The Magic Makers
With The Spikula Twins featuring Ryan Martin, Clang Quartet and Quivering Chariots (Clarque and Caroline Blomquist, Chris Girard, Todd Emmert)
Nightlight, Chapel Hill
Sunday, March 11, 10 p.m.
You'd have to be a detective to keep up with the output of noise-rock titan Magik Markers. Most of the band's releases have been low-run CD-Rs and cassettes, and even their three "proper" albums require some hunting. 2005's I Trust My Guitar Etc. was a vinyl-only Ecstatic Peace release that sold out quickly, while 2006's A Panegyric To Things I Do Not Understand came out on the legendary but tiny Gulcher label. Their latest, The Volodor Dance, is part of Southern Records' limited-edition Latitudes series.
If you think hunting Magik Markers' records is a challenge, though, try pinning down their sound. Mostly improvised, it uses recognizable rock elements—pounding beats, scorching guitar feedback—while stretching them into new shapes and colors. Via half-songs, loose jams and dense noise, guitarist/singer Elisa Ambrogio and drummer Pete Nolan (original bassist Leah Quimby left the band last year) create a sound both familiar and strange. It evokes numerous noise-rock masters—Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth, Rudolph Grey's The Blue Humans, even Jimi Hendrix—but bears an urgency and openness all its own.
The group formed in 2000, when Ambrogio, Nolan and Quimby were living in a Connecticut house owned by Ambrogio's grandparents. Moving to western Massachusetts in 2001, the band caught the ear of new neighbors Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. The Markers scored on opening slot on a Sonic Youth tour, and have been on the road for much of the time since, touring with like-minded outfits such as Wolf Eyes, Comets on Fire and Nautical Almanac. They've developed a reputation for confrontational, crowd-dividing live shows. While Nolan delivers storms of jazzy splatter and punk-infused slamming, Ambrogio's sheets of guitar dissonance are interrupted only by her brash screams and belligerent commands to the crowd. You may remember Quimby getting in a front row fan's face with a beer bottle and a microphone during their opening set with Sonic Youth at Cat's Cradle in 2005.
And while there is an element of theater to the band's aggressive stage show, the boldness is no act. "We are all totally intense personalities that tend to clash heavily," Nolan told The Wire in 2005. "Being in the same room with us is probably too much for most people." Indeed, the cover of I Trust My Guitar Etc. shows the band members attacking each other, physically. Even if it's staged, it's pretty convincing.
Such creative tension courses through the Magik Markers' music, even in the more serene atmosphere of the recording studio. A perfect example is The Volodor Dance's "Bianary for Carey Loren": After 10 minutes of spacey improv, things crash to a halt and Ambrogio and Nolan yell at each other about who can hear who. Before the dust can settle, they launch into an even more raucous aural assault. Nolan attacks his kit like a wave engulfs a doomed surfer, while Ambrogio abuses her wah pedal as if it were a bear trap breaking her foot.
Not that the Markers aren't capable of subtlety, melody even. In fact, when their noisier side stands in bas relief with their mellow possibilities, it's that much more impressive. Take 2005's Blues For Randy Sutherland CD-R, which came from the same sessions as I Trust My Guitar Etc., recorded at the Rare Book Room in Brooklyn under the agile ear of Samara Lubelski: Tracks like "Hoover Dam" and "Flow My Tears" weave hypnotic atmospheres from small string plucks and ringing bells. Even the raging cacophony of the two long tracks on last year's A Panegyric, which mostly sound like a dark industrial wasteland, have stretches of beatific reflection and minimalist calm.
The Markers are at their best when they combine those strains, defying definition as loose, rambling energy meets taut, basic rock at a golden middle. I Trust My Guitar Etc. catches that vibe best, as nearly every track grinds at a simple two-chord riff until it splinters into interesting noises and momentum shifts. Or check out the obtusely titled "Pinkie Brown Goes to the Shore (The Hero of the Sea is A Hero of Death)" from The Volodor Dance. Here, Ambrogio cranks out a swinging riff underneath a wash of echoey vocals, sounding exactly like an old punk single frayed and blurred from overuse and water damage.
That kind of alchemy—old and new, harsh and relaxed—makes the Markers a band worth watching, even as a duo. Nolan and Ambrogio used a variety of guests right after Quimby left, but they're committed to the duo configuration. Together, they'll soon record a new album with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. Whether it will be a 100-copy CD-R, a gatefold LP or a major-label debut is anyone's guess. But more intriguing is the question of how it might sound. With Magik Markers, that constantly tantalizing uncertainty is reason enough to stick around.