Mega Gem: Colors of the West (2012)

Bio (from facebook.com/megagemdenver):
Denver-based collective Mega Gem maintains the philosophy of “the more, the merrier.” Which is fitting, because oftentimes the band’s stage is filled with as many musicians and vocalists as possible. While the core group revolves around 7-10 members, the band’s live shows can include up to 20 musicians, all bolstering the group’s happy-go-lucky chamber pop. Mega Gem thrives equally in acoustic settings and plugged in, always managing to charm audiences with its horn-heavy sound that ventures both into pop and folk territory.

Musicians:
Oliver Ceelen (Rhythm Guitar, Vocals, Bass), Mike Olmsted (Bass, Gang Vocals), Mia Bandy (Writer [Mia’s Sing-along], Vocals, Bells), Jennifer Rahn (Writer [Merry Go Round], Autoharp, Vocals, Saxophone), Clark Walker (Lead Guitar, Gang Vocals), Greg Jaworowski (Trumpet, Gang Vocals), Kayla Martin (Cello, Gang Vocals), Emi Knight (Vocals, Glockenspiel, Hand Bells), Rich Goldberg (Guitar, Synth, Hoots and hollers, Bass, Piano, Casio, Cell Phone, Midi instruments), Micah Bontrager (Piano, Synthesizer, Gang Vocals), Chris Durant (Drums), Nate Henricks (Guitar, Banjo, Drums, Musical Saw, Vocals, Glockenspiel, Recorder), Miles Thacker (Percussion), Doo Crowder (Arrangements, Gang Vocals), Stelth Ulvang (Flute, Obo, Melophone, Accordion, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Mandolin), Harry Tulchin (Dobro), Collin Andrews (Co-Writer [Creepy Fingers], Gang Vocals), Clayton Dexter Norman (Gang Vocals), Derek Roy (Gang Vocals), Chad Hagedorn (Co-Writer [Onions, Creepy Fingers], Banjo), Wendy Lynn Zeldin (Vocals), Solomon Hagedorn-Zeldin (Wiggling noises), Bonnie Gregory (Vocals), Griff Snyder (Kazoo, Vocals), Emily Hall (Viola), Anna Maddocks (Violin), Kelsey (Violin), Jason Cain (Drums, Percussion), Justin Deloach (Banjo), Vaughn McPherson (Piano), Tyler Ludwick (Co-Writer [for Rïassa]), Blake Stepan (Double Bass), Savannah Powell (Viola), Marie Hafeman Curran (Co-Writer [Onions, Creepy Fingers])

Oliver Ceelen contacted me a while back to review COLORS OF THE WEST, the new album by his band Mega Gem. Ceelen described Mega Gem as an “Orchestral Pop-Punk Band.” Interesting. He also mentioned that he was friends with Ian Cooke, and I’ve been loving that indie scene in Denver (Cooke, Eolian, Uphollow, etc.), so I was looking forward to checking out this CD. If you read my reviews with any regularity, you know I’m always looking for something “different,” something I haven’t heard before. Mega Gem plays music heavily influenced by punk-rock, which in most cases would be made by a 3 or 4 piece band, maybe 6 or 7 if you get into ska-punk. Mega Gem lists 35 members (well, players) on their Bandcamp page! Just the idea of taking a style of music that is generally very straight forward and simple – three-power-chord progressions, fast drums, and a little aggression or humor, generally – and making it a complex tapestry of instruments and vocals is amazing… and Mega Gem makes it work.

Mega Gem sees you!
Mega Gem sees you!

Most of the songs have a bit of punk underpinning to them, but vary in style from folk-rock, to almost radio friendly pop, to something more eclectic (along the lines of Kimya Dawson). Of particular note is “Mia’s Sing-Along,” which was written by then-five-year-old Mia Bandy. It’s nice to hear the addition of such eclectic instrumentation to the standard guitar-bass-drums punk rock dynamic. Horns are used especially well on CotW; horns are not unheard of in punk rock, but they usually show up when the punk is getting a ska spin, and CotW is not at all ska. In addition to the horns you get bells, pipes, flutes, strings, piano, synths, etc., and it is this huge wall of sound that Mega Gem creates that really sets them apart from most other bands making pop-punk. In addition to that cacophony of instrumental complexity, there is also multiple singers that adds to the aural entanglement, though in the end Ceelen locks it all down.

Under the sea...
Under the sea…

Oliver Ceelen is not a beautiful singer; he will not be America’s next Idol. Thank God. He is a great punk rock singer; his voice is good, not great, but it is very tonally appropriate for the music Mega Gem is creating and works really well within that context. You don’t have to be able to sing opera to sing a punk rock song… hell, you don’t even really have to be able to SING. Look at Tim Armstrong and the earlier (well, all) albums of Rancid (not to say he’s a great singer now, but years of practice have made him a bit better at his craft). Ceelen can sing, and his tone (and more so, his energy) is perfect for what CotW is going for. He is obviously the glue that holds the mish mash of people and players together. On the tracks with different lead vocalists (especially “Merry Go Round”), it almost sounds like a different band; Mega Gem loses a bit of their punk-rock-ness when Ceelen is not on the mic.

Mega Gem live and in costume!
Mega Gem live and in costume!

Overall, this is an amazing album. CotW is full of fun, up-tempo music that is familiar in its feel, but different in its execution than anything I think I’ve ever heard before. I am sure that this is one of the submissions I have received (like Cooke’s THE FALL I FELL before it) that will get regular play long after I am done with this review. CotW is an awesome album, and easily one of my favorites of this year. I don’t know what Denver is putting in the water to seed this music scene, but they need to keep it up, because it’s working.

Overall 8 / 10

CotW for sale: http://megagemdenver.bandcamp.com/album/colors-of-the-west

CotW site: http://megagemdenver.com

And here’s a link to the awesome video (also directed by Mia) for Mia’s Sing-Along: http://vimeo.com/77540655

Mega Gem: Colors of the West (2012)
Mega Gem: Colors of the West (2012)
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