Art that focuses on identity doesn’t usually lend itself to ambiguity, especially not when spirituality is directly explored. Ironically, the representation of spirituality—an extremely personal and quiet growth—usually relies on grand pronouncements and bold gestures, rather than prolonged intimacy or uncertainty. Megafortress’ Believer doesn’t feel the need to give answers to its insinuated questions, which are never actually directly posed. Rather, Believer feels like one winding meditation on the artist’s own insecurities about mortality, the state of his soul, and the unknown—or specifically, settling with what can only be unknown.
That confidence in exploring such daunting questions and the schizophrenia of sounds on display is sometimes the album’s greatest strength, even as it threatens to spiral into self-indulgence. The debut album of New York-based sound sculptor, Bill Gillam, who goes by the moniker, Megafortress, is an album that traffics in musical contradictions and unlikely sonic choices that lead to a more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding work.
There isn’t one musical through line in the album, but, paradoxically, it’s nearly always cohesive.
The sound veers from cool-to-the-touch electronica, to abstract orchestral suites, to operatic dirges that are best comparable to Talk Talk and Robert Wyatt’s unimpeachable stretch of ’70s albums.
“Beginner” announces the album with regal and contemplative bassoons, pointing to Sufjan Stevens’ dalliance with classical music, The BQE. Except that’s immediately thrown for a loop as the following “Live In Grace” languishes in monochromatic midi tones and Gillam’s dulcet vocals, which are weirdly reminiscent of Pedro the Lion here.
Elsewhere, the painfully beautiful “Believer” aims for transcendence with its trembling horns, “Bogota” flirts with avant-jazz noodling, and “Murderer” thaws alongside its narrator’s cosmic/personal musings.
If there’s one cohesive sonic theme here, it’s the presence of woodwinds, which snap the permeable atmosphere back into a place of lucidity as the album can become oppressively intimate and lonely. The variety of brass instruments and mechanical synths add to this palpable paranoia, but intriguingly, Gillam’s voice is his most expressive tool in defining the mood.
Echoing the personal uneasiness and uncertainty about his place in the world, Gillam gives the narrator of “Fear” an alternating reediness and an overwhelming swell.
Against the swirling woodwinds and upright bass, Gillam spaces out each word with weight to be purposefully ambiguous. “Believer” is more conventionally articulate as Gillam grapples with death in a smooth gliding voice singing, “I won’t be afraid, I will be okay with all these white faces.”
But with all of this variety, the pacing does sometimes seem too anxious, like Gillam was too restless to settle on one or even a dozen tones. “Leroy In Tongues,” for instance, is a nightmarish whirl of pitch-shifting vocals and haunting drones that can either be seen as a thematic rock bottom in context of the rest of the album, or a sluggish mood-ruining grind.
“Pilot,” as well, awkwardly shifts from naturalistic field recordings of pelicans to canned drums and sludgy Nine Inch Nails-styled atmospherics. Even then though, these transitions heighten the air of unpredictability that surrounds the album even if they test patience in a complete listen of the album.
These experiments would be outright failures in the hands of less accomplished artists, though. Where a more impulsive or less fastidious artist may have edged these songs into self-parody, Megafortress brings such patient gravitas and honesty to this material that it never sounds like reaching or strained performance.
Rather, it’s a challenging journey through the highs and lows of personal understanding. The album isn’t afraid to end in a place that feels unresolved, and is all the better for it. By the end, the narrator of the album is at peace even if it’s coming from a place of sheer submission to the frustration of the natural order of the universe. All Gillam can do is catatonically repeat, “She had no worry, and that amazed me.”
Megafortress has made one of the most conceptually and musically ambitious albums of the year. By refusing to stoop to easy answers or emotional didactics, Megafortress may polarize some listeners, but he’s created an album that never truly shows its core, but always reveals new mysteries.
Megafortress – Believer tracklist:
- “Live In Grace”
- “Never Becomer”
- “Leroy In Tongues”
- “Long Hair”