In 2007, and more extensively throughout 2008 following its wider release on Jagjaguwar and 4AD, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was received fairly consistently as a triumph of intimate and powerful bedroom-folk. And rightfully so. The solo debut of former DeYarmond Edison member Justin Vernon was simply stunning; its music fragile and rich, his outpouring of emotion refreshingly genuine. Since then, Vernon has graced the tracklist of one of the best compilations of 2009 and released an excellent follow-up EP, both of which have no doubt helped to satisfy that inevitable impatience for more Bon Iver works. So, for those still jonesin’, the debut of his new band Volcano Choir comes not a moment too soon.
A collaboration with fellow Wisconsinites Collections of Colonies of Bees, who Vernon refers to as his “favorite band”, the sparse and affecting Unmap unfolds as a meditative, experimental tapestry of slow, dramatic crescendos, calculated repetition, obtuse guitar work, and haunting, layered vocals. Unlike Bon Iver, lyrical content for Volcano Choir plays a decidedly secondary role. Vernon appears to be more concerned with the basic sounds and choral-like elements of the vocal work here, as much of it is entirely wordless or conceived as emotive stream-of-consciousness. This collection of songs, which dates back to 2005, both precedes and traverses across a greater stylistic expanse than For Emma, Forever Ago. Album opener “Husks and Shells” feels like the most familiar composition on Unmap, but is none the weaker for it. Spliced and looped acoustic guitar cuts patiently drone while Vernon’s tortured falsetto provides various vocal fragments, some soar, others tremble and dwindle. However, the more experimental bent of Volcano Choir doesn’t fully reveal itself until “Island, IS”. The core of this exploration of Terry Riley-recalling minimalism lies in its layers of pulsating loops that bend the album’s pensive melancholy into a vibrant wall of sound. The vocals are still intoned as tenderly as one has come to expect, but remain partially masked and obscured by effects and Vernon’s hushed delivery. From here they try their hand at slow-building ambience (“Dote”), off-kilter, Dirty Projectors-like meanderings (“And Gather”, “Cool Knowledge”), bleak Billy Holiday croons (“Mbira in the Morass”), and dark, brooding spirituals (“Youlogy”).
Though these compositions predate Bon Iver, they oddly enough seem relatable to Justin Vernon’s solo experimentations on this year’s Blood Bank EP. It appears that he was aware of this fact as well, as Unmap’s penultimate track “Still” adopts the auto-tuned acappella of “Woods” and supplies a surging crescendo of guitar loops, humming drones, metered drum work, and sporadic percussive rattles. These works speak well to Vernon’s current trajectory. He could have easily attempted to craft more music in the mold of For Emma, Forever Ago, which would have most likely pleased a good chunk of his newfound fanbase. Instead, his most recent works as Bon Iver and, more dramatically, with Volcano Choir, have pushed ahead into increasingly eccentric territory. This move may alienate a few, but it’s also sure to help win over some Bon Iver skeptics and bestow some much-deserved attention to Collections of Colonies with Bees. Here’s hoping Unmap isn’t just a one-off.