in Paris.”

See? Not just a pretty picture. It’s where we’re at; it’s cover art of layers, a thing to investigate and wonder at. But then, when Magik Markers get their groove on, wonder is le mot juste. C’mon now; I need some weird.

“Surf’s Up” is where we begin. Nope, they haven’t decided to give a rerub to the Brian Wilson-in-crisis classic. Instead, it beginneth as a woozy almost-ballad; Elisa vocally caresses, a piano picks out an addled melody which wanders waay outside the pocket. It’s drunken in a deeper indie-psych Tom Waits way, musically. “Why do you worry about what they say? / Why do you worry about what they do?”, Elisa questions and caresses, her guitar recorded nakedly. It’s John’s fuzz bass that holds it together as Elisa coos like the bloodied bride at a yawing reception aboard ship. The piano seeks ever more haunting trills and you sense the build, the need for release. Elisa tromps the wah-wah, begins to unspool drapes of sound, a one-note riff clearing the birthing fluid from its eyes and climbing away, fuzzed and strong now. And the dirt and the tonal edge and the howlround of a guitar on edge rush in your veins. Mmmm. Welcome back, guys.

“Find You Ride” sees a hushed bass and scraped guitar strings lead us into sudden, proper rhythmic propulsion. It’s charging away, Elisa at the reins of an insistent rhythm, a high drone swimming in behind a new-wave snare pattern. Imagine Pat Benatar if she’d really lived, really knew love was a battlefield. Kicked the thousand-dollar-a-day producer out the door on his ass unceremoniously and let it rag out. 

We’ve embedded the YouTube for “That Dream (Shitty Beach)” below, so you can take a listen. John takes the vocal turn on a dirty stoner riff straight outta the Ozzy-era Sabbath playbook, but with much less regard for harmonic polity. Guitars snarl and duel and wind together in a pleasingly badass fashion. There’s squeal and grind and fuzz and howl and all the good things. It collapses at the end, as it properly should.

“Born Dead” sees Elisa in plaintive and romantic mode. “I was born dead / Till I met you … we were dancing to no music,” she recounts over a picked acoustic guitar. There’s piano, coming in to pal up with that guitar; it’s sweetly mysterious, like your lover’s eyes glimmering in the half-light. The guitar teeters on the edge of welcome atonality in the middle. There’s little synth touches and intimate drums. It’s actually … very lovely.

It one-twos with the bubblegum rush of “You Can Find Me”, trash-thrash of the very best kind, Converse Hi Tops made sonic rush. It’s the kinda tune you can air-guitar to in the privacy of your room with abandon. It’s even got a semi-singalong breakdown preluding some really frickin’ scuzzy shredding.

“Hymn For 2020”: now there’s a portentous song christening. It begins in mournful drone, as it only could; Elisa plucks fragile notes from the air, is backwards-masked in chorus; winds of string-scrape and squeak eddy, with sparse tom pronouncements. It’s a dirge, not in the pejorative sense; in the original death hymn meaning of the word, a la Pentangle’s “Lyke Wake Dirge”. There are no words discernible, as one day we’ll probably all find it hard to summate such an accursed calendrical moment.

Eerily, it’s a song written in 2016 … .

The slow and swift sketch of “Swole Sad Tic” shifts the gears up ever so slightly, teeing us up for the seven minutes-plus of “CDROM”. This is the Markers at their most brilliantly tribal psych; think Animal Collective jamming loose with The Red Krayola. There’s a tiny little hint of “The Star Spangled Banner” suggested in an opening lick. The bass is meaty and distorted. The drums fly, the guitar is an incantation. “Don’t let your death get taken away … don’t let them tell you / Hunger is a virtue,” Elisa chants, her voice wavering, busy expressing, rolling around the note, teasing the microtone. It’s lyrically stream of consciousness as she discusses a CD-ROM of her astrological chart. There’s a touch of Ari Up to the way she lets flow, lets go; unbridled. 

The final of the nine is the mellow “Quarry (If You Dived)”, which seems to have an analogous-autobiographical lyric: “If you jump, I’ll jump too,” is the hook. “If you dive, I’ll dive too.” Synths wash, Pete Nolan keeps it thrumming at the back; sparse, hot riffs chime. Elisa asks: “Can you see how it would end,”, her voice caressing. Weirdly, you’ll hear, I think, a touch of the desert mystery of Mazzy Star in the overall sunbaked aesthetic. It leads out with a spectral Eliza caught on the winds. 

Well, wow. So, you ask, how they progressing, Magik Markers? Are they any nearer a quest for the perfect record?

Away with thee, I respond. In Magik Markers’ world, the rejoicing in the imperfection is all. The scuzz, the waver, the bent note, the shredded note. That’s where the truth and stickiness of life lies. Saying that, there’s an awful lot of light and shade for a proclaimed noise-pop band LP; there’s mystery, dark romance. There’s also massively dirty guitars and fuzz bass and rolling rhythms and lots of fun. It’s cathartic and it’s a cracker. If you had to ask me a caveat – oh, go on then, as, it’d merely this: in an ideal world (and yeah, far, far from it) – then the July EP would be pressed up and bundled up with it as an expansion disc, or whatever the current terminology is.

They’ve been away, and lost none of their cojones in the interim; they’re back, bejesus, they’re back, and it might just be one of the dirty greats of the year.

Watch out for our forthcoming Soundtrack of Our Lives feature with Elisa Ambroglio, which we’ll be publishing next week. She talks about the songs that have shaped her; expect Voivod, Miles Davis, Hüsker Dü … and Tiffany. It really is a cracker, and comes with a handy Spotify playlist to cut out and keep.

Magik Markers’ 2020 is out now on Drag City on digital download, CD and vinyl. If you’re Stateside, you can order direct from Drag City, here; if you’re this side of the pond, the good folks at Rough Trade can look after your needs.

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