Friday, August 27, 2010

Gigantic Animals

Larger Than Human

Whatever else you might want to say about them, Megafauna are original. I can't think of another band local or otherwise that combines these particular alien strands of influences in such a confident and distinctive way. The trio hybridizes 70's guitar heroics, late-80's funk-metal, and 90's "post-rock," with rough, gut-busting Angus Young guitar solos, dreadlock-shaking deep and heavy polyrhythms from the drums and bass, plus spacey, slow, warbled vocals that recall Björk more strongly than anything else. It's an odd concoction, a most peculiar contrast between traditionally macho chops-based metal posturing and more indirect, abstract emotions. Larger Than Human is a flawed document of a really interesting band, with some hypnotic aspects and some frustrating weaknesses.

The CD sounds great; it does a smart job of making a band who can be difficult to follow live sound together, streamlined, and contained... to the extent that Dani Neff's guitar and Will Krause's bass even can be contained. As a live band Megafauna can sometimes get lost in their own technical aptitude, sounding like three people wailing independently rather than a group. There's none of that business on the CD. Starting with the sharply documented sound of Cameron Page's drumming, the tracks here are crafted to maximize the impact of the big guitar riffs that are Megafauna's primary draw.

It can be difficult even for really experienced bands to grasp the differences in requirements on your playing from a live date to a recording session. The strong structure and sharp, direct performances on Larger Than Human suggest that Megafauna really get it. The varied production is also a plus. Rockers like "No Humans" and "Monsters Sleeping" are given straightforward trio arrangements with minimal overdubs, while "Silver Lining" has a haunted acoustic guitar break. The genre-bending "Warm House," which pivots from jazz ballad to cut-time hardcore beatdown, has a layered headphone sound with buzzing and whirring keyboards peeking out from the back of the mix, giving way to uneasy string sounds as the track develops.

Given the ambition on display, it's interesting that none of the tracks overstays its welcome. For a band with some scary improvisational talent, Megafauna never overindulge themselves with long instrumental sections that don't change. They keep things moving along. The solos, when they do come, are impressive without being 100% perfect... they have a rough edge to them that's really welcome. Neff can shred with the best of them but it's moments like the fraught, single bending notes at the climax to "Speck" that communicate the most emotionally.

I always try and give every CD that I review (at least) three formal, full-attention end-to-end listens. It's not always easy. A lot of them aren't worth listening to once. I had an unusual experience with Larger Than Human, though, which speaks to its unique status. The first time through the record, I was really impressed by how well the band had broken down its live sound for the purposes of recording. I kept hearing memorable riffs from their live show busting out in stripped-down, max-efficiency form, and it made me giddy. But my second listen to the album seemed to bring out the many similarities from one track to the next, instead of further revealing the songs' distinctiveness. Neff has a tic about singing the same vocal intervals, in very similar rhythms, in figure after figure. This doesn't bother me as much as it does some other people with whom I have attended Megafauna shows. Singers, and people who listen to vocal melodies first and foremost, are going to have issues with Larger Than Human.

Getting too fixated on the lack of vocal variety would be a mistake, though. On my third much-delayed listen to the record I tried to put the singing out of my head and really concentrate on the guitar core of their songwriting. Because they switch reference points so quickly, and because their proficient trio playing is so distinctive, I think it's easy to overlook how broad a range of sounds Megafauna use. Larger Than Human has songs that can be described as pop, in their own way, along with rockers, mood pieces, and experiments. "Wiretappers" is flat-out punk rock; "Canada" swipes at Skynyrd boogie up until the clip-clopping cowbell waltz beat turns it into a warped barn dance. "Butter Cookie" combines a slick college-rock guitar hook with odd-meter prog surges. The extreme variety of the band's tone and rhythm choices can be overlooked, unfortunately, due to the way the vocals fail to display as many ideas. (I'm speaking only to the vocal melodies, by the way... the lyrics are really good, with unsettling science fantasy oddness prevailing.)

It's hard to strike the right tone, writing about Larger Than Human. It's a wide-ranging, great-sounding set with one big soft spot that gets overexposed at its length. Held to an EP release the best five or six of these tracks might make a better case for Megafauna than does the long-player; at 13 songs their weaknesses start to become glaring. But I don't want to give the idea that their one Achilles' heel, as obvious and ultimately annoying as it becomes, completely overwhelms the good elements of the band. They're as original as they come instrumentally, and they come armed with superior ability and a better-than-average idea of how to present themselves and vary their mix of influences. A new approach to composing vocal melodies would make their second album amazing.

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