Justin Vernon may be the member of DeYarmond Edison to have garnered the most attention since the relatively unknown North Carolina band split, having topped numerous year end lists and making crowds swoon as Bon Iver. Yet it’s arguably his three former bandmates, who currently make up Megafaun, that are making the more interesting music of the two camps. On their debut album Bury The Square, Megafaun crafted six sprawling tracks of rich, soulful Americana, accessible enough to love upon first listen, but with just enough weird embellishments (tape loops, white noise, clattering percussion) to keep it interesting upon subsequent listens.
With second album Gather, Form & Fly, Megafaun merely expands and builds upon the wonderfully rich and complex sound that made their 2008 debut such a treat. Here, the North Carolina trio lines up 13 songs with shorter running times (save for the seven-minute “Guns”) and a more diverse variety of sounds. The band plays prettier at times, louder at others, and knows just when to make a left turn. That the album is somehow even more accessible and hook-filled than their previous effort makes this expansive and playful effort something of an interesting prospect. Often when a band makes an attempt at something catchier, there’s an aspect of growth or experimentation that’s lost. Such is not the case on Gather, Form & Fly.
Megafaun’s brand of Americana is one closer in aesthetic to Califone or Akron/Family (with whom the band plays live when not performing as Megafaun) than the more straightforward folk-rock of a group like Fleet Foxes. Songs are very rarely neatly compacted into a three-minute single form. This music breathes and slithers and stomps and mutates. It’s alive, sometimes even a bit ornery, but that’s what makes it more fun. Before delving into their most bizarre material, however, after a brief instrumental Megafaun opens the record with one of its most breathtaking tracks, “Kaufman’s Ballad.” All banjo pickin’, screechy violin, vocal harmonies, hand percussion and tension, it’s a dark and sinister, yet nonetheless beautiful (not to mention, pretty badass) song that paves an ominous path for the wide array of mischievous sounds to follow.
From there, Megafaun launches into the wonderful harmonies and pop majesty of “The Fade,” the closest thing on the album to alt-country. It’s a wonder they don’t do it more often, as they’re incredibly good at it. Its chorus is an awe-inspiring exercise in pop songwriting, as the group harmonizes “oh-whoa-oh-oh” before the hushed refrain of “I long to see your face.” It’s not until “Impressions of the Past” during which the band’s penchant for discordant juxtaposition really comes into play, as the song opens with an almost Elephant 6-like bouncy pop arrangement before collapsing into a noisy, screeching breakdown that, in turn, bounces back into a twinkling piano melody. “Worried Mind,” by comparison, is a simple and sweet ballad with gentle interplay between guitar and banjo. And “The Process,” though brief, is a fiery, hootin’-n-hollerin’ song with clanging junkyard percussion and a fierce energy.
The album’s second half finds the band taking numerous surprise paths, from the reverb-heavy blues of “Solid Ground,” to the creative use of dripping water in “Darkest Hour,” to the hippie campfire sing-along of “Columns.” Yet close to the end comes one of Megafaun’s simplest and prettiest tracks, the outstanding “The Longest Day,” with some beautiful female vocal harmonies giving it the right touch of vintage bluegrass. And immediately thereafter is “Guns,” the album’s longest track, yet one of its most immediate. Rather than build the song from the bottom up, Megafaun kicks off “Guns” at full steam, charging through one of their biggest sounding folk rockers before its melody is ultimately swallowed by noise in its second half.
Megafaun covers a lot of ground on Gather, Form & Fly, from stomping, back porch banjo jams to perfectly crafted pop songs to bizarre exercises in noise and found sound. Yet the seemingly disparate elements come together surprisingly well. Though the band deals in extremes to some extent, they never settle too comfortably on their folk side, or the one which houses their avant garde tendencies. Megafaun may not know any limits, but by practicing the right amount of restraint, they manage to maintain a balance that few bands can successfully pull off.
MP3: “The Fade”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.