Arnold Dreyblatt and Megafaun - Appalachian Excitation
Wow. This record feels like family. I’ve developed a really warm relationship with this music in a short amount of time, partially because it was with me at the perfect moment for a first listen. Normally, I do all of my “serious” listening at home, preferably with a full-fi physical copy on a decent stereo, bathing in the music with undivided attention. But "Appalachian Excitation" and I first met on a return car trip from southern Missouri, via an iPod loaded with a few new albums to keep me awake.
If you’ve never been to those parts, there is a stretch along southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, drifting into southern Indiana and eventually into Kentucky, that feels like extended foothills to Appalachia in my mind: the rural areas are full of rolling hills and intensely curving highways where trees with tiny individual crowns crowd right to the edges of the roads, making a weird collective canopy that makes you forget about the sky. These hills begin just south of the final reach of glaciers from the last Ice Age, and both the land and the people take on a unique vibe, with the humid and ancient energy of the deep south blending into a cooler kind of remoteness I associate with more northerly regions. As a Great Plains native, I can relate to the lonely rural energy of these spaces easily, but we can see for miles in every direction on the plains. A little further south, it feels secretive in an unfamiliar way. You might assume the terrain carries on in similar fashion through the next stand of trees and over the next series of hills, but you never know—there could be crazy stuff hidden all over the place, almost on top of you. You don’t know until you get there.
Normally I hate to interpret an album title so literally, but “Appalachian Excitation” falls perfectly into line with the feelings I get in those parts of the country. In a general sense, Dreyblatt’s music with his Orchestra of Excited Strings has always felt both familiar and a touch alien to my ears, with just intonation tuning approaches providing an overwhelming sensation of harmony as an almost physical mass, a force that’s always been there but has been hidden away to please the pianos and other equal temperament creatures of the musical world. And many of the string sounds themselves are struck rather than plucked, a kind of articulation that those of us raised on mostly Western musical traditions often hear as vaguely Asian. Specific to this new record, which feels like a close cousin of Excited Strings recordings like "Animal Magnetism," the prominent sound of banjos and country bends, along with rhythmic and harmonic nods to Appalachian and Ozark folk traditions, bring even more cultural signifiers into a complex-but-inevitable-feeling hybrid of orchestral, world, and folk musics.
And it rocks, too. Car trips aside, now that I’ve had the chance to sit with this music in LP format and move some serious amounts of air, I think this music works best when you can feel like you’re right in the middle of a performance. As Dreyblatt put it in the liner notes to “Animal Magnetism,” “This music is composed with a specific acoustic effect in mind. One should listen at maximum volume!” I think that principle very much applies to “Appalachian Excitation,” too. On the surface, this is minimalist music, but the drones and simple harmonies that make up this record truly come to life when the walls of your surroundings—and your body, and your head—start to resonate in sympathetic vibration. I’m sure it’s even better live, but the fine folks at Pinebox Recording in North Carolina did a wonderful job of capturing this music with a very present, “played right in front of you” kind of feel, and it’s been mastered and pressed with plenty of dynamic range, so the frequent unison hits found throughout the record have a charged, intense front end that decays into satisfying chords, rich with the harmonic overtones characteristic of the “excited strings” approach.
Given the overall sound of “Appalachian Excitation,” it feels natural to describe this music in terms of Dreyblatt’s musical history, but serious appreciation for Megafaun’s performance here needs its own mention as well. Megafaun fans might initially be bewildered by this record as a non-vocal set of pieces. And they really are “pieces,” not tunes. But their commitment to this music is admirable: it takes a unique sense of “the present” to really get inside this music, as each chord, unison hit, or change in direction has a kind of holographic significance to the whole of each composition. Megafaun nails it. They’re all in. It’s also interesting to hear them work with some electric instruments on this record, including the super high-tech Moog lap steel, which seems to be responsible for synth sounds and almost hornlike drone moments that surface in pieces like “Edge Observation.”
Recommended! Check it out at Northern Spy.