Magik Markers are an anachronism. They don’t feel beholden to any current music trends; no whiff of ’90s alt-rock revival or ’80s pastiche can be found on 2020, their first new album in seven years. The veteran New England noise-rockers make sprawling and spontaneous scrawls that are as indefinable as they are invigorating. It feels more like the sort of thing you might stumble across in a record store, auteurist DIY punk music from a band that has been doing this since a time when you might earnestly have stumbled across them in a record store. It’s delightfully out-of-step, but the music that Magik Markers makes is timeless.
Calling their album 2020 and contextualizing their music within an exceedingly chaotic year almost feels like a joke — a nod to the idea that in this timeline there is no logical place for this music to exist, but it will go on existing anyway. That Magik Markers are still around and have an outlet to do their thing in 2020 is maybe one of the few good things about this year.
Magik Markers started off releasing music at an alarming pace. They began in a Hartford basement in 2001 and put out a long string of hard-to-grasp improvisational records that had the fustiness of an art warehouse party, with a raucous and interactive live show to match. With 2007’s BOSS and 2009’s Balf Quarry, they reined in some of their more frenetic elements. And as time has passed, their output has slowed down considerably. In the past decade, they’ve released only two full-lengths: 2013’s Surrender To The Fantasy and now 2020.
The band’s members have been off living relatively normal lives. Elisa Ambrogio settled down on the West Coast; Pete Nolan went back to school for his master’s degree and learned how to make pizza; John Shaw got into beekeeping. Their lives are not centered around music in the way they once were. That they’re out there having a more tangible existence seems to be part of the appeal of Magik Markers. Recorded sporadically over the last couple years, 2020 sounds lived-in and luxuriously urgent — the music feels more like an escape from everyday life rather than something that is defined by it.
A few months ago, the band announced their unassuming return with a brief but rewarding EP called Isolated From Exterior Time: 2020, a sort of sequel to their 2011 cassette Isolated From Exterior Time. The title feels only too appropriate for a band that is so unconcerned with feeling new. And by being so removed from the general machinations of the industry, they have managed to make an album that feels fresh and exciting. If a band could sound like a zine, then Magik Markers are it — everything they make is lovingly stitched together, cut-and-pasted like a collage and comprising only what interests them. Nothing on the record is overwrought or fussy; it’s just three people who have been playing rock music together for two decades doing what they do best. It feels pointedly naturalistic and decidedly old-school.
2020 is a hodgepodge of ideas that err mostly on the side of scuzzy and indistinct. What it lacks in a cohesive throughline it makes up for in being consistently captivating. It opens with “Surf’s Up,” some languorous beach-pop that feels like when it starts raining at the beach and you have to pack up all your shit quickly and leave. The song is delivered in nauseated waves, stretching out over eight minutes as the band jams and clamors to find new grooves to slide into. It’s a microcosm of the album as a whole — quivering and hulking in equal measure, an extended drone that’s generally dreary but has bright bursts of light that seem to make the darkness worth it.
And like “Surf’s Up,” the band never stick in any one place for too long. Each song stands alone. “Born Dead” is another highlight, a gorgeous melancholy sway and one of the album’s most quietly affecting tracks. It’s a showcase for Ambrogio’s empathetic delivery, a love letter to her bandmates and an argument for the restorative power of music. “I was born dead/ For 15 minutes, I didn’t breathe,” she sings. “I was blue/ I was born dead/ ‘Til I met you.” That simple sentiment is followed by “You Can Find Me,” a perfectly off-kilter noise-pop gem that builds towards a furious bashing and seemingly justifies their previous testament to the power of music. It’s the band firing on all cylinders, anthemic and unrefined and grounded by Ambrogio’s artful lyrics. “Walk down to the mall on Benadryl/ Peeping through the curtains, no sleep thrills,” go its opening lines. “Kill myself in a Sears dressing room/ Just want to sleep near a mirror/ Just want to lie where you can find me.”
Those kind of evocative poetics are peppered throughout the album. On “CDROM,” Ambrogio gets into dead-eyed dirging mode, where she reminds me of perhaps the band’s only contemporary in fellow outsider Erika M. Anderson. As the song unfolds, Ambrogio recounts a shrooms trip that leads to heavy realizations about the potential vacuousness of life with warnings like “Don’t let them tell you hunger is a virtue” and “Don’t spend your life spinning in your grave.”
But that’s as close as Magik Markers will get to speechifying. Most times, they just let their deliriously weird and druggy music create a mood that you’ll either vibe with or you won’t. Their “Hymn For 2020,” evidently the defining moment of the record, is the album’s most terse and scattered track. The band is not interested in making any grand, sweeping generalizations about the state of the world. Their “Hymn” is no scathing summation but rather a deflation of noise, arid open air and clanging and far-off choral chants that are all texture, no meaning.
And just like that, the way that the band approaches their art and their life once again evades easy categorization. Despite feeling like it could have come from any time, 2020 sounds particularly good in 2020. Perhaps they are just meeting the moment. As people are more receptive to music that sounds like dropping out and bashing around in your own skull when you’re stuck in one place with seemingly no end in sight, Magik Markers have never sounded better.
2020 is out 10/23 on Drag City.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You.
• Jeff Tweedy’s Love Is The King.
• The Mountain Goats’ Getting Into Knives.
• Gorillaz’s Song Machine: Season One.
• Clipping.’s Visions Of Bodies Being Burned.
• Ty Dolla $ign’s Featuring Ty Dolla $ign.
• Adrianne Lenker’s songs and instrumentals.
• Pallbearer’s Forgotten Days.
• Ela Minus’ Acts Of Rebellion.
• Laura Veirs’ My Echo
• Actress’ Karma & Desire.
• This Is The Kit’s Off Off On.
• Sen Morimoto’s self-titled sophomore album.
• Loma’s Don’t Shy Away.
• No Thank You’s Embroidered Foliage.
• Junglepussy’s Jp4.
• I Love Your Lifestyle’s No Driver.
• Fuzz’s III.
• Faithless’ All Blessed.
• Sevendust’s Blood & Stone.
• Bootsy Collins’ The Power Of The One.
• Kaki King’s Modern Yesterdays.
• John Frusciante’s Maya.
• Tom Furse’s Ecstatic Meditations.
• Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In).
• Patrick Cowley’s Some Funkettes.
• Thin Lizzy’s Rock Legends box set.
• NOW That’s What I Call Music! Vol. 76.
• Juana Molina’s live album ANRMAL.
• PUP’s This Place Sucks Ass EP.
• Local Natives’ Sour Lemon EP.