In 2007, art-damaged Connecticut rock duo Magik Markers submitted themselves to the guiding hand of Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, who knows a thing or two about reigning in noise and channeling it towards something more focused. The resulting LP, BOSS, was a cohesive step forward for the notoriously unkempt band, featuring some of the meanest little blues deconstructions of the decade. Following a string of subterranean CD-Rs and conceptual skull-fucks in the interim, they unleash its proper follow-up, Balf Quarry, captured by Animal Collective and Arcade Fire producer Scott Colburn. It's basically the sound of BOSS's sonic stitches being mercilessly yanked loose.
The first half of Balf Quarry is brief, scattered, and kind of excellent. Loose, bloody riffing from the start makes it clear that when Elisa Ambrogio boasts, "high-schoolers and Hagerty know what I know," she's placing herself alongside Drag City forebear Neil Michael of Royal Trux (as opposed to similarly surnamed Antony). That aforementioned knowledge is likely how to make squares uncomfortable. Ambrogio has a voice that stands stalwart against the creeping 80s Kate Bushness that defines a huge swath of her contemporaries. When threatening a lover on "Don't Talk in Your Sleep" she brings some real, unsettling menace. In contrast, her duet with drummer Pete Nolan, "7/23," comes out downright sweet despite his needling trash-clatter percussion. Its lyrical oddity also makes it sound like paranoid in-patients in the midst of a loving conspiracy. There's unpredictability in these songs' disintegration; a sense of danger that goes beyond just jacking up the distortion and hollering something vaguely disaffected.
A stretch of the album's center tests accrued goodwill. "State Number" is a truly baffling spoken-word dirge that utilizes ghostly piano, martial drumming, field recordings from an outer-space hospital, and old slogans from lottery ad campaigns, to an unknown end. "The Ricercar of Dr. Clara Haber" nods back to the band's formative crush on deranged guitar noise, but ends up no more than a brief art-rock palette cleanser. "The Lighter Side... Of Hippies" isn't much more clever than the Mad comic-strip it lifts a name from. On the one hand, it seems a bit obvious at this late date to roast 60s musicians with blasts of hardcore punk. But, in a late 00s music scene that has swung all the way back to Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonizing as an accepted mode of underground rock, the line "cokeheads sing, 'Teach your children well,'" and "wondering now how it all went to hell," might be a necessary corrective. "Ohio R./Live/Hoosier" brings us back from the brink, with a return to Elisa's appealingly bleary-eyed vocal synthesis of Grace Slick and Kim Gordon (sister guitars nudging it slightly closer to the latter).
Balf Quarry, which to this point has just flown by, goes out with an ambitiously dark ten-minute meditation called "Shells." Over unidentified scraping, and mysterious violin that resembles something ornate and out of vogue like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Ambrogio does her best black-banged Nico in decline impression (as hypnotic and nearly terrible as that comparison suggests). But then, at almost six minutes in, the song miraculously turns. Over music-box piano twinkle, Ambrogio sounds chaste as a choir girl, while singing a Sunday service recital that exalts the innocence of baby birds. It's beautiful and earnest, absent the venom that's marked previous highlights. It slips back into dirge quick enough, but for that one moment, it's a revelation. That's how it goes with this record. It's mainly a glorious mess, but it can sound utterly vital if you catch it for the right few minutes.