The songs that would eventually end up on Volcano Choir’s debut album started out as musical fragments exchanged between Justin Vernon and instrumental five-piece Collections of Colonies of Bees in 2005. Throughout Vernon’s rise to fame under the Bon Iver moniker, these exchanges continued, until the band Volcano Choir was finally conceived in 2008. Unmap, which is the result of this collaboration, is a series of dream-like compositions which juxtapose Vernon’s unmistakable vocal style against Collections of Colonies of Bees’ own brand of experimental folk music.
Whilst it may be difficult at first to discern any similarities between the songwriting of Volcano Choir and that of Bon Iver, the method of lyric-writing employed by Vernon on the two projects is consistent- recording wordless vocal tracks and allowing the lyrics to write themselves, based on the syllables rendered by the music. Whilst for Bon Iver these sounds eventually became the poetic and heart-wrenchingly nostalgic lyrics found on For Emma, Forever Ago, for Unmap, they are barely developed beyond the sounds initially used to map out the melodies. For those drawn in by the immediacy of the stories on Bon Iver’s debut, this may act as a deterrent, but those who felt a visceral attraction to the textures on the album will no doubt find beauty in Vernon’s every murmur, from the nonsensical phraseology of ‘Island, IS’ to the multi-tracked drone of his humming on ‘Dote’.
The influence of minimalist artists like Steve Reich is unmistakable on tracks such as ‘Seeplymouth’ and ‘Island, IS’, with their use of repetition and the creation of climaxes through the gradual introduction and removal of instruments. The songwriting also borrows from post-rock and drone and could easily fade into the background given enough time, but there’s always a moment to bring your mind back into focus- where the drums drop out and a reverb-drenched vocal line comes to the forefront or a playful guitar line, like the Dirty Projectors-esque build-up towards the end of the aforementioned ‘Island, IS’, returns after an ambient interlude. Although these songs may lack the emotional crescendos found on an album such as Spirit of Eden, there are elements of Talk Talkian brilliance in the way in which the atmosphere, as much as the immediate intentions of the songwriting, is instrumental in narrating the relationship the listener will form with the music.
The production style here is a collaborative effort, sacrificing little of the homely, organic energy found in Vernon’s solo work but introducing a sheen and professionalism that works to bring Collection of Colonies of Bees’ compositions to the forefront. Whilst the use of panning often feels spacious and expansive, the percussive use of instruments- whether it’s the subtle pulse of electronic disturbances, the patter of handclaps or the noise of picks against guitar strings- helps maintain a pretense of total control throughout. It’s undeniable that music of this nature must stem from improvisation, yet these songs never become self-indulgent jams- they never outstay their welcome.
If any one track supports the claim that Bon Iver’s releases and ‘Unmap’ run parallel to each other in an artistic sense, it’s ‘Still’, which sets the band’s ‘Woods’ to music. As Vernon repeats, “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / To slow down the time,” it’s the reflection of the emptiness in the a cappella arrangement that makes the song so powerful, yet it’s impossible to argue that anything was lost on ‘Still’ as the auto-tuned vocals soar over glitchy electronics, distorted guitars and cymbal crashes.
To see this album as a follow-up to For Emma or as an excuse for Vernon to indulge his more experimental whims would be a mistake. Unmap functions more as a companion piece and those fans who fell at the feet of Vernon’s previous output should relish the opportunity to hear his voice pushed to almost every extreme and set against some of the most refreshingly inventive arrangements composed this year. This album does not speak in words and even as it closes with ‘Youlogy’, which evokes the spirit of Nina Simone and comes across like a new take on a traditional folk song, the timbre of Vernon’s bruised falsetto does more to stir the emotions than the melodies or the words being sung.