The band's ramshackle approach gets smoothed out here, so eccentric textures are tightly woven together. The sound this makes is hard to define, which is why it's so satisfying.
As soaring as it is, as sweet as these tunes are to listen to, beneath its lush layers Megafaun reveals a series of complications, and to listen to it is to expose yourself to a series of tricky questions.
1. When does a music career begin?
With the release of this album, there's an easy arc to follow for Megafaun's career. They gained local attention in North Carolina with Bury the Square, they broke out to a larger audience with Gather, Form, and Fly and the Heretofore EP, and now they've got their fully realized statement, their pinnacle album, Megafaun. If its predecessor's title implies moving towards self-realization, realizing your strengths and making them shine, then Megafaun is the destination to that journey, a band declaring themselves -- in both title and sound.
It's an arc we often employ; we like to know when bands make it. But there are a whole lot of questions that loom behind this, and Megafaun brings them up right away in opener "Real Slow". They warn, looking back on their own musical life, to "Take your time...because if it starts too fast, it's gonna end real slow." Megafaun is a band that's constantly changing, so in some ways this record has very little to do with its predecessor. It's similarly expansive, but in a completely different way. It's a growth, but it's also a reinvention. So to say it's a realization, or a break out, or anything else like that is to imply that this is the same band that made the last record.
But time dictates that it can't be, that people change and so does the work they produce. Besides, if we call this their crowning achievement, some culmination of past work, all we're doing is creating expectations for the next record. It will either live up to this one or it won't. The last record now becomes merely preamble. We can recognize the greatness of this record without making it part of a timeline, without wondering where it fits. Those are exactly the kind of expectations the band breaks down in its songs. Which brings us to our next question...
2. When does variety become experimentation?
There's plenty of in-your-face oddities to be found on Megafaun. The otherwise straight-up "These Words" crumbles into messy clatter in the middle and most surprisingly, the band somehow channels Love Cry-era Albert Ayler at the opening of instrumental "Isadora". For the most part, though, these songs are based on recognizable structures. There are verses and choruses and bridges. These aren't the slippery compositions we saw at moments on Heretofore or Gather, Form, and Fly. Instead, the album's sonic eccentricities embed themselves in the songs.
So are they experimenting when they stretch out eight-plus minutes on the excellent shimmer of "Get Right"? It sure seems to jangle the way a rock song should, but what's amazing is that it is thickened by squalls of feedback and other miasmic grinds. The thing is, you might not notice that, until the rest of the instruments fade at the song's end, they're such an integral part of a gauzy but tuneful sound. Hell, even when the songs are straightforward -- "You Are the Light" is a sweet dusty shuffle, while "State/Meant" is gliding, pastoral folk -- they're framed in distinctly bizarre ways. "You Are the Light" is prefaced by the desiccated groans and blips of "Serene Return", and those sonic burrs wrinkle the smooth track. Meanwhile, "State/Meant" ends by bleeding into the haunting space of "Postscript".
This is what the band does so well, couching traditional elements in confusing modern contexts. This stuff is both organic and industrial, but Megafaun finds the two sides melding rather than clashing. The usual ramshackle approach gets smoothed out here, so that those strange shifts are subtler, and often organic and technological at the same time. The slide guitar on "Resurrection", for example, is all traditional twang, but it's coated with echo effects to make it seem distant and hollowed out. "Hope You Know" is mostly spacey piano, but around it is the faint ring of feedback, making the mood all the more stark. These more formless elements, once compelling diversions from melody, are now weaved in.
That said, they also know when to leave the song alone. "Kill the Horns" is threadbare and intimate, and the great surprise comes in a swell of accordion -- played by the father of band members Phil and Bradley Cook. "Second Friend" is a lean country rocker that builds sweet vocal harmonies and not skittering sonic shifts. All the sounds here -- the organic and the industrial -- fit into tight, often catchy structures. So is it experimental if, well, it's more experimental to us than them? If the pieces seem incongruous yet fit dynamically? These guys write songs the way many people do, they just use different tools. This music has the thrill of surprise, but it's so rare experiments feel so fully formed. So, in the end, you have to wonder:
3. What the hell is Megafaun, anyway?
No matter how you frame it, Megafaun is a stunning, expansive, and utterly satisfying record. It's roadworn but hopeful, melodically fascinating, and never misses a step on its wandering, restless path. But though this seems like their most straightforward record, it's as difficult to define as any of their other work. These guys are noise experimenters on one hand, and a rock band with an arsenal of sweet tunes on the other. Some would argue they're Americana or folk, since they build on acoustic instruments and possess a hardscrabble honesty, but the power under that all is in a distinctly rock propulsion. They have beautiful vocal harmonies, but their layering is often ragged and dissonant. So, with all these possibilities, what are we supposed to call this sound?
The answer would seem to matter on an eponymous album, which implies some sort of definition for the band. But in the end, as they always do well, Megafaun denies us that expectation. They raise these questions -- of legacy, of musical structure, of the very rhetoric with which we discuss music -- and shake them up without answering them. Perhaps this is all effect, though, and the cause is this beautiful, intricate album. It's no mere intellectual exercise, because as compelling as these ideas are, they are overshadowed all the way through by the deep feeling and sense of discovery in these songs. This is a sound that can't sit still, so while we may want to put brackets around Megafaun, to capture a moment when they fulfilled some idea we had of them, they'll shake that loose every time. In the end, they are defined by an inability to be defined.