Gather, Form & Fly (Hometapes 2009)
Byline: What is this thing called “banjo?”
For: Akron/Family, Espers, Magic Hour
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of playing in and attending the 9th annual Denver Post Underground Music Showcase where I saw perhaps one of the most earth-shattering performances of my career as a music geek and lover: Kingdom of Magic. Kingdom is about the most powerful power trio I’ve heard in years - a tour-de-force of spectacular metal riffs. It’s the kind of band that puts five pound weights into your fists and tells you to have at it, no apologies, no excuses. This is only significant to my review of Megafaun’s newest record, Gather, Form & Fly, in that previous to attending the day’s festivities which were capped off by Kingdom’s blistering set, I was indulging in Harvey Milk’s latest offering. It occurred to me during Kingdom’s performance that since Led Zeppelin, through the likes of Nirvana, Harvey Milk and now countless others, “hard rock” as we know it has its’ own unique, formulaic style in place: heavy, unison lines between a bass and treble guitar voice, often delivered in harmonious parallel 4ths and 5ths, and doubly-accented by the bass and snare drum nearly note-for-note. Though Kingdom’s take on this basic formula was appropriately modernized for today’s metal fanatic, the idea is there: no matter what, there will always be a place for hard rock in popular music culture, and we will always be able to recognize it when we hear it. It’s a good thing.
The point is this: “revolutionary” is something we critics look for almost too often in new music. If it doesn’t break all the rules, it doesn’t cut it. Bullshit, right? It’s just an excuse to get bored with the stuff that’s surrounding us every day, and to ignore major progress in musical areas with which we were once comfortable. Concepts of a “style” or “genre” are not outdated - they are building blocks - reference points from which to expand the language with new colloquialisms, quirks, and accents. Case in point - Americana, meet Megafuan. Here’s a band that farms the fertile grounds of America’s folk music heritage for most (if not all) its inspiration. The music is light, predominantly major in key, employs plenty of banjo and acoustic guitar. There are call and response forms here, soft and gentle balladry, swinging, foot-stomping hootenannies, plenty of “blue” notes, beautiful vocal harmonies and raucous unison whoops/hollers alike. Where the band has previously stretched the possibilities of these more traditional tricks of the trade (see 2008’s Bury the Square), they continue to do so again here, however more tactfully and successfully. Computer programming is allowed to glaze a song's ending in a hazy fuzz or mellow drone, rather than dominate the track - a trap Megafaun has previously fallen into. “Darkest Hour” flips this recipe on its head, opening with sampled drips and drops and wooden percussion evoking a sense of nature mixed with electronics and distant vocals that sound sampled, warping everything awkwardly into a tornado of noise before morphing the mix gracefully into a semblance of structure: the last minute or so is the actual “song.” Either way, Gather beckons a welcome pecking order of song first, experiment second. There’s also some nice arranging to boot, which nicely fills out the band’s sound - strings, horns, even help from a female vocalist, making the trio into more of a family sound.
Although Gather, Form & Fly is easily the best Megafaun release to date, it still only scratches the surface of what these guys are capable of live. The drums on the album come off as interesting clitter-clatter, what with the woodblocks and bells peppered into the afro-couban and zydeco-inspired grooves - but live they seem so much more profesh: calculated and rehearsed, tight as a drum (so to speak) and blasting with the energy of Elvin Jones. In a word: awesome - something missing in the recording. It’s also a sight to see the trio harmonize together live, going unplugged more than once to dramatize the intimacy of some of the more touching numbers. I was fortunate enough to catch their set at the UMS this past weekend in addition to Kingdom of Magic. Whether it’s metal or folk - these styles or genres still exist and are going strong. With a little ingenuity and musicianship, these forms aren’t merely means to an end - they’re means to an infinity. It’s a path Megafaun is faithfully plotting out, hopefully for many records to come.