It’s been three years since San Diego’s Hot Snakes broke up, ending the six-year run of one of America’s most incendiary garage punk bands. Still, if you’ve been pining for the Hot Snakes’ stripped-down fury, 2008 may just be your year. After all, this is the year that Rick Froberg of Hot Snakes (and Drive like Jehu) started playing out with his new classic rock-into-blues-skank Obits, and others from that much-mourned band — John Reis and Gar Wood — made their first album as Night Marchers.
See You in Magic, particularly in its first half, is a blisteringly intense, razor-sharp, and surprisingly varied outing that hits all the rough-and-tumble bases you’d expect, and also slips in bits of pop, rockabilly, jangle, and even power balladry. It starts with a flattening onslaught of one-two-three-four punk, its first two songs — “Closed for Inventory” and “In Dead Sleep (I Snore ZZZZ)” — rampaging over brutal garage rock riffs and breaking only in the interstices for any sort of melodic sweetening. Yet even “In Dead Sleep” takes a bit of a turn near the end, its jagged-sweet guitars, like Jay Reatard edging from the pure assault of punk rock into the more stylized jittery-ness of new wave. That only sets the stage for “I Wanna Deadbeat You”, the strongest song on this very strong debut, its tightly harmonized pop chorus slipping seamlessly into a raging 4/4 beat and thunderous guitar riffs. You think about the Replacements, and their meld of hook and mayhem, but Night Marchers have none of that band’s charming sloppiness. They are tight, tight, tight, only the slur of Reis’s whiskey voice hinting at any kind of dissolution.
Those opening three songs are variations on fairly classic garage punk forms, yet things get much more diverse — and weirder — from here on. “Jump in the Fire” opens with a jangly spray of guitar notes, a sound that would fit perfectly well on R.E.M.’s Murmur. Reis’s voice is rough-edged and romantic, yet the song fairly shimmers with gloss, tight cascading harmonies and glittery guitar overlays overriding his damaged singing. It’s a good song, no doubt, but entirely not what you’re expecting. Then there are the 1950s-influenced, rockabilly-tinged pair of songs, “Branded” and “Open Your Legs”, galloping along on snare-shot, one-two beats and classic Chuck Berry riffs. Again, these are fun songs on their own terms, but way off-center, if this very diverse album can even be said to have a center. Still, at times, the outlying songs take on a life of their own, suggesting unexpected directions that Night Marchers might one day decide to explore. I am not a big fan of power ballads (Peter Kriss has a lot to answer for, in my opinion), but “You’ve Got Nerve” is a good one, its blues-y, late-night guitars framing a voice nearly burnt away by exhaustion and too much feeling. This is the kind of song for early hours, surrounded by full ashtrays and empty glasses and haunting, unanswerable regrets.
The disc fizzles a bit in its second half, following the very strong “Bad Bloods” with the proggy excesses of “And I Keep Holding You”. (The massed vocals at the beginning sound like the beginning of a metal opera), and a string of pop-melodic songs. It closes with the feel-good sing-along, “We’re Going Down”, easy to imagine as a live show highlight, but a bit obvious on record. You might catch yourself wondering, during the album’s second half, if you really liked the first half as much as you thought. But play it again, and you do.
Fun fact. If you Google the term “Night Marchers”, roughly one-quarter of your results will pertain to this band. The remainder will describe a ghostly tribe of Hawaiian warriors, so dangerous that if you ever look one in the eye, you will disappear forever. The best response, according to these sites, if you have the misfortune to run into a Night Marcher, is to lie flat on your stomach, eyes closed. This is, coincidentally or not, also the strategy that Reis recommends for most romantic situations. Or, as he sings in “I Wanna Deadbeat You”, “Close my eyes / Fold my arms / Plug my ears / No, no, no, no”. Maybe it works for those Night Marchers, but for these, I’d recommend keeping your ears wide open.