(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Recording review - Megafauna, Maximalist (2014)

Languid vocals and razor-edged guitar in a powerhouse setting

Calm, slowly evolving musical mantras and crisp, fractal reflections: the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass seeks transcendence rooted in an intellectual purity. From the urgently thrashing opening moments of the lead-off track, “Eggs”, Megafauna stakes out an antithetical position on Maximalist. The band rejects measured movement and icy clarity for a visceral punch and a swirling confusion of moods. They draw on a jumble of inspirations: the classic hard rock guitar of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple crosses swords with progressive complexity reminiscent of Trail of Dead and El Ten Eleven, while the vocals waver between Bj√∂rk’s breathy oddness and Amanda Palmer’s theatrical insistence. Bandleader Dani Neff also has a rich tonal range that recalls Annie Haslam’s work with Renaissance. Her versatile voice is adept at veering from soft vulnerability to no-nonsense sternness. Regardless of whether she’s preserving her distance or coming on ragged and strong, Neff has a sweet girlish tone, but there’s nothing dreamy or vague about her guitar playing. This creates a delicious contrast between her languid vocals and razor-edged guitar work. Those hard rock riffs anchor the tunes and show off both her technical chops and how she controls the mood with dynamic shifts.

The songwriting on Maximalist is also top-notch. The tracks mutate and twist in interesting directions, rising above their initial perspectives. Take a tune like “Precious Blood”. It starts with a lazy, descending guitar line that paints a sense of midnight ruminations. The echoes on Neff’s voice become ghostly whispers to accompany her through the darkness. As she sings the line, “We are still waiting/ For something big,” it foreshadows the sharp punch of ringing guitar that follows. Driving power chords set up the next transition to a Black Sabbath inspired bit of flaming metallic melody. As this climbs into a heavier version of the chorus, it’s hard to recall the haunting feel at the start, but Megafauna flawlessly negotiates the dynamic drop to take us back there, this time ratcheting up the pressure. Neff’s solo is an evocative bit of shred that embodies a fight against inertia and an inevitable end. “Precious Blood” is a treat, not just for the balance between soft and loud, pensive steps and headlong rush, but also for the way Megafauna works together to encapsulate those swings into a narrative flow.

As front and center as Neff is to Megafauna’s sound, she couldn’t pull this off without the strong support she gets from her rhythm section. Like all power trios, they walk a fine line between backing the song and stepping forward to fill it out so the guitar can break loose. Greg Yancey’s bass lines fall into unison with Neff’s riffs to lock them into the pocket, but he also brings a thick thundering tone that stands in for rhythm guitar when that’s necessary. Zack Humphrey’s drumming is phenomenal. He’s fairly busy, with lots of syncopation and fills, rarely dropping into straight time. But where a lot of flash drummers lack an appreciation of nuance, Humphrey’s ear is impeccable and he can maintain the energy as he drops back to leave enough space for the vocals to step up.

Retro hard rock and metal form the foundation of Maximalist’s spirit -- listen to the “Immigrant Song” vibe on “Hug From a Robot” -- but their progressive side opens up many of these pieces for wider explorations and stranger sonic palettes. From the desperate angular guitar of “Haunted Factory” to the rich post-rock dissonance on “Chromatic Fantasy”, Megafauna expands well beyond mere head banging and impressive shred without slipping into self-indulgence. Maximalist lives up to its name, incorporating these wild musical gestures to create a bridging world where fans from all over can find something to love.

As an added treat, here's the video for the earlier release of "Precious Blood" on 2012's Surreal Estate:

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