REVIEW: Volcano Choir – ‘Repave’

Artist: Volcano Choir
Album: Repave
Genre: Indie Post-rock
Label: Jagjaguwar

Justin Vernon is a man of many talents, many bands, and many snarky comments. When it was announced that Volcano Choir, one of his earlier projects, would be coming out with a new record, it almost seemed out of boredom. Had he tired of the solo route Bon Iver created or the electronic path Gayngs began? Maybe he wanted to create another follow-up record that would allow him to snobbishly diss the very award system that nominates him for—and then gives him—the Best New Artist Grammy (or the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy, beating out icons Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, and My Morning Jacket). As musically gifted as he is, Vernon doubles it in character.

Thankfully, Volcano Choir, a collaboration between him and members of Collections of Colonies of Bees,  is less about Vernon than most realize. All he contributes are his very focused vocals. Serving as a bridge between folk and post-rock, the group incorporates strings, percussion, and guitars to introduce newcomers of the genre gently, keeping almost every song tied to the five minute mark. Repave starts with a straight minute of organ before anything else is heard. Its small increments of instrumental parts, minimalism shaking hands with patience, and glitch-dusted tracks begin leading listeners over that bridge with a friendly, trusting confidence that’s easy to hold hands with.

The patience demonstrated throughout the album tones down what some may have found to be problematic on Bon Iver. “Comrade,” a glitch track that sees a snippit of galactic synth halfway through, takes obvious cues from Vernon’s past work. The driving bass line trucks along like For Emma’s “Blindsided.” Auto-tune is used as a brief tasting compared to the eight-course meal “Woods” offered from his EP, and the cohesive crash of each band member is significantly less overwhelming and dramatic than “Minnesota, WI” off Bon Iver. Maybe he’s taken notes, but “Comrade” draws similarities to The Books. A style of string-playing and hum of cello mimic the stop-start spasms the two men are known for.

As with any record that gives experimentation a whirl, there’s room to err. “Alaskans” is a storybook of a song, Vernon’s pronunciation and vocal stress similar to, oddly enough, rock legend Pete Townshend. Especially with a hip inclusion of author Charles Bukowski reading a poem for a French television network, the track is trying too hard for something it could have easily accomplished had they stepped off their ego footstools. Then there’s the guitar work on the track; Behind lines like “But the sutra didn’t suit you” and “We’re talkin’ real love,” it gets hokey quickly. Each member puts in effort here, but it winds up being too much.

Then there’s “Keel,” the dude who dips his feet into the water to experiment but stays close enough to the lake’s edge that nothing is ever sacrificed. It’s safe – an introduction to experimentalism for listeners married to folk that never fiddle with their ring. Unfortunately, grandiose orchestral writing, bouncy reverb, and that same intergalactic synth part has “Almanac” fall over the edge in a clumsy trip-up. Keep in mind that the members of Volcano Choir are talented musicians; these errors stem from their initial decisions, not the way they’re carried out. Which, in a way, is more disappointing.

Repave makes up for this though by pushing past traditional Vernon sounds. One listen to “Dancepack,” from its experimental opening to the crack in Vernon’s voice, shows a detachment from his usual gimmicks. Bass notes kiss the song softly, nodding to Jaco Pastorious the deeper they get in the bedding. Volcano Choir are pouring concrete over their respective older works, openly creating change where they see fit.

Last time Volcano Choir put out a record was in 2009, and Unmap somehow feels more experimental than Repave is getting credit for. “Island, IS” used glitches correctly, dousing the song in a beehive of buzz as the catchy hook turned backbeat before the song’s percussion gave momentum, edges, and delicate flourishes. Indeed, Unmap was risky, but Repave is trusting. The real accomplishment on the new record is their brave step forward; Volcano Choir are reaching deeper than the easy licks of their last record, and raising their voices to claim that new territory they’ve stepped out onto. Although experimental in its own right, Repave is an album you can place your trust in from that first minute of organ. It’s clean, whole, and steady – the exact step forward Volcano Choir needed to take.

Score: 8.6/10

Review written by: Nina Corcoran (Follow her on Twitter)

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