Magik Markers, Harley Gaber, Harry Pussy, Tonstartssbandht, Powers/Rolin Duo, Alfredo Thiermann & Tres Warren

MAGIK MARKERS “2020” (DRAG CITY) Markers are back in 2020 with 2020, their first full-length album in quite awhile. (Six or seven years?) I’ve always dug their basic foundational group structure — the fearless drumming of Pete Nolan anchoring/driving/upsetting/countering the free-flowing voice & guitar poetics of frontperson Elisa Ambrogio, this essential duo usually (but not necessarily) augmented by a third or fourth piece that can anchor and/or embellish further as needed, this role or these roles having been filled in roughly chronological order by Leah Quimby, Ben Chasny, Joshua Burkett, Steve Gunn, currently John Shaw, and probably more — but also the way they push and pull against this basic structure, especially in the studio, particularly starting with their 2007 (!) album Boss. We see this right away on the first track here, “Surf’s Up” (a Markers original, not the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks composition, though columnated ruins still domino, even if this time only implicitly), eight minutes long, a slow melancholy dirge, the old ‘put the last song first’ move, with fat bassline/drumbeat heavy rock rhythm section moves, but instead of heavy rock guitar the third instrument is a plaintive piano, and Ambrogio immediately piques curiosity with her opening melancholy vocal line about surfing the waves on Saturn’s largest moon Titan (like Wikipedia sez: “the only known body in space, other than Earth, where clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found”). After a couple-three verses, the piano begins to Garson its way out to lunch, slowly and steadily, eventually joined by a methodically soloing guitar that starts clean and then gets progressively gnarlier and more distorted, and by gosh, it’s some superb noise/primitive guitar expression for a good four jamming minutes straight (the “heavy outro” move), after which the song segues into track two, a more speedy/nervous/punky number called “Find You Ride,” as quick as this sentence just did (I swear it’s an uninterrupted take combining the two songs into one performance). Track three “That Dream (Shitty Beach)” is back to a stoner rock dirge, sung (I think) by one of the guys in the band, stretching on for almost 6 minutes, with some more crazed/primitive lead guitar playing — man, is that all Elisa? I wouldn’t doubt it. I still don’t know if she can play any chords, but she can play the hell out of some ur-punk guitar leads. Track four goes back to Elisa on vocals for one of her more stately pop ballads yet, “Born Dead,” and you start to realize the band you thought was a guitar band might now be more of a keyboard band (Hunky Dory move). But that’s not quite right either, because there’s plenty of guitar on 2020, it’s just that it all seems to be lead guitar, with “Born Dead” having some of the best yet, massed backwards wailing choirs, and again I say: man, is that all Elisa? Anyway, now that side one is over, I’ll stop doing a track-by-track, and leave the rest for you to discover (but I do have to mention the first song on side two, “You Can Find Me,” because its unabashed power-pop vibe makes me wonder if the band has been taking cues from Home Blitz — I could indeed see Daniel DiMaggio as the breathy guest vocalist on this track) (it’s also a total rhythm guitar song, forget what I said about Hunky Dory). Great album!

HARLEY GABER The Winds Rise in the North 2CD (EDITION RZ) Lester Bangs said he was listening to it in a 1980 radio interview, and Alan Licht put it in is Minimalism Top 10 III, but I didn’t actually hear The Winds Rise in the North by Harley Gaber until my East Rogers Park upstairs neighbor guitarist/engineer/nerd who (like me) is into Zappa and JGB said “hey man, my uncle was an avant-garde composer, I’ve got a box full of double-CDs by him if you want one!” And this double-CD is indeed something else, a 2-hour modern classical composition in which a string quintet (four violins and a violincello) scrape and hover/whine into the good dark night on long high scary tones that live up to the title, that live up to the slow winds howling deep both outside and inside your soul, and, if you’re like me, it feels good for them to finally meet their match. It was recorded in 1976, and originally issued on double-LP that same year. The double-CD was released in 2007, and does not include additional material; its two tracks per CD represent the same material as the 2 sides per LP.

