Album Review: ME REX – Megabear

[Big Scary Monsters; 2021]

Considering there are 8.06e+67 possible ways to hear Megabear, the chances are very likely you have heard it in a way different to anyone else. The debut album from London band ME REX is a collection of 52 tracks, all 32 seconds long (if not a little longer in some cases), that, in combination, add up to about half an hour’s worth of music. Most of the tracks are in the same key (Bb), the same tempo (120bpm), and in the same time signature (4/4), so they all fit together pretty neatly.

What makes Megabear particularly unique is the way the band asks you to listen to it: on shuffle, every time. “This allows the listener to find their own unique sonic narrative with each listen,” ME REX explain. Complete with a website that will do your shuffling for you (or available as a deck of individual cards for each track to help you determine an order), the album always feels familiar but is always different.

Inspired by the symbolism found within the pages of the alchemical text Splendor Solis by Saloman Trismosin, the concept isn’t entirely groundbreaking (Kaiser Chiefs did a similar thing with the initial release of their 2011 album The Future is Medieval, for instance), but the dedication to making the whole thing like one long track is rather novel. For those who enjoy such gimmicks, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be taken from Megabear; others may find the lack of arbitrary start and finish points frustrating though.

While you can find the album with a tracklisting on streaming sites, the band insist these are functional more than anything else. Megabear‘s dynamic flow is what makes it exciting; knowing that what’s coming next is pretty unknowable as soon as you hit start. While the mood and tone of the album might swim about the same area (cozy, almost embryonic synths and simple piano chords and ripples – not more than a few steps off the jangly warmth of the band’s previous EPs), there are some moments that do stand out.

“Lead” swirls vivid hospital imagery and matching synth wiggles together, while “Hydrogen” builds symphonic synths atop bouncy piano. The drum machine on “God of Rain” gently ushers the track along, much like when the percussion drops on “Lapis Lazuli”, creating a fun, small rush of momentum. Elsewhere the starry, blinking keys on the title track and the decaying effects on “Hale’s Comet” and “Xenon” make for a welcome textural shift, adding much needed tonal variety.

Sometimes you might hit a few instrumental passages in a row, and, depending where you are, that can be refreshing or frustrating. Lead singer Myles McCabe returns to familiar phrases repeatedly, bringing some sense of cohesion between all the 52 strands here. Sometimes mentions of the river running, tall buildings, or the party that is never over (which itself is a quote from their 2020 track “Flood”) feel like a chorus line returned to over and over, grounding the pieces back to a familiar point. But, like with multiple instrumental passages, this can be both pleasing and irksome, depending on how your listening experience is going; passages with the same lyrical focus wear a little thin when your order clumps them together. Kudos though for the band in conjuring up the correct tempo so that more wistful pauses never zap the energy, and more boisterous moments are able to invigorate easily.

Would Megabear have been better as just one carefully constructed half-hour suite? Would it click with more listeners if the band determined a set tracklist? Are the majority of people going to be annoyed that they have to read instructions to listen to an album? Maybe. Possibly. Quite definitely. While no listen is quite as exciting as your first one, knowing that every subsequent half-hour journey you take will be different is all part of the charm.

“There is no song / There is no story / I thought I saw an order to the chaos / I watched it fall away before me,” McCabe sings tellingly on “Peckham Rye”. Megabear most definitely isn’t a song or a story in any kind of traditional sense (though one does think of B.S. Johnson’s experimental ‘book in a box’ The Unfortunates), but it’s hardly traditional in any kind of way. It’s continually different if you fancy the ride, and in that way it’s kind of alive. For a debut album, it’s an experimental, daring, and kind of jovially inventive move where a traditional album of songs would have sufficed. Sometimes talking about the concept threatens to overtake actually talking about the music, but that’s always a gambit with non-traditional releases. ME REX have taken a leap and tried something fresh, and depending on how much the thought of an album with instructions thrills or annoys you, you’ll get varying degrees of enjoyment from it. Equally though, that’s kind of the point.