Volcano Choir is a collaborative effort between Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and the instrumental band Collections of Colonies of Bees, two of Wisconsin’s nationally known acts. It doesn’t have the same dramatic (and oft-repeated) backstory as Bon Iver; Vernon has been writing songs with Collections of Colonies of Bees since 2005, when his previous band, DeYarmond Edison, toured with them. It’s a fortuitous pairing: They share both common roots in the Badger State and a fondness for slightly experimental, atmospheric music.
On paper, Volcano Choir sounds like a difficult proposition. Collections of Colonies of Bees make heavily structured, albeit often melodic, instrumental music. Bon Iver is a singer-songwriter project that draws a lot from folk music, although often without the traditional folk songwriting structures. But they actually share a lot of common elements. Collections of Colonies of Bees explored a lot of bluegrass and folk influences in their early work, and Vernon adapts his work well to more expansive compositions.
As he once told an interviewer, the lyrics on his breakthrough album, For Emma, Forever Ago often started as sounds that he later worked out into words. On Unmap, those sounds often never make the transition. The album’s first song, “Husks and Shells,” has few intelligible lyrics but plenty of Vernon’s distinctive, pleasant falsetto. “And Gather” pairs a keyboard figure with hand claps and a harmonized set of non-lexical vocables from Vernon. Two songs go even further: “Mbira in the Morass,” with its lurching instrumental backing, is almost completely abstract, and “Cool Knowledge” seems to be building to a mid-tempo stomp before it abruptly stops after about a minute.
“Island, Is” goes in another direction, however, laying lyrics sung in Vernon’s natural range (familiar to those who’ve heard the break in “Skinny Love,” or “Blood Bank” from last year’s EP of the same name) over a series of Reich-style short, repeated phrases, giving Collections of Colonies of Bees’ cerebral music an unexpected pop angle. “Still” reworks a previously released Bon Iver song (“Woods,” from Blood Bank), countering the chilly atmosphere of the music and the auto-tuned vocals with the rustic lyrics (“I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / to slow down the time”). The finest song is the seven-minute “Seeplymouth,” which gives Vernon’s vocal lines an appropriately dramatic backdrop. It’s a complex and beautiful song, and one that displays the talents of all the collaborators in Volcano Choir. A lot of people were enamored of For Emma, Forever Ago last year; they’ll be well rewarded if Justin Vernon’s involvement leads them to Unmap.