Just like the pens of translucent ink they’re named after, Magik Markers are essentially an encryption device. Beginning with 2005’s I Trust My Guitar, Etc., the Connecticut three-piece/former duo has spent its prolific lifespan distilling the absurdity of human existence into cabalistic slurries of incendiary noise, translating the purported rationality of civilization into tangles and torrents of feedback that slip through the hands of easy interpretation. Most of their (18?!) albums up to this point have been attempts to encode their selves into almost unreadable epigrams of dissonance and kipharaphobia1, messages in bottles intended only for the select few with the ingenuity and endurance to read them. And even though Surrender to the Fantasy has the noiseniks widening further into more recognizable song structures, their attack has lost none of its feral lawlessness nor any of its inhospitability to transcription. But whereas past efforts were unapologetic in their scuzzy chaos, this latest splurge through undomesticated atonality yields evidence that their refusal to be understood might be catching up with them, and it’s this infiltration of disquiet and vulnerability that saves the album from being a mere retread through their past.
In many respects, the ontogeny of Magik Markers recapitulates the phylogeny of rock music as a whole. Embodied in an assemblage of gestures, clothing, mannerisms, dialects, sounds, and styles that were shockingly bizarre and incomprehensible to all respectable adults, rock ‘n’ roll emerged primarily as a way of manufacturing an esoteric, exclusive subculture with its own set of signs, or rather emerged as a vector of invaluable social information that could be passed freely in public spheres but unlocked only by those with the right know-how and initiation. What it produces isn’t simply an object of aesthetics, but also a means of identifying and communicating with like-minded people without having to run the risk of explicitly revealing yourself to an unsympathetic party, and it’s precisely this facet of rock music that Surrender to the Fantasy taps into and magnifies with its streams of unwashed fuzz and skewy guitar abuse. During opener “Crebs,” Elisa Ambrogio squeezes foggy puffs of distortion and whitewashed trails of static out of her glorified cipher machine, creating a scene of numbed yet comfortable placidity while she murmurs a trickle of largely obscure lyrics. Chords bleed into each other indistinctly and elusively as they stamp forward; periodically, Ambrogio equivocates, “Everything around me feels so free,” possibly as an allusion to the sense of liberation the track’s rawness affords from traditional notions of harmony, tonality, or hi-fi recording techniques, and therefore also from the commercial, social, and political structures into which they inevitably play.
For a while, it seems as though Surrender to the Fantasy’s willful denial of musical decorum and gentility will be enough to keep Magik Markers happy and contented. Amid its blissfully ramshackle leads, “Acts of Desperation” harbors the aside, “These acts of desperation pay,” while the cultish and apparently demo-taped mischief of “Bonfire” unfolds as the hurried celebration of the kind of self-destructive/-effacive demeanor adopted by someone hoping to preserve themselves against absorption into “the system.” Yet after this opening trilogy of rowdy, cluttered songs that elevate blind individualism, things change for the band, and suggestions of regret and disillusionment begin to nose their way into the mix. For example, “Mirrorless,” in its sedated lullabies and gently mournful vocals, sounds almost like a belated confession that hiding yourself beneath aggressive discordance and incoherence ultimately hurts no one more than your own eventually isolated self. In dolefully singing “I close my eyes just to see/ You standing in front of me,” Ambrogio implies that her self-obfuscation and concealment has effectively prevented her from finding someone whose comprehending gaze might confirm and validate her identity, and that therefore it has also prevented her from preserving a healthily stable conception of self.
And things don’t stop there either, because with “Young,” Surrender to the Fantasy all but admits that shrouds of violent and irrational noise, or rather withdrawal from social decipherability and conformity, cut you off from your own future, from participation in the institutionally-enabled life you might cheerily lead if only you’d compromise a little. Easily the album’s standout number, “Young” is for all intents and purposes an acoustic ballad, albeit one embellished by disarmingly infantile guitar chimes, sequenced strings, and an economical yet impeccably yearning electric solo. Its stripped-down, heart-rending five minutes are essentially the aural revelation that, under the discordant babble and anti-social bluster of the average rock initiate, the only thing of any permanence is fear and uncertainty, the helpless foreboding that you’re too impotent and insignificant to make anything happen for yourself. This apprehension is concentrated in the song’s deceptively brutal chorus, where Ambrogio (rightly) tells us that, “The worst part about being young/ Is thinking nothing, is thinking nothing ever comes.” Saturated by nostalgia and resignation, her voice here is projected and contoured perfectly for the precarious sentiment it carries, and in contrast to the opacity of earlier tracks, its emotional transparency comes across as a bona fide revelation.
Fortunately, the song nestles a glimmer of hope within its own disenchantment. Beginning with the defeated couplet, “Think I missed a chance/ It’ll come again,” it repeatedly swells to avow, “Everything that dies/ Comes back again,” reframing the initial ambiguity and diffidence in a more affirmative scheme of light. And from this affirmation, Magik Markers seemingly forget their own warnings and regain their former wily intransigence, ending the album with a threesome of songs that return them to sonically murky territory, as if suddenly realizing that in fact they’d been trying to uncover something in this murk rather than striving to bury themselves in it. This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but when the three pieces in question are as inert and inscrutable as “Empire Building” or as regurgitative of Royal Trux as shambling closer “WT,” it’s possible that their commitment to abrasive impenetrability loses interest or novelty. And perhaps this is inevitable, because when you keep a secret to yourself for too long and make your idiosyncrasy too idiosyncratic, even potentially receptive people will stop assuming that you’re trying to communicate with them, and they’ll turn elsewhere. But hopefully this won’t happen to Magik Markers anytime soon, since despite its harsh unreadability and its overall lack of surprises, Surrender to the Fantasy is more than an idle daydream.
1. Fear or hatred of guitars: Neologism copyrighted by Simon Chandler, 2013