Volcano Choir – Repave


Justin Vernon is certainly a prolific man. After the two highly successful albums as Bon Iver, a band that’s unfortunately on a long-term hiatus – possibly forever, he’s been keeping himself busy by lending his voice to Kanye West, James Blake, Poliça , The Flaming Lips, while releasing records with  Gayngs, long-time friends of Shouting Matches as well as producing the forthcoming Blind Boys Of Alabama record (yet to be heard). And while the collaborations with Kanye, Poliça and The Flaming Lips were fruitful, his other projects sounded average at best. But this particular “project” as lead vocalist of Volcano Choir, a post-rock outfit that besides Vernon consist of members from Collections of Colonies of Bees, is something entirely different.

On Repave, the bands sophomore album following 2009’s Unmap, Vernon’s takes a considerably more central stage by letting his voice dominate across the album, and the result is temptingly close to that of a Bon Iver record, without aspiring to become on. Repave is however far from a one-man show, in fact, Vernon claims to primarily function as vocalist and lyricist, while the rest of the band handle all of the arrangement. Freed from the pressures of Bon Iver, Vernon’s vocals range from his deepest registry to his most beautiful falsettos. He’s surrounded by crashing waves of lavish HD-textures, with the band delivering one memorable hook after another. Almost without exception, the songs open gently before building up to a sort of restrained post-rock crescendos, much like Arcade Fire’s or The National’s most grandiose creations.

Compared to Unmap’s abstract ambiance, or any of the Bon Iver records, the eight tracks on Repave are substantially more traditionally structured. But sonically and songwriting-wise they don’t fall far from tree. The beautiful opener “Tiderays” leaps into a similar tranquil acoustics as “Holocene” while gradually soaring on marching drums comparable to “Perth”. The emotional crescendo of “Comrade” is more suggestive of “Minnesota, WI” than anything on Unmap, while “Byegone” shares some familiar straits with “Calgary”, and so on. The point is that, despite Vernon absence from the songwriting process, it still pretty much sounds like a widescreen version of Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

It’s obvious that there’s been considerable of time and effort gone into these inspired, stirring numbers. The first half of the record contains the more accessible, swelling side, as most expressively demonstrated by the two glorious foregoing singles “Byegone” and “Comrade”. These two songs illustrate the two contrasting images of the band; the shifting dynamics of tempo changes, Vernon’s altering vocal pitches and the interchanges of acoustic and electronic instrumentals. These tracks bring a newfound directness to Vernon’s discography that comes ready-made with a crispy clear production. But the second half is no less triumphant; it’s rather the revers as Volcano Choirs presents the more tranquil and reflective side of the fence. “Alaskans”, from where the album loans its title, is a delicate meditative number that works as the heart of the record; much like “Holocene” did on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The second side is also considerably more experimental, where “Keel” comes close to the free-form ambiance of Unmap; while “Dancepack” sounds like Prince gone western country, on where Vernon chants the most memorable line on the record; “Take note, there’s still a hole in your heart”. The album ends with one of its strongest number; the six-and-a-half minute “Almanac”, a wondrous prog-rock moment that builds slowly towards its peak on top of an unsettling arpeggiated synth line. Around the 4 minute mark, after building mountains of tension, “Almanac” suddenly burst into a cinematic closing; majestic, imposing and epic as ever, until Vernon’s layered vocals float out into perpetuity.

As on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, most of the lyrics on here are hard to make sense out of. It would take hours, if not days to comprehend Vernon’s obscurities and irrational sentences. But the lyrics work mostly as an abstract painting, feeding the room with color and texture, but any interpretation would serve little to the overall scenery. There are even hilarious or plain out weird lines like “Tossin’ off your compliments, wow/ sexin’ all your Parliaments”. Some tracks do however tell a story, albeit slightly misaligned: “We were going to hit every mark, in stark / But the suture didn’t suit you that long day in the park / I’m talking about it / We’re talking real love… damn, I can’t believe you left me on the lam”.

Unlike Unamp did in 2009, Repave doesn’t merely serve as a well-dressed compliment to the music of Bon Iver. What may’ve started out as an experimental venture , has flourished into a self-assure statement that sits firmly alongside Vernon’s releases as Bon Iver. Indeed, Repave is to Unmap what Bon Iver, Bon Iver was to For Emma; a musically expansive follow-up with richer and more forceful ideas. The only valid criticism is that it’s a bit too direct and extroverted, leaving fewer explorations and holding less secrets than we’re accustomed to. Nonetheless, it’s an amazing sounding record and if there weren’t to become another Bon Iver record, than Volcano Choir could well serve as the main stage for Vernon, and that’s far from the worst case scenario.

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