James Marlon Magas has been reborn — or perhaps, more accurately, born for the first time in his most undiluted image. Confusion Is My Name is his first album under his full given name, and the first album in over a decade to position him as a proper frontman at the microphone against the backdrop of his idiosyncratic electronic productions. It arrives as a statement of purpose, a detonation to vaporize the debris and clear out new territory. The album lays out his most diverse menu of styles and experiments to date, veering from technoid noise-pop animated by his maniacal vocal performances, to hallucinogenic psych rock with analog synths repurposed into bludgeoning guitar riffs, to something that resembles lounge music as performed by a delirious crooner on the eve of the world’s destruction. The full composite of Confusion Is My Name in all its twisted glory not only opens a new chapter in his career, but testifies to the undying drive that has motivated James Marlon Magas to create for thirty years.
Over those three decades, Magas thrashed his way into becoming a cornerstone of the Midwestern noise scene with the Ann Arbor, MI-based band Couch, as co-founder of the catch-all avant-garde label Bulb Records, and as a member of Chicago ensemble Lake of Dracula along with fellow freak polymath Weasel Walter. Magas’s musical and label activities during this period provided direct influence for artists such as Wolf Eyes and their family of projects, Andrew W.K., and Aaron Dilloway / the Hanson Records sphere, to name only a few that orbited and collaborated with him in their formative years in Michigan. Beginning in 2003 and re-centralized in his longtime home base in Chicago, his solo catalog under the Magas mononym steered him through visions of industrial, techno, electro, and punk music — all united in an experimental electronic production style built on propulsive drum programming and gonzo synthesis. Magas started the label Midwich Productions in 2015 to provide yet another nurturing home for the Midwestern avant-garde, including Detroit noise-techno duo Moon Pool and Dead Band (featuring Nate Young of Wolf Eyes), Chicago dark industrial duo HIDE, Aaron Dilloway under the guise of his Mick Travis moniker, and Hausu Mountain co-founder Mukqs. This period found Magas streamlining his own project towards the leaner, instrumental sound captured on Heads Plus (2015) and Explanatory Denial (2017), two 12” releases that embodied the “junk techno” aesthetic of Midwich with their noise-soaked beat structures and serrated synthetic textures
Meticulously sculpted over the better part of five years in his home studio, Confusion Is My Name takes up the reins of multiple eras of James Marlon Magas’s output and conglomerates them into some rendition of the ultra-Magas. Just as his participation in the band Couch cast him as a swaggering vocalist howling out unhinged tirades, the Magas of today returns to a version of that role with an equal measure of demoniac belting and brain-melted post-crooning. Meanwhile, the production decisions throughout Confusion is My Name attest to his ear for deconstructing genre tropes and honing in on high-fidelity drum and synth tones that convey his pedigree in crafting disorienting electronic bangers. Heavy kicks align with rounded synth-bass tones into stuttering undercurrents while wispy pads and lacerating peals of noise color in the dense mixes. Magas recasts his analog synths into the role of the guitar in some moments, even achieving a sense of back and forth “strumming” with their oscillating wails — not to be confused with the actual overdriven guitar contributions of French noise maven Electronicat on “Lay My Money.” Other guests appear amidst the Confusion. Former Blues Control member Lea Cho pours out a rapid-fire keyboard solo on the climax of “Feathers in the Clouds,” hitting like a boogie-woogie pianist on speed over the top of Magas’s squelching synths. New Orleans freak music luminaries Miss Pussycat and Quintron contribute vocals, flute, and percussion to album opener “Irma, Irma.” Chicago experimental / free-jazz veterans Fred Lonberg-Holm and Julie Pomerleau join in on the delicate album-closer “Kiss on the Cheek” with their plaintive cello and violin layers brushing against Magas’s Rhodes.
For all of its dense frameworks of production, James Marlon Magas’s vocal performances occupy our full attention throughout Confusion Is My Name. He takes chances on the mic, unafraid to dip into nearly atonal shouting matches with himself or launch into crumbling, woozy melodies. His style lands somewhere in the neighborhood of The Residents’ frontman Randy Rose’s theatrical caterwaul and the genre-blurring vocal sleaze of Captain Beefheart. He even embraces some skewed form of rapping on “Watch,” which finds him spitting bars alongside director / actress Asia Argento, with whom Magas collaborated as a composer on the 2014 film Misunderstood. Argento’s verse finds her incanting a whispered malediction in her native Italian, contrasting with Magas’s self-aware faux-approximation of early hip-hop MCing a la Schoolly D. Magas embraces the role of the quasi-doom metal vocalist on “Stone,” bemoaning a witch’s curse over a stew of gnarled synth riffs like an even more blasted version of Ozzy in a robotic Sabbath — all while his drum programming pummels us with snares and kicks more in the vein of electro. It’s all a lot to handle, and yet Magas inhabits the personas that each track calls for with unbridled confidence. This time around, he stands before you as a rock star, some type of demented oracle, and lays it all out on the table. He’s not asking you to follow him if you don’t want to, but he knows you can’t stay here. Nowhere is safe, yet at least you could choose to spend the last of your energy in the company of James Marlon Magas as he serenades you into oblivion.
Confusion Is My Name will be released by Midwich Productions on Friday, October 21st, 2022
“I Can’t Find It On My Own” official Music Video directed and animated by Jacob Ciocci.