The specter of Sonic Youth looms large over Magik Markers. The two bands toured together in 2004, Magik Markers were briefly signed to Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label, and singer Elisa Ambrogio can effortlessly replicate Kim Gordon’s girl-rock growl. It’s impossible to keep up with the amount of CD-R and vinyl releases the band has issued, but Balf Quarry, their first album for Drag City, isn’t going to put a halt to those Sonic Youth comparisons. They’ve steadfastly stuck with the sound created on the Boss album for most of this venture, which is named after a stone quarry in their hometown of Hartford, Conn.
Magik Markers often sound like a band out of time. They would have made a great fit on the Blast First roster of the 1980s, where they could have rubbed shoulders with likeminded souls such as Ut, Band of Susans and Glenn Branca. Their penchant for propulsive rock guitars and Ambrogio’s hoarse vocals make them a decent replacement for Royal Trux at Drag City, although Magik Markers experiment with a few more textures here, including subtle organ and harmonium sounds and even some Latin percussion on the awkwardly titled “Ohio R./Live/Hoosier.”
Balf Quarry opens with a couple of slow burners in the shape of “Risperdal” and “Don’t Talk In Your Sleep.” Ambrogio’s knotted guitar playing on both tracks is thickly layered and grimy, and her creative partner, Pete Nolan, often slips out of time as he patters away on drums, lending a sense of willful amateurism to their sound. Ambrogio is fully versed in the language of rock ‘n’ roll, throwing in references to the devil, calling people “baby,” and using thinly veiled innuendo (“I got a lap where you can sit”). She even namechecks someone called “Haggerty” on “Risperdal,” which isn’t going to help those Royal Trux comparisons go away any time soon.
Things get interesting when Ambrogio and Nolan branch out from the Boss template, such as their delve into frantic punk on “Jerks” and the Ben Chasny-assisted “7/23,” which is a sparse and percussive sing-along that dispenses with guitars altogether. Balf Quarry also allows their improv roots to shine through, with the instrumental “The Ricercar of Dr. Clara Haber” sputtering in and out of time, but never really going anywhere particularly affecting. They dip into punk again on “The Lighter Side of…Hippies,” a vitriolic bad acid anti peace-and-love screed, which may well be Magik Markers’ very own “Death Valley ‘69.”
The biggest highlights of Balf Quarry are the two contemplative piano ballads, “State Numbers” and the closing “Shells,” which are compellingly frail. The latter is particularly beguiling, beginning with a lengthy section of doom laden horror movie organ and mournful violin that sounds like a macabre cross between Italian prog-rockers Goblin and the soundtrack to The Wicker Man. A whole album mapped out in the sonic territory of “Shells” would be truly arresting, and Ambrogio’s vocals seem better attuned to these deathly somber tracks. Balf Quarry only occasionally throws off the influences that Ambrogio and Nolan are so clearly in thrall to, but there are germs of ideas here that promise something very special in this band’s future.