HARRY PUSSY You’ll Never Play This Town Again (Live, Etc 1997) CD (LOAD RECORDS) Good god, if nothing else get thee to track 29 “Mandolin” (thanks, 5-disc changer set on “shuffle all”), an ‘arry Pussy staple, this version recorded at a 1997 live gig with surprising clarity, a song that starts with a legitimately shocking Crimsonoid twin-guitar HC-nightmare composition sung by the ever powerful Adris Hoyos, and then free-falls into its coda, a free-form guitars/drums/voice dissociative episode that can last as long as 15 minutes, as it does on track 32 on here, which is called “Live at Salon Zwerge” because that’s where it was performed, but it’s that coda of “Mandolin” again, which in fact appears four times total on this awesome CD/comp/live etc thing that documents Harry Pussy’s activity during a very specific time frame: the first four or five months of 1997, which are in fact the last months of their existence as a band. It’s almost like a dramatic documentary film, call it Harry Pussy: 1997, or The Last Days of Harry Pussy (2008, d. Bill Orcutt). The more you think of the CD sequence as a cinematic editing/storytelling structure, you realize the 42 tracks here represent four scenes: the band playing essentially the same live set three different times during that five-month period (although track sequence and selection can vary), with a one-off scene in a different city. Scene one: the CD starts when the year starts, with 17 self-recorded tracks from a single rehearsal session in January, the classic drums/guitar/guitar trio lineup of Adris Hoyos/Bill Orcutt/Dan Hosker, recording themselves at their practice space in very sharp, tight, and direct form. (Once you get used to the initial terror of hearing Harry Pussy, you eventually start to realize they are a well-rehearsed band playing actual riffs. Call it the Trout Mask Replica effect.) After the band plays twelve songs in a row (which were released that same year, in the same order, as an untitled 45 RPM 12” EP), they cool off into some previously unreleased alternate-universe after-hours jamming, joined by Robert Price of Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa and Monostat 3 (for all the true Miami heads out there) on some bonkers synthesizer for tracks 13 and 14, followed by an essential Adris Hoyos solo twofer where she does an a capella vocal “Mic Check” for track 15, followed by a truly unsettling voice/drum solo called “Stop It” for track 16. Then we jump four months later to May 5th for scene two, the next 14 tracks, a complete live set including encores at legendary Miami dive-bar laboratory Churchill’s Hideaway which, from the stage banter at the end, we learn is the band’s planned final performance before breaking up, and is still to this day their last ever performance (correct me if I’m wrong). These tracks (with the previously unreleased final encore Teenage Jesus & the Jerks cover “Orphans” added) serve as a CD reissue of a 1998 10” EP on Cherry Smash Records called Live (wait a minute, I believe the same tracks, including the “Orphans” encore, were also issued on the Live Fuck Love Songs record and VHS tape… were those unauthorized?). As for the appearance of “Mandolin” in the last show: an audience member shouts out a request for it early on, which the band fulfills a few songs later, probably because it was already planned as their show-stopping penultimate number. Adris can be heard saying “Mandolin?” to her bandmates, and then to the whole audience, “This next song is called ‘Punk Rock Is Killing All My Friends’,” and then the band plays their last-ever live version of it. After the Churchill’s set, marking as it does the end of Harry Pussy’s existence as a band, we jump backwards in time for track 32, just for a couple weeks to April 16th, 1997 and the aforementioned “Live at Salon Zwerge,” which is again a very extended “Mandolin” coda, this track serving as a CD reissue of their one-sided 1998 LP Live at Salon Zwerge. More cinematic storytelling is implied by the location of this live performance, which is Chicago, far from their native Miami Beach; the band was on a final tour just before their final show. And then, to close out the CD with tracks 33 through 42, we jump back up to May 4th, the night before their last show ever, for the fourth and final scene: a ten-song studio session recorded and mixed by their old colleague Tom Smith. Various subsets of these ten tracks made it onto at least a couple different posthumous releases, like the Harry Pussy and Frosty split 7” and the Toxic Drunks/Radiation Nation split on DeStijl, both from 1997, and maybe another 7” or so. Anyway, that’s everything on this amazing CD. I don’t quite have all the biographical details of what was going on during the last days of Harry Pussy, but this CD is a surprisingly dramatic and, like I said, fractured/cinematic presentation of a brief time when an amazing, terrifying, one-of-a-kind punk rock band was at the peak of its powers, and paradoxically also on the verge of a breakup that has thus far remained permanent.

