Belief has been explored so often in music, it’s become a cliché: The artist searches for meaning in the cosmos, usually while grappling with the vestige of whatever faith he or she was raised in. The circumstances are different, but the conundrum is always the same: How do you translate the most intimate, infinity-grappling ponderings into songs that convey the micro and the macro of the matter, answers to questions that have eluded the wise, and enabled the ignorant, for millennia? On Believer, the debut full-length by Megafortress, sole member Bill Gillim successfully charts a different course. He foregoes conclusions altogether and reframes the big questions as abstract, almost mathematical contrivances. Then he threads his voice through them like a thief trying to pick a lock.
For all the album’s well chilled minimalism, Gillim’s voice is the most immediately striking thing about Believer. It’s virtuosic, in its own way; his lyrics are delivered in neat, easily graspable phrases and with piercing plainness, but the notes are pure. He’s not trying to confound or mystify, even though his range can plunge from heavenly falsetto to tormented moan. It doesn’t hurt that he gives his voice so much space. “Fear” is not only one of Believer’s most riveting songs, it’s the album’s fullest exploration of Gillim’s scope. Round, pulsing notes are coaxed from an upright bass while samples of saxophones split and reassemble around it. A piano skitters here; empty space yawns there. There’s a biomorphic falseness to the arrangement’s smooth, curved surfaces, but Gillim’s vocals breathe life into them. His lines are slow, drawn out, burdened with psychic weight. When he sings the word “fear” in an operatic register that would make Craig Wedren proud, it’s one of the most arresting single syllables anyone’s committed to record all year. “Fear has come undone,” he intones narcotically, and the absence of anything to replace it is just as terrifying.
Besides his voice, piano seems to be Gillim’s primary instrument. But where Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas and Grouper’s Liz Harris have made unique, majestic use of the keys-plus-voice equation this year, Gillim barely touches his keys. Instead he opts for tender clusters of chords, allowing his songs to be driven more by synth hums and hovering blocks of nothing. “Pilot” works field-recorded loops of seagulls into its gaping, throbbing, extended metaphor for angels; eventually they’re indistinguishable from helicopter blades. The instrumentals “Beginning” and “Bogota” feel incidental, treading the line between ambient and disposable. Mostly that’s because so many tracks on Believer seem as though they may be instrumental, up until Gillim’s celestial voice wanders in; if he’s trying to toy with expectations, it works at cross purposes to the record’s overall leap-of-faith prerequisite.
The songs “Never Becomer”, “Believer”, and “Murderer” appear back to back on the album, and those accusatory titles form a triptych. From agnostic to follower to apostate: Gillim presents portraits of discreet devotional forms, then sets them up as a surrogate for a more sacred trinity. Accordingly, they’re wildly incongruous pieces of a puzzle: “Never Becomer” is a voiceless meditation that spins around a shimmering synth arpeggio, while “Believer” adds more sampled birdsong—along with bucolic splashes of water—to the album, that is until it succumbs to a disjointed, almost industrial creep. “One hand for the Devil/ Same hand for the Lord,” Gillim sings, and he comes within an inch of being too obvious. But he backs off on “Murderer”. Not only is it the most pop-forward track on Believer, it lets its massive bass-snare beat etch out a vast territory of loneliness and unknowing that Gillim pegs as the heart of his spiritual confusion: “No one to stand by my side/ No one to wait for me,” he pleads, then he adds slyly, “I cannot make out your intentions/ But I know mine.” By that point, the beat has ground to a halt and the synth hook has collapsed into an asthmatic drone.
Dissonance and self-deconstruction dance at the edges of Believer, although Gillim manicures that unease most gorgeously on “Live in Grace”. It begins with him singing, unaccompanied, “I can never recall your face/ But I know the sound of your voice/ Telling me to live in grace.” Keyboards seep in like shadows, then ring like bells. The tension he creates is delicious, a stasis between sinister and ecstatic, and that’s only heightened when he sings “Man with a thousand names/ But never just one to call when all alone”—especially seeing as how “man with a thousand names” could just as easily apply to God as to Satan. “Climb if you wanna, baby/ It’s the same as falling down,” he adds by way of summary. As beautifully simple as that sentiment is, he puts a little twist in it on the way out, and the bass line stumbles as it descends. Grace, he seems to be hinting, is not a state of being, becoming, or believing, but some quantum cloud of all three. With Believer, Gillim is neither finding nor losing his religion. He’s groping in the heart-stopping hope of simply feeling the shape of it.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1xVXk5q