Album Review: Volcano Choir – Unmap

President Bill Clinton

by Jack Diablo
Label: Jagjaguwar
Release Date: September 22, 2009
Before I begin, allow me to acknowledge the fact that fans of Justin Vernon’s previous project Bon Iver will no doubt be scrambling to pick this album as soon as it drops regardless of what myself or any other music writer has to say about it. Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty to inform so that the droves rushing out to the record stores or signing into iTunes be prepared for the experience before them. I have chosen these words “prepared” and “experience” for a reason and to clear the air, I do so because I like this album. A lot. And I want you to like it too, but there are some things you should know.
First off, this project predates Bon Iver as far back as the days of yore that were the year two-thousand and five of the common era. It is a project featuring the collaboration of Vernon and DeYarmond Edison (his former band) tour-mates Collections of Colonies of Bees. Musically, Volcano Choir leans much closer to the melodic experimentation of the latter but still showcases Vernon’s signature vocal-style. In that at least, Bon Iver fans will find something familiar. But that is where the similarities end.
The second thing you should know is that this is studio album in the strictest sense. Although the ideas and perhaps a few melodies may have been lingering for years, the album came together over the course of a single weekend. Which isn’t to say that the execution was rushed or that the subject matter was not completely thought out, but rather it captures the moment of its creation, the spontaneity and honesty of its genesis. The wise sages who wrote the press release used the word “document” to describe the nature of this record which I find to be the most intelligent word a publicist has ever used, in this case at least.
Keeping these important facts in mind will get you half-way to the place you need to be before experiencing this album. The final step is to achieve (I hate to borrow so much from the press release, but it really is a good one) – “unexpectation.” Luckily, I am only a casual Bon Iver listener, an appreciator more so than a fan, so this was not particularly difficult for me. If you fall into that boat then perhaps you are ready. If not, read on.
The acoustic guitar that opens the album seems harmless enough until you realize that it’s being dissected and haphazardly applied to separate channels over background studio noise and sonic anomalies that flutter like mechanical insect wings. Then it doesn’t take long for the meaning behind the band’s name to become evident. Breath-sounds, lip-smacks, and even tongue movements were gloriously picked up in the recording process and are as much a part of the vocals as the actual words in what can only be described as a chorus of psychedelic archangels descending upon the track. This first song, ‘Husks and Shells,’ puts it all out there, a notice to proceed at your own risk.
But risk is rewarded, and more and more so as the album progresses. ‘Seeplymouth’ is as dynamic as they come, ending in what sounds like tribesmen offering sacrifices to the volcano god. It’s really not as ridiculous as it sounds to take this band’s name so seriously, I promise. It’s just that good.
What’s really nice is that even the most bizarre arrangements, such as the eerily atmospheric ‘Dote,’ the Tom Waits-inspired ‘Mbira in the Morass,’ and the short but sweet, practically a cappella ‘Cool Knowledge,’ are strange tunes without being overly pretentious or offensive. They are just out there enough to test the listener’s patience as if to say those who will only hear this music rather than truly listen to it, need not apply.
If you really are just that in love with Justin Vernon’s voice and simply can’t handle all the atmospherics and experimentation then skip everything on this album except ‘Island, IS’ and the auto-tune heavy ‘Still.’ Oh, and don’t ever talk to me. Ever.