When I interviewed Megafaun’s Phil Cook in April, the band had just written and recorded Heretofore within the space of six weeks. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an unmastered version of the short LP, and even in that raw-ish form, their grounding in “roots music” — the one that somehow incorporated their high school jazz band beginnings with a love of folk and bluegrass — mixed as obviously as ever with a commitment to pushing boundaries. Cook spoke about the balance between tradition and experimentation, the trust between the band’s members, and winning people over by not taking themselves too seriously.
It hasn’t taken the trio much time or many songs to win people over. In their short career, Heretofore marks the band’s second album to contain only six tracks. Bury The Square, their 2008 debut, was the same length and was followed quickly by their 2009 sophomore record Gather, Form and Fly. Both releases garnered attention and praise for forging new territory in musical areas that, at least to me, had seemed to refuse the potential for anything still unexplored.
In Americana’s safety, though, I was mistaken. Where Gather, Form and Fly left off — the precipice at which all the melodic acoustic guitar and three-part singing and melancholy strings and rambling banjo stopped — is where Heretofore hang-glides off the edge. While Gather hinted at greater ambition than the folk rock of “The Fade,” with orchestral, experimental tracks like “Impressions of the Past,” none resembled Heretofore’s 12-and-a-half-minute “Comprovisation for Connor Pass.” It’s exactly what its name suggests, an improvisation that turned into a composed recording that incorporates suspenseful jazz riffs and straight-up aural anarchy with beautiful melody and near-ambient swaths. Likewise, “Eagle,” a saxophone-laden free jazz wailer, switches from simple Southern rock and handclaps to pancake stacks of chaotic noise with notes sliding down from the top like syrup.
But paradoxically, the moments that soar the highest arrive in the less-assuming, upbeat folk numbers like “Bonnie’s Song” and “Volunteers.” They’re the ones that seem to suggest the members of Megafaun beaming from their porch swings as they so often do when on stage. It’s music so all-encompassing, so indebted to their past, but also so adamantly untied from it, that it’s easy to forget Megafaun share a common ancestor with Bon Iver; Phil Cook, Brad Cook, and Joe Westerlund were in DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon before they began their respective current bands. That the two acts don’t much resemble each other now only speaks to their individual successes. Megafaun, with reverence to everything and without reference to anyone, are quickly carving their own path both through and away from their musical roots.