TONSTARTSSBANDHT Sorcerer (MEXICAN SUMMER) This is one of those bands that haunt me and elude me. In the category of ‘most annoying band names for bands I actually like,’ they’re almost as bad as Hot Tuna and Wet Tuna, and I would’ve completely avoided them for that reason if it wasn’t for half-hearing a song or seven on Jeff Conklin’s classic Avant Ghetto radio show on WFMU back in the day. I can’t remember exactly what those Tonstartssbandht tracks sounded like — I was always listening at work, and this is an elusive band anyway, even when I’m paying close attention to, and liking, their music — but I could tell it was maybe something good, or even special. Not in an ‘It’s OK To Like The Grateful Dead’ jamband kind of way either, as the Conklin curation might lead you to think... or was it? I mean, the clean improvisational guitars were still there… and when Conklin does play out-and-out roots/jamband music, he only plays the best of the best… but this was on a different plane, something a little more icy and removed, more progressive than jammy, if you catch the difference. I still didn’t pursue any of their music (that name still), but then came across this, their 2017 album Sorcerer, on one of those late night fall-asleep-to-Sp***fy-and-the-album-you’re-listening-to-ends-so-you-wake-up-during-the-post-album-‘related-artists’-playlists sessions. It woke me up and I was intrigued enough to #breakshuffle and play the whole album, and then a couple days later I played it again. Still elusive. Startss slow, which doesn’t help, but I was (ton)start(ss)ing(bandh)to like it, which sent me back to the WFMU live session linked above (noting Conklin’s perfect G. Dead-referring intro: “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones who do what they do… Tonstartssbandht!”), and okay, now I get it. Weird wide-landscape pleasant-chord heavy/light extendo choogle-jamming that eventually downshifts into songforms via siblings who sing twin-lead dazed pop melodies. Oh yeah, did I mention Tonstartssbandht is just a duo, and the two guys in the band are biological brothers, one on guitar and one on drums, both singing twin lead vocals? Even as a live two-piece, there’s a lot of music going on with this band, but even more so on Sorcerer, because, as I now recognize, there’s a lot of guitar and percussion overdubs. Which can be a little off-putting right after immersion in the strictly-duo WFMU live session, but it’s also two-track era Inner Space Can style, you know what I mean, when you’re like “holy shit Jaki is such a good drummer, how on earth does he play bongos at the same time he’s holding down that sick funk beat, [two years later] oh it’s an overdub, duh.” But anyway, about the band name, there’s a comment on the WFMU live session linked above that says, “I like Tonstartssbandht so much I learned to spell their name correctly from memory.” Well, it’s the end of this review, and… let’s just say that I have too.

POWERS/ROLIN DUO s/t LP (FEEDING TUBE) Here’s another contemporary record release up for that elusive Appalachian Krautrock designation (see also the More Klementines s/t LP, which was also a Feeding Tube project, as a co-release with the Twin Lakes record label). Don’t wanna say too much about this nascent microgenre for fear of New Weird America-ing the whole thing, because I know none of us want that to happen again, but it’s real, it’s about the music, and when it’s good, it’s very good, and sometimes I have to say at least something. Like for example how there’s this duo LP [pictured above] on the Feeding Tube label, in which Jen Powers and Matthew Rolin of Columbus, Ohio play hammered dulcimer and 12-string guitar respectively, creating cascading post-Vuh/pre-Vuh extended instrumental mantra-folk freedom-of-religion music, all with a welcome and unique new-generation brightness. They had a couple other releases this year too, like a cassette called The Nightland on Trouble in Mind, and that Live at Tubby’s digital album with Mr. Ramble Tamble, and I’m excited to check them all out.

ALFREDO THIERMANN & TRES WARREN Land in the Sky LP (BYM) Already a sad and melancholy album when it was released in 2018, maybe a little too sad now, because Tres Warren has since passed away too young, at age 41, in March 2020, right after we all entered COVID hell world. This album was released a year or two before that, but already sounds like a beautiful elegy. Thiermann, who played keyboards in the Chilean psych band Föllakzoid on their album Föllakzoid II, plays tranced classical-themed keyboards here, bolstered by gentle loping psych bass lines (#nodrummer), over which Warren, who played guitar and sang in the band Psychic Ills, lays down simple and heavy slide guitar that really tugs at the heartstrings. It sounds lonely, resigned, and sad, but somehow each small slide lick is a tiny light in the darkness, a signal cried into the universe, a reaching out, a single step ahead on the surface of a large planet.