Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Boss is not a happy listen.
The first official LP from noise rockers Magik Markers – also known as Elisa Ambrogio and Pete Nolan – is a hellish, thundering work. Though Boss takes the noisy, freestyle conceit of the Markers’s impressive body of independently released CD-Rs and distills it into those slightly more digestible chunks called “songs,” the record remains a sprawling, discordant study of entropy, decay and sin – Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights disguised as a No Wave album.
“Axis Mundi” – Latin for “world axis,” the connection between the realms of earth and sky – opens with a lone guitar, shrieking with nails-on-a-chalkboard feedback and scraping flange. By the time the noise breaks into a psychedelic, groovy bass line, your sense of security lies in tatters. Anything can happen here. Ambrogio keeps to a tight range of notes, moaning her vocals from a detached, glassy-eyed trance. Her lyrics are carnal and paranoid, obtuse yet bursting with evocative imagery – “I left my stink like a mink’s dead gland / All over your mouth, all over your hand.” They give the impression of barely-spotted flames through a haze of black smoke. Eventually the melody succumbs to the noise, only to return as if from burning wreckage.
“Body Rot,” a burst of low-fi fury that sounds like Minor Threat covering for early Pavement, leads us straight into “Last of the Lemach Line,” a nine-minute symphony of feedback, loosely rhythmic drum fills and ululating lead guitar. Boss’s lyrical preoccupation with vaguely biblical, subversively blasphemous imagery gives “Lemach Line” a ghostly, threatening feel: “I am the secular Pentecost / Squeezing out the blue snake. / I never count what I lost, / Only what I take.” This sort of thing appears again in “Four/The Ballad of Harry Angstrom,” a relentless dirge of percussive piano and sparse drums. Ambrogio names a “secular nobility” and admonishes us to “fear him, he is the one who should be feared,” while lamenting that “love gives way to avarice.” When – a bit over two minutes in – a low-in-the-mix din of barely-heard voices begins, try not to run screaming from the room.
A reprieve is granted on the fourth track, “Empty Bottles,” where Nolan takes to the piano and Ambrogio vocally channels Meg White. It’s a surprisingly benign and contemplative song, even utilizing a glockenspiel that sounds something like a child’s plastic toy xylophone. But all is not right here, as dissonant chords occasionally interrupt the tranquility. We’re not out of the woods yet.
Though you may be hard-pressed to discern what exactly is going on, Boss certainly feels like a concept album. It’s meticulously paced, using “Empty Bottles” as a center point. It pulls you in and shatters your preconceptions, then lets you down gently and tears you right back up again, ending on a musical cliffhanger. Album closer “Circles,” – a track that writhes with distorted, sustained wails and yelps -ends without catharsis as you dangle as if over a pit.
There is little chance you’ll adopt Boss as the soundtrack for your next road trip or drop it at a party. But if you’re willing to take the plunge, you’ll find a rewarding and fascinating album – just don’t expect to be comforted.