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Magik Markers
Balf Quarry Matt Evans , May 5th, 2009 09:09

The first few times I saw Magik Markers, I spent the first half of their set so bored that I wanted to grind my own teeth to powder. But there was, inevitably, a Eureka! moment — a point at which the abject tunelessness and ham-fisted interplay suddenly made glorious sense, and then some. Once you tune into their slippery spontaneity, records like The Volodor Dance and Panegryic seem to tap into vast, fundamental forces — something at once terrifying, blissful, repulsive, beautiful and profoundly sensual. Elisa Ambrogio became my new favourite guitarist (sharing equal billing with her exact opposite, Robert Fripp, in case you were wondering), her lack of formal technique not charmingly naïve in an easy-to-patronise indie kind of way, but direct, soulful, ferocious.

Then came 2007's Boss, which largely jettisoned the freeform approach in favour of actual songs. More straightforward, its appeal was elusive at first, but the same spirit was there, colouring the thrash-punk, indie-rock swampage, beat poetry and piano ballads with hints of disorder, suggestions of profoundly altered states. Balf Quarry continues Elisa and Pete's exploration of structure.

One of the most immediately obvious things about this record is how lyric-intensive it is, the vocals heavily foregrounded, every word weighty. A bold move, given that Elisa's voice is an acquired taste — mostly flat and irrepressibly maudlin, her intoning takes on a nervous, tremulous edge when she pushes her voice in the direction of any style other than 'a bit narked'. But that's not intended as criticism — she may not be Aretha in the vocal chops stakes, but she's rarely less than compelling and more than a little fearsome.

It's just as well. The opening post-Velvets dirge of 'Risperdal' and the woozy Bardo Pondic hobbled-snail riffing of 'Don't Talk in Your Sleep' veer dangerously close to dreary plodding dirges, and survive almost entirely on the basis of Elisa's intimidating persona. During the latter, she reels off woman scorned clichés worthy of 70s cock-rock misogynists (“Don't talk in your sleep/don't leave a trace/because a loving woman can have the Devil's face”) but still sounds smart, cool, tough.

Things liven up considerably with 'Jerks', a brief, gnarly punk stomp with some welcome unrefined havoc-wreaking towards the conclusion. 'Psychosomatic', a delicate ditty accentuated with decidedly kitsch keyboard motifs, and the playful lo-fi Tiki chic of '7/23' pass by pleasingly enough, but Lightweight and Fun sit awkwardly with the Markers aesthetic.

With 'State Numbers' comes the first hint of the sea-trench depths that this band are capable of mining. This is desolate wasteland balladry, a paean to lost intimacy as rendered by dusty piano and hollow-eyed vocalising, smothered in ghost-town murk. The beautifully unconstrained instrumental 'The Ricercar of Dr Clara Haber' is the closest thing here to the feral improvised excesses of old-school Markers. It's also a clear standout piece: voracious, caustic, decadent.

'The Lighter Side of... Hippies' offers more storming, dirty garage punk rock, only this time with clumsily anachronistic flower-child-baiting lyrics that are probably best ignored – just like the flimsy alt-indie strummer 'Ohio R/Live/Hoosier'.

The best is kept in reserve until the very end — on 'Shells', Elisa goes all Nocturne Nico over indefinable drones and skinned violins, trapped in perpetual dusk, between the world of the living and the land of the dead. Then dark cuts to light, the drone switching to a beautiful, lilting piano ballad that sounds like a lost 19th-century hymn or a forgotten Connecticut kids' song. An accordion looms, hovering between harmony and discord, then drags the song back into the mire, and that's where we stay — forever?

_ Balf Quarry_ is in some senses truly experimental; the band seem to be taking time to find out what new tricks they're capable of. Their laudable exploratory tendencies mean they fall almost as often as they soar, and therefore this album flits haphazardly between stunning and forgettable. That, and the plentiful allusions to other bands, intentional or otherwise, means that fans may have to dig in the fetid earth with their bare 'ands to find anything instantly identifiable as Magik Markers in here. Then again, the band's concept of themselves has always been several steps ahead of my understanding of them. Wouldn't have it any other way.