Justin Vernon (more commonly known as Bon Iver) erupted onto the independent music scene with For Emma, Forever Ago, an album whose woodland melancholy was melodic enough for traditional folk fans, aching enough for singer-songwriter devotees, and ethereal enough for experimentalists. Traditional but strange, concrete but elusive, and undeniably beautiful. Unmap is an appropriate title, then, for an album that ditches Vernon’s previous blueprint in favor of something a little harder to grasp, joined by post-rock aficionados Collections of Colonies of Bees.
Volcano Choir does not sound like a forced conglomeration of artists; disparate though their sounds may be, they mesh with surprising comfort. Opener “Husks and Shells” is less a song than an invitation into the album’s alien aesthetic. It’s all acoustic twists, electronic blips, and waves of Vernon’s trademark falsetto. Though not mind-blowing, it’s powerfully numbing, as warm as hot chocolate running down your throat. “Seeplymouth” builds, loop upon loop, in classic post-rock fashion, until the two-minute mark, when the instruments decrescendo to make room for Vernon. A minute later, the song has become something as lonesome and aching as anything on For Emma, building on the bombast only hinted at by the second part of “The Wolves (Act I and II).” The third track, “Island, IS,” is the most instantly likeable. Vernon’s oo oo oo’s are impossibly enticing, while the verse finds him for once in his normal register, and with a swagger that leans towards hip-hop, all set against a twinkling electronic web of melody. The result is a fantastic pop song, and one neither band could have produced alone. The sound of these first songs, appropriately echoed by the album’s cover, is of nomads trekking through the snow, eyes cast down, mumbling chants into the air atop a strangely natural fusion of acoustic and electronic sounds. The effect is paradoxically organic, modern sounds blended to create something somehow more primitive than just a man and a guitar.
But as cohesive as these first three tracks are, the next six are jarringly schizophrenic. “Dote” is little more than a wash of ambience and static, while “And Gather” is something like a grade school choir exercise, complete with handclaps. On “Mbira in the Moras,” Vernon has aged suddenly from an elementary schoolboy to a world-worn soul singer, backed by unsupportive, discordant string plucks. “Cool Knowledge” is more intriguing, but incomplete. Just as it’s about to build into something great, it’s over. The album makes a comeback on its penultimate track, “Still,” which takes Bon Iver’s autotuned “Woods” and builds it into a towering statement that outdoes the original ten times over. Closer “Youlogy” is disappointing in comparison, but strange enough to leave the listener interested – are those echoes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” I hear?
Despite echoes of its parent bands (and whispers of Animal Collective), Volcano Choir sounds truly unlike any band I’ve ever heard. That said, Unmap is unfocused, less a great album than a handful of ideas, some fantastic, others not. The band is clearly passionate, but its intent is muddled: the vocals are too subdued to be easily understood, and the songs hover in that vague place that could be either joy or despair. The album could, perhaps, have been tightened into something less wandering, but that probably would have been beside the point. This is the sound of two bands coming together and stretching their collective wings. This in mind, its faults are easy to ignore in light of the moments of brilliance. Focus on these – the points where the chemistry is undeniable, the sound fresh, and the tones transcendently beautiful.