Monday, June 8, 2009

review: Magik Markers' Balf Quarry

The opening track of Balf Quarry (Drag City), duo Magik Markers' latest album, is titled “Risperdal,” which I discovered is the name of a medication used to treat bipolar disorder, and it's an apt name considering that the song sounds a lot like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon fronting Pavement as they record to a four track cassette. Elisa Ambrosio's unhurried and bored-as-hell vocals about deceit and betrayal play nicely with her distorted guitar riff as the song chugs along on Peter Nolan's subdued garage rock 4-4 drums. All told, it's a strong opening song, as it sounds familiar enough to pull you in and fresh enough to keep you interested. “Risperdal” is not the highlight of the album, though. This distinction belongs to the second track, “Don't Talk in Your Sleep.” Ambrosio starts the song with a mud thick guitar riff that picks up force when Nolan comes in, playing a hi-hat heavy '70s funk beat that gets your head moving. The song, as an instrumental, would be appropriate background for a Charles Bronson movie, but you wouldn't want to miss Ambrosio's singing, which is some of her best work on the album. Again, the theme is betrayal, and Ambrosio is all business as she warns her lover, “Don't talk in your sleep / Don't leave a trace / 'cause a loving woman can have the Devil's face.” It's a dark and sinister track and among the most carefully constructed songs on Balf Quarry.

Magik Markers have long been known as noise rockers, and they have released dozens of cdr albums where they generally did not stick to the rules of popular music as much as they tend to on Balf Quarry. However, the three tracks following “Don't Talk in Your Sleep” come crashing through one after the other to provide the listener with a hearty reminder that Magik Markers can still make a lot of noise, and shouldn't be pigeonholed as part of any single musical genre. From sounding like 1980s hardcore punk (“Jerks”) to the musical act at a circus for the insane (“Psychosomatic”) to The Beach Boys infiltrated by drugged up gypsies (“7/23'), Magik Markers seem capable and willing to dip their toes in all manner of musical stylings. Thus, when the duo finally collapses into a full on noise number (“The Ricercar of Dr. Clara Haber”) with frantic drums and ear splitting guitar squeals, one is not surprised.

The second half of Balf Quarry is not as strong as its first, but there are still some good songs. “The Lighter Side of...Hippies” is yet another full-on punk rock endeavor for Ambrosio and Nolan, this one taunting the '60s generation, and is interestingly followed by “Ohio R./Live/Hoosier,” a song that sounds influenced by psychedelia. The final song, “Shells,” runs for almost eleven minutes, with haunting cellos and ghostly singing, and seems a fitting close to such a varied and dark album.

Magik Markers' last album, Boss, was produced by Lee Ranaldo whose band, Sonic Youth, toured with Magik Markers in 2004. Certainly, the elder band's stamp is on much of Ambosio and Nolan's work, as it is on so many other popular bands today, but Balf Quarry is, nevertheless, a daring and solid effort. For those who have taken a shine to noise inspired bands like No Age and Liars, I recommend giving Balf Quarry a listen. You won't be disappointed.

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