[14 February 2014]
I first listened to Magik Markers because my friend told he couldn’t decide whether he was enjoying them or not. I think most music fans get a pretty steady stream of recommendations and general opinions from their peers, but “have you heard this? I don’t know what to make of it” is intriguing in a way no praise can be. I’m pretty sure he wound up liking Surrender to the Fantasy; I know I did. But there is something a little mysterious at its core, something that resists easy analysis.
Part of it, I think, is the sequencing. There are probably at least as many good ways to sequence an album as there are good albums, but sequencing choices can be immediately gratifying or ‘growers’ just as much as individual songs can be. Surrender to the Fantasy is in the latter mold. The title is a reference to the way, to quote the band’s Elisa Ambrogio, “nobody would make art if they were sensible, logical, or responsible,” but it also points to the way this album is going to take its own path. It’s an often languid, haunted record; many of the descriptors that the band have attracted in the past (“fiery,” “noise,” even “improv”) don’t apply nearly as much. And yet it’s also, or still, a record of gloriously trashy sounding guitar-and-drums noise.
In fact, the record frontloads the latter aspect of the band’s sound, so that the first time through you might think you’ve got Surrender to the Fantasy all figured out by the time the brash, bratty “Bonfire” shakes and groans itself to a halt. Before that, “Crebs” is head-thrown-back, rapturous fuzz, and “Acts of Desperation” paces its twang to a muted, constant kick drum. The rest of the album could have existed inside the parameters set up by those three tracks and been perfectly compelling, but instead “Mirrorless” begins the process of blowing up the album you might have thought you were hearing.
The whole sounds like it’s being heard through gauze or maybe masking tape, the drums maybe coming from underwater, Ambrogio murmuring “I was the ghost and the flesh and the bramble” while the rest of the track gracefully arcs around here. It’s strong, but it’s a very different kind of strength than what came before it, much less overt. If Magik Markers went back to noisier or more aggressive sounds after it, it would still be a good song, but instead it serves as a kind of bridge.
From there, the band almost seem to deconstruct themselves; the great “American Sphinx Face,” the thematic heart of the album, keeps with the muted but surprisingly compelling production, riding a slow bass pulse and grinding guitar for what feels like it could be forever while Ambrogio torches the idea that arrogance and selfishness is the same thing as patriotism. “In America, every man is a king. No good king but a dead king… History can only judge what it sees. The rich have the cash to stay clean. I’m American, but I can dream” is strong medicine, and if the song didn’t seem to be raging from a distance it might not hit as hard. Instead, it’s nothing less than the even-worse-vibes sibling/flipside/dark twin of EMA’s “California,” another celebration and indictment of the land they find themselves in.
“American Sphinx Face” is a great song, but it’s almost enervating; to follow it up with first the harmonium ballad “Young” (“the worst part about being young is thinking nothing, thinking nothing ever comes…”) and then the sinister, abstract “Empire Building” is to plummet the listener off a cliff. The droning “Screams of Birds and Girls” and the closing “WT,” recorded after a couple of beers in the best possible sense, are less a triumphant conclusion than a pulling back into the land of the living after that. There are times Surrender to the Fantasy seems to be trying to tunnel through rock music to get at the void in the centre of it, in the centre of everything; in order to get its full power and pull, you do have to surrender to it, go with the music as it slows and darkens in the middle. It’s possible that this record would make more immediate sense if that core was spread more evenly throughout, but it would also lose something. It’s hard to know at first what to make of a record that take such a pronounced left turn after it’s seemingly established itself, but as in music as in more obviously narrative arts like television, some of the richest rewards can be found in those turns.