Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly, 2009

Megafaun’s debut album Bury The Square from 2008 was not released on vinyl, so we begin here in 2009 with the excellent Gather, Form & Fly, an album that took about two spins to grow all over me like a happy rash. Earlier in 2011 I heard two tracks on the ‘Muzzle of Bees’ music blog and was sold. I went straight to Amazon and grabbed all three vinyl releases (to date). I’m a huge fan of the first two or three Akron/Family albums and as soon as I heard hints of Akron/Family in Megafaun’s sound I knew I was onto a good thing.

Megafaun are a three-piece, residing in North Carolina. They use banjo as a main instrument plus violin and trombone to augment their sound which is rickety and decrepit without being lo-fi. Pieces often dilapidate into complete meltdown. Their songs are hugely melodic, employing multi-vocal harmonizing, but there’s a strong experimental side to their music too, thus providing the x factor that makes them more than just another Americana outfit. I don’t know much else about them. I think I read somewhere that they’re all multi-instrumentalists, but don’t quote me on that. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver used to be a member before he left to do his own thing, at which point they changed their name from DeYarmond Edison to Megafaun. The pigeon-holers file them under psych-folk. Works for me. Let the textual cover version unwind…

Bella Marie… is a short instrumental, opening with a warm low thumbed acoustic guitar, then a lovely descending arpeggio followed by various permutations of the chords. A violin joins for the ending. Less than two minutes long. An introduction.

Kaufman’s Ballad… banjo leads into the first harmonized piece of beauty here. Reminds me a lot of Califone the way the voices merge in a lovely falsetto, sort of rising up out of nowhere and cascading down, falling all over the banjo and soft drumbeat, cymbal crashes. “And he will shine tonight.” That violin is back adding texture to the background. The mood-tone is slightly mysterious and haunting, pensive. Can’t really make out the detail of the lyrics, and I’m not even sure which of one of them is the lead singer. He sings high, but fairly close mic’ed, but it’s a weathered kind of falsetto, warm and slightly mournful. A lovely art-song.

The Fade… opens with a real pop-song feel, bass and drums, banjo, guitar, and double-tracked vocals, and some lovely “Oh woh-oh-oh / I long to see your face / Oh woh-oh-oh / I long to see your face.” Song seems to be about memory, looking at a faded photograph and realizing how memories fade, just as photographs do too. Instrumental break with pedal steel. Song has an upbeat feel, some gorgeous harmonizing, repeated chorus is the part I quoted above. Very melodic. Nice stuff.

Impressions Of The Past… is a much longer piece, like a mini-suite with ‘movements.’ Starts with warmly recorded drums and various textures combined between guitar and trombone, then violin joins too and piano. It’s such a pretty and rich sound, beautifully melodic, light and airy one moment then thumpy and discordant the next. This is what’s so cool about this song – the violin starts going horribly discordant under the pretty melody, and the whole melody suddenly drops out and now the same instruments continue playing all out of key with each other as though they’re all broken. This is taken over by a military drumbeat with a rhythmic shift towards something faster and insistent, forward motion, and bam, that dissolves into a frantic repeated piano part. Piano dies, and various strange moany sounds which form into a rhythm appear, yet so far the whole song has had a distinct melodic feel. There’s another piece of violin with bashed cymbals and now the vocal section. “I can’t read a painted picture / Of life as it was in the past / Why did I think it would last / When all the colours keep on shifting / The truth is not in the hue / It’s in my perspective anew / Impressions of the past will be mourned / Until I find what I’m looking for.” It’s philosophical lyrics like these that remind me a lot of Akron/Family. A lovely piece of bricolage. And this next song…

Worried Mind… is reminiscent of Akron/Family’s self-titled debut. Just a clear lovely voice over top of an acoustic guitar, leading to “And I laid down my worried mind.” An elongated instrumental break follows on banjo and pedal steel, very pastoral until the singalong chorus: “Come on ease your mind / Oh come on ease your mind / Come on ease your worried mind.” This is so Akron/Family that if I hadn’t known it was Megafaun I could have easily been fooled. Even the lead vocal is similar, though A/F’s Seth Olinsky has a stronger, more confident vocal style. These guys are a little tentative and wavery. The two bands toured together in 2007 and you can hear the influence. Another excellent number. Side One gets two thumbs up. Great stuff.

The Process… is all pots and pans, ripping vocal line, beautifully deep bass drum bombs. The lyrics have a syncopated nursery rhyme quality about the way they’re sung: “Sun draw / Rooster craw / Lift these sleepy knees / Lay low / They won’t know / Rusty are the weeds.” No idea what any of that means. Song moves through several dynamic shifts. Sounds like all three members are singing here, and they criss-cross as they start singing the chorus-out: “Know you’d admit the same.” But the point here is that this is taking their sound into a much freakier territory, starting to get more experimental with their vocals. Great tune.

Solid Ground… and again, I’m reminded this time of Meek Warrior-era Akron/Family with all three vocalists in wild unison, pushing their voices hard like Pharaoh Sanders on a saxophone. “Plant that flag on solid ground / Free your feet, seek wisdom abound.” In the middle we get a jazzy free-brass interlude, all sorts of wild noise, more dynamic shifts, the whole thing underscored by a heavy beat, roly poly piano, bit of guitar distortion. Vocals get harder and soarier: “Storm ain’t but a passing sound / Rain will fill on solid ground.” This is fantastic stuff. They start messing with the rhythm, throwing spanners in the works, but sort of managing to keep it together, and the whole time, a lovely warm feeling floats through it. Endlessly melodic too. Loving it.

