Volcano Choir – Unmap
Record Label: Jagjaguwar
Release Date: September 22, 2009
When the news surfaced earlier this year that Justin Vernon, frontman of snowy indie act Bon Iver, and post-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees would be combining for a release under the name Volcano Choir, the aggregate exhalation of hipster glee was practically audible. The addition of Vernon’s soft ‘n soulful falsetto to the instrumental mad scientists of Collections seemed like a genius move and offered yet another curveball from the Bon Iver camp. Soon after the band’s critically acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago made magic in a wintery desert of acoustic strains and quiet reflections, the follow-up Blood Bank EP introduced some exciting new sounds that left listeners wondering what was to come. Acoustic rock? Songs about beaches? Autotune?
Volcano Choir proves that the answer is simple: there’s more to Justin Vernon than cold and contemplation. So before we would be granted the Bon Iver material the impending season seemed to demand, we would first hear the experiment, a concoction cooked up by a man from Wisconsin and some musicians from Milwaukee.
Vernon’s incredibly inventive pipes guide Unmap, not as a map, but as a torch. His voice slips in and out of drum loops and stuttering riffs, often multiplying and blooming like a kaleidoscope to form thickly haunting choruses. The light of Vernon’s calls and chants is scattered across the backdrop of branchlike folk and bluegrass riffs which lead here, there, and everywhere. Organically obscure and random as rain, the synthesis somehow fails to fall apart. There's beauty in the blend.
Unmap begins quietly with the aptly titled “Husks and Shells,” a spacious room filled with touched and untouched guitar riffs, electric beeps, and some uncertain number of Justin Vernons breathing bewitching lines of nonsensical observation. The sunny “Seeplymouth” is cheerfully triumphant and sports pulsing, flute-like notes that rise in climax with percussive off-beats before dissolving in a spray of recorded conversation and feedback. By far the closest thing to a traditional song on the album, “Island, IS” provides some mathy riffs and enough bounce to be single-worthy. “Dote” features Vernon’s voice at its most instrumental as it coos, flowing into the stream of tones and electro-static. In contrast, the eerie “Youlogy” puts the vocals front and center on a vast, shadowy plane punctuated by the occasional vibrated string and cymbal splash. As the voice fades to nothing, we’re left with empty hands.
There are, inevitably, hiccups. “And Gather” seems like a good time, but it ends before there’s a chance to really enjoy it, tumbling into the painfully angular “Mbira in the Morass.” The latter stammers like a 4th grade orchestra rehearsal, all awkward dissonance and missed entrances. Vernon’s failed jazz lines only highlight the mess. “Cool Knowledge” smells strongly of Tom Waits, complete with moans and groans, and again feels far too short to satisfy. The most curious inclusion though is “Still,” a remixed and no longer a capella version of the Blood Bank EP’s “Woods.” Sure, it’s got all the grace of the original and the addition of percussion adds some interesting impatience, but the vocal build that once was so powerful is sapped of its vitality. What could’ve been a nice B-side instead feels strangely out of place.
At the end of the day, Unmap is a successful experiment in mixology. Not just a voice tacked onto an instrumental band, Volcano Choir shows that in skillful and creative hands, music and vocals can be interwoven into a delicate and striking pastiche. So where will Justin Vernon go next? Unmap has proven one thing: we still don’t know and that’s clearly for the best.