Magik Markers (Seattle-based guitarist/vocalist Elisa Ambrogio and Brooklyn-based drummer Pete Nolan) put the sexy into noise rock. Which is likely why they came into the good graces of Ecstatic Peace! label head Thurston Moore. The Sonic Youth guitarist and underground-music tastemaker propelled the prolific group into many more consciousnesses when his imprint issued Magik Markers' 2007 album Boss (recorded by Moore's bandmate, Lee Ranaldo), their most structured release up till then. That being said, Boss still wasn't ready for commercial radio or Saturday Night Live. It radiated a narcotic, bristly aura likely to repel typical Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans.
Magik Markers cut the new Balf Quarry with Seattle producer Scott Colburn (Animal Collective, Sun City Girls), who brings even more clarity and punch to the band's piercing sound. Noise has become vestigial here for the duo; composing an eerie, etiolated sort of beauty has become more of a priority. The result is 10 songs that evoke some of American indie rock's glories of the '80s and '90s without blatantly homaging them.
Balf Quarry also reflects Magik Markers' surprisingly wide stylistic range. "Risperdal" and "Don't Talk in Your Sleep" kick off the album in the benumbed-boogie vein of Bardo Pond, but with more of a spring in its step. Ambrogio's Robitussined near-monotone has a lusty richness to it, but it seems as if she doesn't want to exploit its potential for conventional prettiness. "Jerks" is rip-roaring rock that caroms somewhere between Sonic Youth's "Catholic Block" and the Velvet Underground's "I Heard Her Call My Name." "Psychosomatic" and "State Numbers" master Helium's seductive, slacker-goth sound. "7/23" recalls Royal Trux's spindly, accidental melodic sweetness circa Cats and Dogs and features a feline-squeal guitar solo by Ben Chasny. "The Lighter Side of... Hippies" is a grandiloquent Sonic Youth/Butthole Surfers flameout. "Ohio R./Live/Hoosier" finds Ambrogio's voice at its most conventionally pretty and the music at its most accessible, but it carries an implied violence, an uneasy tension beneath the relatively calm surface, which is mirrored in Ambrogio's elliptical, literary lyrics.
The disc's only instrumental, "The Ricercar of Dr. Clara Haber" bursts into free-noise fire with Ambrogio letting off some muted, sweet 'n' sour guitar distress signals and Nolan delivering a rapid, full-kit tattooing. The epic "Shells" ends the album on an unexpected doomy note—a lowing, gothic dirge marked by the lugubrious droning of Nolan's harmonium and Julian Amrine's violin. Balf Quarry is Magik Markers' most accomplished work yet. "Maturity" suits them well.