Some of popular New York Greek-American band Magges‘ music is incredibly haunting, packed with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Some of the songs on their new album 12 Tragouthia (meaning “12 Songs,” streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp site) have a rousing gypsy quality; some are simply upbeat and happy. Some of them definitely qualify as psychedelic rock, while others are obviously folk tunes. With all the esoteric, trippy rock from outside the English-speaking world in the 1960s and 70s having gone global over the last decade, it’s time that fans of groups like Chicha Libre and Dengue Fever discovered the Greek side of the equation. That’s what Magges brings to the table (along with lots of ouzo at their rock club gigs): it’s unbeatable party music. Their signature sound blends the twin bouzoukis of frontman Kyriakos Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, with Steve Antonakos on acoustic rhythm guitar, Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums, with Susan Mitchell adding her signature intensity on violin on several tracks.
The hardest-hitting tracks fall under the category of remebetiko, the Middle Eastern-flavored “Greek blues” which was equally popular with hash smokers and the freedom fighters battling the dictatorship there in the 1930s and 40s. The long, intense opening cut, Ego Maggas Fenomouna works its way from a big, crescendoing minor-key twin-bouzouki intro into a stately, stalking anthem, sort of a less ponderous counterpart to a bitter Russian dirge. The band goes happy and spiky with Ouzo and its catchy major/minor shifts, then back into the shadows again with Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe, its thunderstorm of bouzoukis and Mitchell’s steady, catchy hook against suspenseful, biting, ringing staccato riffage. Athikopnigmeni, one of the most psychedelic cuts here, is basically a one-chord jam with a series of unexpected dynamic shifts: deep thickets of bouzouki picking, and a stark, minimal vocal interlude that plays call-and-response with the instruments as the song grows more intense and elegaic, with allusions to the Byrds’ Eight Miles High.
They follow that one with Pente Magges, which has a Boulevard of Broken Dreams vibe, but slower and without the tango beat, a motor scooter sputtering away at the end. Twisting and turning on a chillingly beautiful two-bar twin bouzouki interweave, Haremia Me Diamandia turns a rembetiko anthem into Greek psychedelic rock. Se Kitazo sets Greek folk to a gypsy jazz shuffle, yet another reminder of how influential and widespread gypsy sounds had become before World War II. There’s also the bouncy minor-key folk-rock of Giati Glykia Mou Kles; the tensely bitter, expansive rembetiko anthem Ximeromata; Thalasies Handres, with its tricky rhythms and singalong chorus, and a couple of rapidfire dance numbers that speed up faster and faster, daring whoever’s on the dance floor to keep up with them. Count this as one of the most fascinating and fun albums of 2012; stream it here.