The Magik Markers Boss

[Ecstatic Peace; 2007]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: noise-rock, harsh psych-pop, proto-punk
Others: Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch

Lately, my heart has been telling me that perhaps the rock ‘n’ roll well has run dry, that all the inherent glee and rambunctious energy we draw from our Fun Houses and Rocket To Russias are beacons of their time, perfection never to again be duplicated. Take a look at any consciously amp-fueled rock of any shade from the past few years, and for the most part, those with the most exposure or support have let nostalgia work against any pure creative triumphs. Sure, a little revival or remembrance can be healthy when delivered with a certain unpretentious elation, but many musicians embody a self-conscious reaction against the fading of their beloved idols of years past, a prospect that gives us the occasional strychnine rush, but one that acts as a naive approximation of the breakthroughs of rock’s innovations.

So, to see one of the most vehemently combustible and untamable bands (who operate by a burnt thread under the “rock” banner) pull out one of the most rewarding and assured song-oriented rock records of recent years leaves me honestly dumbfounded. The Magik Markers have become one of the more difficult groups of iconoclasts operating in the underground, smearing their filthy tangles of feedback and rabid no-wave spittle against the face of the post-2000 “rock” revival, doing much the same as their most obvious predecessors (DNA, Mars, etc.) did when punk became tainted with the mainstream’s opportunist influence. Sounding like Kathy Acker throwing Half Japanese down a flight of stairs while Jaki Liebezeit keeps pace over the scene, the Molotov-cocktail of near-anti-melody and confrontational stream-of-conscious poetry truly splits the increasingly elitist, self-satisfied, and musically craven “indie” camp down the middle. And now, with Boss, the Markers have by leaps and bounds made questions of their talent moot. By reinvigorating the use of pop melody in the context of atonal and fervent desire (in a manner that stands inches by some of the greatest punk staples of yesteryear), they’ve become a potent machine that lesser bands best watch out for.

As a first “official” studio release, Boss is initially frustrating and disarming for the dedicated follower or the curious observer looking for an easy entry. With their trademark-free and unruly career-making squalor documented on countless CD-Rs and limited LPs, it makes sense that Boss aims for something more difficult to attain for such a typecasted band, even though one can only imagine the band’s early years wreaking havoc on the concept of a studio. From the moment Elisa Ambrogio lets her voice take reign on “Axis Mundi,” the song becomes less a noise-rock stalwart than a nugget of psych-punk utopia embedded with warm sonics and Ambrogio’s decision to actually sing. And regarding that eyebrow-raising choice... well, all those snide comments that were hurled at Ambrogio’s snarling atonal rants will feel mighty stupid after listening to this.

It’s not automatically impressive for a raucous act to go pop, but it is for a band whose fearless abandon into avant-punk noise was, and still is, their calling card. The secret in Boss is that the Markers, like all the greatest punk, psych, and garage bands, treat pop as a necessary part of the whole. Songs like “Body Rot” and “Circle” are still caked on every angle with grit and grime, but still serve their purpose as too-the-point blasts of fleeting joy that demand constant immersion. Too many bands in the realm of indie rock, indie pop, and even the classic punk/garage revival movements view pop as a saccharine novelty, a prospect still so coated in elitist irony that even the most sincere of the new breed feel either naively nostalgic, too shrouded in déjà vu to make a commanding statement. On Boss, Ambrogio and Pete Nolan (bassist Leah Quimby left last year) seem to understand the spirit that The Sonics, The MC5, The Stooges, and X-Ray Spex left, which is why a song like “Body Rot” has both the vigor and fuck-all attitude of the noise and avant scenes and the immediacy and appeal of more straight-ahead rock songs. Even the ballads (“Empty Bottles,” “Bad Dream”), a seeming oxymoron to the casual observer of this band, are treated with a careful restraint, never piling on the preciousness or melodrama of most post-Dylan/Cohen folkie fare. Why a song like “Bad Dream” somehow becomes fittingly gorgeous is that it never feels like its screaming to be heard in a specific manner. It just exists as it is, without any overextended effort or transparent showiness.

So many bands have forgotten how to make a song in a traditional format sound dangerous, and for those who need some sense of everlasting rebellion in their sonics, Boss has everything they’ve been wishing for in spades. It’s not trying to hearken to the past. It’s not trying to bid for a wider audience. It’s not a one-off experiment. It exists because this is what's most appropriate for the Markers at this point in time, and they evidently have more talent and passion than even some of their most fervent fans probably gave them credit for. As evidenced by the epic discomfort of the stunning “Last Of The Lemach Line,” the Markers still punish their instruments into catastrophic bouts of anguished fuzz and feedback, only here on a surprisingly restrained and mature manner. Lee Ranaldo’s production brings out all the echoed squeals and beautiful ambience that deserves to be heard, and what separates Boss from any cynical cashing-in critiques is that the Markers went above and beyond to actually create an album that nearly contradicts their constructed identity. Whether or not this is representative of a new phase of the Markers, at least the inevitable pop record has surprisingly staked itself as one of their strongest statements and one of the very few pop records in recent memory to engage its audience in something profound and challenging.

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