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Album Review: Volcano Choir – Repave

Words by Scenewave Oz - Published on August 27, 2013

My issue is that if Justin Vernon doesn’t sleep he’ll die, and nobody wants that. That said, I’m kind of thankful for his insatiable work ethic (and his beard). Vernon has been particularly active outside of Bon Iver and this year alone he’s featured heavily in Kanye West’s Yeezus, fronted blues band The Shouting Matches and released a number of albums under his own label Chigliak. Add to the list for this year, providing front-man duties for Volcano Choir on their new record Repave.

Repave is big. Before discussing exactly how big, I think it’s probably important to first understand where exactly Volcano Choir are coming from. Volcano Choir’s first album, Unmap (Jagjaguwar) saw members of the experimental electronic group Collections of Colonies of Bees (itself an off-shoot post-rock Pele) collaborate with Vernon in late 2008. The conversation between Vernon and Collections had been ongoing since as early as 2004 but it wasn’t until 2008 that Unmap was finally released. Stuttering looped guitar any synthesizer samples coupled with typically emotive vocals from Vernon made Unmap a very strong album. The way in which rhythmically and melodically complex guitar lines in “Island, IS” that, despite being juxtaposed against an otherwise steady percussion sound, somehow mesh together underneath Vernon indicative of the way in which the whole album was put together. The band, as it were,  were all located in far-flung places in the world engaged in their own respective projects during the writing period. This meant that the creation Unmap was largely by correspondence. The ex parte approach to writing is not necessarily a bad thing, and one advantage that it afforded Volcano Choir was the ability to showcase the individual talents of an incredibly gifted group of musicians.

In late 2010 the members of Volcano Choir decided to craft a live performance of the material on their first release. Their performances were confined to a limited run in Japan during November of 2010 and notwithstanding the fact that the Unmap material wasn’t necessarily that well known outside of Bon Iver-devotee circles, the performances were well received. Interestingly, Chris Rosenau noted that before coming together for the Japanese shows, there hadn’t really been any rehearsals or live performances of the Unmap material. It seems as though to some extent, touring Japan and performing together as a band brought new energy to the Volcano Choir project, and in between hanging with James Blake, Yeezy and Alicia Keys, Vernon found time to retreat with the other members of Volcano Choir to his April Base studio in Fall Creek, Wisoncsin.

Despite the sterile, snowy and frozen surroundings of the relatively isolated studio, Repave is incredibly warm and alive sounding. The progression from Unmap to Repave is immediately apparent, and it’s worth noting that much of the writing on Repave wouldn’t necessarily sound out of place on Bon Iver’s second release. This isn’t to say that Vernon’s presence is overpowering but the sound is certainly more in the vein of Bon Iver (2011). For example the distorted modulating bass that surrounds the first note of the album in “Tiderays” sounds immediately familiar to the timbre of Bon Iver and as well as that the driving percussion which is across the entire album is evocative of Bon Iver’s “Towers”. The single “Byegone” is an uplifting listen, and the introduction of Vernon’s vocals provide a satisfyingly full sound. His lower range is much richer than the falsetto with which he is most commonly associated and in the context of orthodox rock-band instrumentation it shines. Thematically, the notion of yearning is embodied not only in the ascending guitar lines in the chorus and the shouted vocals but also lyrically, Door was wide open / You know what they’re saying ‘bout us know / He’s a legend / I’m a legend / And we both go trippin’ through the door. The vocal line the in the chorus of “Byegone” perhaps most clearly embodies the way in which this album is a move towards new territory for Volcano Choir.

It seems as though the group’s experiences of live performance have informed the way that they went about writing their sophomore effort. It’s such an assured sound, and this surely stems from the experience and ability of all members. Vernon has noted on numerous occasions the way in which Collections of Colonies of Bees significantly influenced the way he understood and approached songwriting. The exchange between Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees is evidently reciprocal in Repave. It’s easy to say that Vernon’s Midas touch is what makes this album great, but I think it’s more than that. Repave is the product of an exchange of ideas between talented musicians, and hopefully this exchange won’t end any time soon. I for one, want more.

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