Shred for the  Hills: Magik Markers’ noise-rock takes a pastoral turn.
Shred for the Hills: Magik Markers’ noise-rock takes a pastoral turn.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Unlimited musical freedom can be oppressive. There are rules—or at least aesthetics—that have to be obeyed. So it’s no surprise that after six years of releasing 20-minute-plus slabs of unbridled guitar violence and SST-style free-jazz, New Hampshire noise-rock duo Magik Markers are in the mood for some structure. On BOSS, guitarist-vocalist Elisa Ambrogio and drummer Pete Nolan make their first foray into songcraft, and unsurprisingly, the results aren’t exactly “MacArthur Park.” The album isn’t a reinvention so much as a tightening of focus: Their usual interstellar explorations are whittled down to less than 10 minutes (usually less than five), vocals that were once mumbled are pushed up to the top of the mix, and epic jams are neutered. What’s left, though, is pretty arresting. “Axis Mundi” opens the record with piercing feedback that soon gives way to Ambrogio’s listless stoner drawl: “Look at yourself now, and what do you see?/The fat skin of Eve has made a Devil out of me,” she sings. For the first time ever in the band’s career, words are the focus; chugging and scraping guitars and drums are now a subdued rhythmic backdrop for Ambrogio’s bluesy lyrics. Rimbaudian rambling may be colder than Jim Morrison’s corpse, but Magik Markers pull it off pretty well, evoking Kim Gordon more than the Lizard King. And writing songs doesn’t mean they’ve given up their off-the-cuff MO: “Body Rot” is all riffage, with Ambrogio barely audible over about two minutes of gutter hooks and primitive bashing. “Day goes by and the black gets bigger/This gun was born pulled trigger,” she belts beneath the squall. The drums stumble, Ambrogio stutters, and yet the raw approach captures some of the energy the two banked on in their free-form work. The album’s tender moments are a little tougher to swallow. On “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Beat Suite,” Ambrogio gently croons lyrics like, “I had a bad dream/It’s gonna make you go/Off finding a thumb in my pocket/And things you don’t know,” over acoustic guitars and violin. It’s not that hard to accept the Magik Markers as fucked-up and reckless, but sensitivity is a trick they haven’t mastered. Still, they took a big risk in getting so naked on BOSS. Ambrogio and Nolan might have stripped off the cloak of improvised obscurity only to find that they were nothing but a couple of bratty art-schoolers with cheap guitars and a few Sonny Sharrock records. Instead they traded a bit of freedom for a bunch of new options, and they wind up sounding surprisingly­literate.