Volcano Choir

Jagjaguwar, 2009


REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


I’m unequivocally biased, because I assume that anything Bon Iver – né Justin Vernon – is involved with will be brilliant. His debut, 2008’s For Emma, was stunning, evocative, and paradoxically managed to infuse warmth and heart into the chill of its wintry mood.  It’s one of those albums designed to be worn down to its grooves. Vernon followed up with the Blood Bank EP, a more experimental offering that was still a shot to the heart. His latest finds him pairing with Collections of Colonies of BEs on a collaboration that has been in the work since 2005, when the BEs crew toured with Vernon’s previous band, DeYarmond Edison.

Where Vernon’s previous work drew much of its strength from his soulful, deeply emotive vocals, this disc strips away nearly all of that lyricism, relying on instrumentals and atmosphere to create a sense of richness and dynamism.  Similarly, where For Emma was an album that was grappling with loneliness, Unmap is a group effort, the sound of coming together and discovering something. It’s exquisitely textured and experimental, but the music itself is given the space to breathe and evolve.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Opener “Husks and Shells” is a perfect example of this airiness, adding layer upon layer of reverb-soaked harmonies to an austere, plucked acoustic riff. Much of this material furthers the direction Blood Bank set upon, and so it makes sense that “Woods” appears here as “Still,” a calmer, more expansive reincarnation  awash with hushed drums and twinkling keyboards; Vernon’s vocals are far more muted, existing alongside the slow-building instrumentation  rather than dominating it.

It can be difficult to make instrumentals engaging and able to stand on their own without vocals. But when all the pieces come together on Unmap, it’s really magical. “Seeplymouth” is one of those cuts, taking a jazzy, loose intro and layering on chiming guitars and melting riffs – until suddenly, after a sung passage from Vernon, it hits a cascading, crescendoing climax, all massive drums and voices wailing into oblivion. “Seeplymouth” is nearly seven minutes long but it’s totally breathless and enthralling, a true testament to the talent this Wisconsin pairing brings to the table.

Even more strikingly, “Seeplymouth” fades right into “Island, IS,” one of the most traditional moments on the album (and its lead single).  With keyboards circling serpentine in the background, Vernon sings mashed-up, strange sounding phrases (“Conserve it with an omelet / And you’re on it with the carpet / And you solved it / Said you called it”) that are intriguingly lovely, much like the rest of this disc.

There are a few moments here that could’ve been more refined, though. “Dote,” for one, is just gaining steam before it abruptly segues into “Mbira in the Morass,” another experiment that ends up being a bit trying. The awkward pace and uneven plucking of the mbira isn’t enough texture to flesh out Vernon’s straining vocals.

But for the most part, even a few less than stellar moments don’t undercut the true beauty of this album. It’s unexpectedly gorgeous, full of movement and vigor – and all that without concrete lyrics or a catchy chorus to hold on to. It’s not disposable or breezy Top 40 music, but if you’re a fan of Bon Iver or just looking for something new and unconventional, Unmap is worth exploring.  

Rating: B+

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© 2009 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Jagjaguwar, and is used for informational purposes only.