LP and POSTER giveaway details at the end of the review
Jagjaguwarout September 22nd
When I became aware that the man behind Bon Iver was working on a more experimental project called Volcano Choir, I, like many other Justin Vernon worshipers, expected "Wolves (Acts III and IV)". What I should have paid more attention to is that Volcano Choir is not merely Justin Vernon's new pseudonym, and this overlooked fact made listening to Unmap a more exciting and surprising experience than I had anticipated. As wonderful as the Bon Iver moniker is, the thrill of teamwork between Vernon and Wisconsin's Collections of Colonies of Bees practically emanating from the album makes listening to Unmap an original, engaging, and altogether different experience than For Emma, Forever Ago.
I believe that above all other reasons for the endless re-playability of Bon Iver's debut, it is his voice that keeps bringing you back. Call it a broken-down Tunde Adebimpe, a more versatile Will Oldham, or just some sad guy all alone in a cabin. However you would like to describe it, it is a striking feature. For the first thirty-three seconds of album opener, "Husks and Shells," the hero of so many fractured youths and broken-hearted twenty-somethings is nowhere to be found, and you might convince yourself that you accidentally put on The Books. Before you can move to change the song, however, that voice appears and though what it is saying may be indecipherable, merely hearing it allows you to remember just who it is you are listening to. For thirty-three seconds you are forced into hearing Volcano Choir as a separate entity from Bon Iver. This is exactly what Volcano Choir are aiming for.
Instead of merely keeping us listeners entertained following "Husks and Shells," Volcano Choir challenge us further with "Seeplymouth," a minimalist piece that could be said to resemble the work of Steve Reich if it was filtered through a Sufjan Stevens Christmas album; yet just as it was for "Husks and Shells" one track earlier, it is when Vernon's voice appears that "Seeplymouth" gains its grounding. When it does, it proves to be one of the most powerful songs on the album. A seamless blend into the next track gives us Unmap's first (and likely only) single, "Island, IS." It is rare that I find the lead-off single to be the strongest track on an album, but "Island, IS," is likely Unmap's most successful song, not just because it is the catchiest or most interesting, but because it is the moment where you best forget all about Bon Iver and Collections of Colonies of Bees. You hear and know Volcano Choir.
As Unmap progresses, Volcano Choir dabble in ambiance ("Dote") and gives us a faux childhood sing-a-long ("And Gather") before they reach the album's weakest section. "Mbira In the Morass" features a pretty great title but rarely reveals itself as anything other than an exercise in musical masturbation. Though repeat listens allow it to carve out its place on the album, I can't help but feel that Unmap would have benefited so much more if they were only to scale the dissonance back just a bit. "Cool Knowledge" follows and is overflowing with ideas, but its 1:08 run-time doesn't allow it to reach its potential and it ends as nothing more than a wasted opportunity. These songs show how easy it is to misstep when you are self-indulgent and unfortunately, most of the songs on Unmap aren't quite at the level of justifying such over-confidence.
Volcano Choir make up for these earlier mistakes with the last two tracks of the album. The a cappella wonder "Woods," from Bon Iver's Blood Bank EP, is reworked as "Still," and what the group does with it is extraordinary. On "Woods," Vernon relied on his voice and songwriting ability alone, but with "Still," the whole band gets its chance to make the track shine. They succeed in making an already great song even better. I like to consider album closer "Youlogy," as my main case against "Mbira In the Morass." I pair these two because they are the most dissonant songs on the album, but whereas "Mbira" often feels pointless, "Youlogy," uses the possibility of power and beauty in dissonance to lead to depth and musical insight. The effect of juxtaposing the instruments in bright major with Vernon singing in desperate minor is so devastating, that when the tear-your-heart-apart harmonies from For Emma make their way into the song, heart palpitations may occur.
Though Unmap should be greeted as a success, tracks like "Mbira in Morass" and "Cool Knowledge" show just how much room Volcano Choir have to grow. Though the album is quite good, too few of its songs reach the triumphant heights of almost any track off of For Emma. Those songs all felt perfect and universal whereas some of these feel selective and unfinished. I have the utmost confidence that if Volcano Choir were to produce a follow-up album, it would have the potential to fulfill all of the promise that Unmap shows and though I would greet such an album with much enthusiasm, at this juncture I would still rather hear an official follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago.
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