opinion by RAJ DAYAL
With a distinctive voice that flows like centuries-old water finding its way through cracks, Justin Vernon forgoes another Bon Iver album in favor of, Repave, his second outing as the lead vocalist of Volcano Choir.
Volcano Choir is essentially the post-rock group Collection of Colonies of Bees helmed by Vernon; however, the experimental interplay of phrasing and structure allow all of them to push forward towards new musical horizons.
The group’s first effort in 2009, Unmap, is awash in atmospherics that mainly engaged Vernon’s haunting voice to color and shade what was an already accomplished sound. Where Unmap is concerned with abstract possibilities, Repave demonstrates Volcano Choir as a fully formed band driven by thrilling experimental vigor but with tighter, more traditionally structured songs.
Volcano Choir’s second album is filled with memorable hooks, hummable melodies and arena-worthy choruses.
In Repave‘s first single, “Byegone,” Vernon bends notes with a slow buildup to a fist-pumping chorus. The lyricism here, as with most of the tracks, shows off a poet’s graceful touch of an alternate reality. The verses are heartfelt evocations moved along by a pulsating rhythm and punctuated by a head bopping beat. But any attempt at literal interpretation spoils the effect. The band invites a myriad of interpretations with lines like, “Well, we’re off and definitely stumbling/ Tossing off your compliments, wow/ sexing all your Parliments.” If there were any justice in popular music, sexing all your Parliments would make its way into the lexicon.
At the heart of the album, the melancholy track, “Alaskans,” functions as its thesis. It’s a meditative love song about change and transformation. It’s the kind of storytelling Vernon is known for — an expression of life that seems familiar, but just slightly askew. The gravity of the track’s purpose is made clear as Vernon sings, “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.”
Exemplified in “Alaskans,” as well as most of the songs, is the juxtaposition of acoustic strumming and electronic experimentation. The reverb is heavy in places—which can be found in most of Vernon’s projects from spots with Kanye West to James Blake—but the song also includes a faint heartbroken ghostly voice that seems to be transmitting from the past.
In “Dancepak,” thundering percussion grabs attention as the gifted post-rock musicians of Collections of Colonies of Bees cue up the powerful refrain. When Vernon repeats, “Take note, there’s still a hole in your heart,” the band ably suggests internal reflection, while getting lost in a hypnotic groove.
What Repave demonstrates best is the line between poetry and hard won reality. The songs swell with possibilities of love and hope. However, Vernon and company genuinely bring to light different perspectives on how to deal with loss, redemption and forgiveness. In the poignant closer, “Comrade,” auto-tuned effects blend effortlessly with the honest sound of a band completely at ease on their search for truth, “Keep shining on …” [A-]