Darkest Hour… concrete musique, like…I don’t know… gravel pouring out of a mixer? The sound of a train passing by, a loud ringing sound, water pouring into water (someone taking a leak?) with a tribal tom-tom rhythm, pitter patter water still dripping, friendly jungle drums, noises of vehicles passing by, thunder, birds chirping, heavy rain falling – all these things merging together. And then a three-part harmony that sounds a little like Fleet Foxes for a couple of seconds: “I have been wallowing inside the darkest hour” they start singing as a kind of round, all out of sync with each other, although a huge sheeny video game sound drowns them out and every thing just goes freak-folk on us; decay, breakdown, noise, wild noise, ugly noise, and the vocals come back in, the bashed cymbals build and the whole song comes crashing back in like a barbershop quartet; hilarious. Brilliant. All voices back in the mix. Again, very much like an Akron/Family song. That’s okay. We need more of this stuff, and the Akron/Family’s last two albums have been weird but straining way to hard to achieve a decent tune. On Gather, Form & Fly, Megafaun are big on melody. Even their noisiest nastiest numbers somehow keep the sense of melody intact.

Gather, Form & Fly… I think we’re onto the next song, but the songs often transition without any gaps so it’s hard to say. Anyway, here we have the pretty banjo sound, clear as crystal, a warm bass below, soft/hard bass drum bombs, guitars, and snare drum sounds. Again it all sounds very experimental but the guitar and banjo parts never fail to keep the tune flowing along. That all ends with a big pause, then we get the vocal: “Night; cold and calm / Growing long / Winter is bound to come / North winds say it’s time / To find the southern sky / Before the leaves all die / Gather, form and fly.” Lovely. Megafaun grow wings, take flight. Megafaun are one of those bands – I don’t know if it’s worth caring too much about the lyrics. Vocals are really just another instrument.

Columns… “Been a long time since we spoke to an extent / Reflecting on the past and the roots of intent / With miles at our back / A stranger can attest.” Several lines are sung at the start with no musical backing, and then a mix of banjo, drums, guitar and various other found sounds provide a frenetic rhythm which gets faster and faster until it all sounds like a cutlery drawer being shaken, the contents spilled all over the floor. That all sorts of gets swallowed up in some UFO-type hums and blips, otherworldly radio static, robotic burps, piercing hum-feedback, rapid clicks, Board of Canada-esque ancient synth sounds. Perhaps this is starting to sound an indulgence too far? No. It’s detritus, flotsam, jetsam, sonic garbage. And the song just floats away.

The Longest Day… mix of banjo and strummed guitar bring us back to song. Strong country vocals, with someone called Christy Smith joining in. A lavish sound, all mixed beautifully and loud, upfront vocals. This one seems to bring us back round to that song ‘The Fade.’ Last line here is, “It’s almost been a year and my love for you has grown / And this weathered photograph is all I have to show.” Pretty melody. Finishes with sounds from a bird sanctuary, some flapping, the hum of cicadas, the sounds of summer. Perhaps the album is meant as a reflection back on a one year life cycle, ending with the start of winter, hence the flocks gathering to fly south.

Guns… bursts open with “These hands will never rest,” a full band sound, rich instrumentation, the beautiful high vocal lines, a building of melody and sound and repeated refrain: “All we’ll ever be.” “They’ll meet us with our guns / Convinced they’ve won / We’ll be the first to hum the song we learned from tired tongues / The sun will never set for us to rest / We’ll be the last to go into the throes when darkness grows,” and then back to “all we’ll ever be.” Quite catchy. Song zones out into airy harmonies, raw strummed guitars, thumpity drums, lots of noise and those soaring vocals, “All we’ll eeeeeeeeever beeeeee.” Some oh-woh-oh-wohing in the background as what sounds like an aircraft engine roars through the middle of the song. A recurring theme of flight on this album? The chorus continues, other erratic noises flap about, that huge vroomy engine sound continues, the whole thing becomes industrial and droney, like a car factory magnified or something. Metal, wires, engine, motors, oil, tuning forks, the industrial world totally drowning out the pastoral one. A song about what’s been lost. “The weary will protest / Until the call of death becomes a lull.” And still it goes on, slowly slowly fading, bits of feedback, industrial gongs…

Tides… merging into this song, but just the gong, as we get a sleepy banjo pastoral, a violin and two or three voices harmonizing a lyric about waves as a metaphor for “same as before” – recurrence. “Gesture of tides / Peace will retire.” Very slow, Appalachian kind of sound. Short and sweet. Yes, it’s an album about the seasonal cycles, and change, nostalgia, and moving on.

No D side. So, I think Megafaun have just become one of my favourite new bands. This album has so much interesting stuff going on that I’m going to draw out one of those horrible clichés; “an embarrassment of riches.” This is the kind of music that lends itself to endless future directions. There’s so many different ways they can take this, although, I think with this ‘freak-folk’ thing, there’s also a tendency for lyrics to get a little po-faced, lyrics from the head rather than the heart, but then lyrics may as well be resigned to the past. Seems a lot of bands don’t care too much about being understood anymore in that sense. Unless writing amazing poetry is your thing, then it probably makes sense to focus more on using the voice solely as an instrument. Anyway, I’m going to put this album in my top 20 of the decade so far, that’s how much I like it.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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