Looking at the band names alone, Bon Iver and Volcano Choir are worlds, and seasons, apart. The name Bon Iver serves as a constant reminder of how singer and multi-instrumentalist Justin Vernon came to be alone—a narrative we’ve heard time and time again. Volcano Choir, on the other hand, is an awesome name that makes me think of prehistoric men in masks and robes, intoning chants at viscous, bubbling lava from the lip of a crater. It’s about as far from Vernon’s “good winter” of solitude that you can get, and the mysterious imagery of the name was matched by their first album, the restlessly inventive, naturalistic Unmap. However, when the differences in nomenclature are set aside, Volcano Choir’s new album Repave makes the case that the two projects are coming close to a musical convergence.
Unmap came out in 2009, just months after the re-release of For Emma, Forever Ago that launched Justin Vernon into indie superstardom. Volcano Choir—a collaboration between Vernon and post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees (these guys have a talent for naming bands)—had been in existence for years at that point, but hadn’t released a full-length record before Bon Iver-mania set in. Anyone who picked up their debut on its association with the deeply affecting, largely acoustic melancholy of For Emma was in for a surprise. Unmap is a weird, insular album with a dedicated commitment to experimentation. Vernon sings extensively on the record, but he’s not always recognizable. Instead, his voice is used as an instrument, adding texture and noise and fractured lyrics—exemplified by “Still,” a 7-minute alternate version of Bon Iver’s auto-tuned dirge “Woods.” The results are strange, compelling and engaging, although not always for their emotional impact.
In the last five years or so, most music listeners’ perception of Justin Vernon has undergone drastic changes. He went from largely unknown trade musician to celebrated auteur. Crafting affecting and critically-acclaimed rock as a solo entity and collaborating with Kanye West will change how people think of you, and Vernon has more than earned his reputation as something of a visionary. Reportedly, Repave was largely composed by guitarist Chris Rosenau with very little instrumental input from Vernon, suggesting that the extracurricular successes of the band’s most famous member may not have deliberately played into the adaptation of Volcano Choir’s sound over the past four years.
However, regardless of intent, describing Repave as a weighty, experimental rock-influenced Bon Iver record is only slightly reductive. It has far more in common with 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver than any previous Volcano Choir output, the commitment to deliberate, delicate grandeur is a defining characteristic here, albeit with some more muscle behind it. Album opener “Tiderays” and arresting standout “Alaskans” make the comparisons stick, and the streak of tracks surrounding them feel like a logical evolution from there. If Vernon’s statements over the past week positing the end of Bon Iver are ultimately true, Repave and the prospect of more music like this is more than enough to soften the blow.
The music has evolved, and Justin Vernon’s role within it is the most noticeable change. He’s transitioned from a key cog in hazy machinery to a traditional frontman.
This is not a criticism. Repave is, from front to back, a great album. It takes the sprawling, inventive soundscapes that Volcano Choir displayed a few years ago and cuts them down into cohesiveness, lending the best songs a rousing, complex immediacy. The music has evolved, and Justin Vernon’s role within it is the most noticeable change. He’s transitioned from a key cog in hazy machinery to a traditional frontman. Instead of filtered vocal loops and anomalous harmonies, he’s contributing verses and choruses and the magnetic empathy that comes with his unmistakeable voice. With Vernon’s vocals front and center, Repave is able to anchor itself to more traditional song structures and venture into territory that makes for simply better songs. “Byegone,” “Comrade,” “Acetate” and “Dancepack” are all competing with the aforementioned, Bukowski-sampling “Alaskans” for best song on the album, but they’re also some of the best songs released this year, each one reaching for the anthemic while staying vitally interesting. It’s a record that deserves a large audience and, this time around, the Bon Iver fans following Vernon along for the ride aren’t going to be thrown off.
With change comes loss, and what Volcano Choir has shed in this transition is the relentless eccentricity that characterized Unmap. That album’s fundamental strength was an unknowableness—it was impossible to imagine how the sounds were constructed, giving it a powerful air of originality supplemented by a diverse array of sounds the band could seemingly conjure at will. It was an album that seemed packed with every idea each member had up until the moment each song was recorded. By abandoning chasing inspiration at random, Repave found consistency, and a penchant for moving, peaking statements. If that’s the cue Volcano Choir took from Bon Iver, their success here is a testament to their skills as musicians and the shift ultimately leaves little question that this is, ultimately, an improved band—if a little less weird.