Release Date: Sep 22, 2009
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative, Experimental, Singer-Songwriter
Great post-rock, generally speaking, gets made by snarky Scottish men, creepy Canadian ones or groups of effeminate Icelandic elves. Flannel clad Wisconsonites don’t come to mind often, if at all, until now. Justin Vernon, the only man in Bon Iver, has teamed up with instrumental outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees to make one of the most pleasing records of the year.
There's a moment in "The Wolves (Act I and II)", a song on Justin Vernon's debut album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, where you first suspect that there's more going on with this dude than meets the eye. Up until that point, the record is, as advertised, ascetic and stripped down, the product of a person alone in a cabin for months with only a guitar for company. The songs early on bring to mind snow, wood, creaky furniture, drawn breaths-- organic materials that could have been just as easily assembled 80 years ago.
At least a year prior to retiring to the remote Wisconsin cabin where Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was conceived and committed to tape, Justin Vernon and his fellow cheeseheads Collections of Colonies of Bees had been collaborating on something less concrete but, at once, still familiar to those whose tastes ran toward Bon Iver’s icy, snowbound acoustic snapshots. Three years after beginning this side project, it now has a name—Volcano Choir—and an aural map of the ground they covered, Unmap. In short: This is the experimental side of Bon Iver.
The term “folk” has become such an anomaly in today’s underground music scene—a label applied with so much gusto and baggage in the latter half of our decade and having lost so much of its original definition—that these days it’s implied more as an aesthetic than in relation to any particular instrumental approach. What exactly makes you “folk”? Does playing with a palette of primarily acoustics earn you the “folk” tag? How about spirited, communal harmonies about societal hardships and social unrest? Maybe somber, introspective singer-songwriterisms delivered with a few simple chords and a tender heart does the trick? Whatever it may be, the man who has come to embody that stamp for so many indie aficionados over the past few years has hardly let it dictate or weigh down his creative resolve. After winning the hearts of flanneled boys and girls across the globe with his astounding debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon explodes the boundaries of folk with this left-field release, awaited on with as much curiosity as hot-mouthed anticipation.
In the highlight of my inglorious musical career so far, I performed at All Tomorrow’s Parties' May event, curated by The Breeders. Also appearing (though sadly missed by this writer) was Bon Iver - aka Justin Vernon - responsible for For Emma, Forever Ago one of 2008’s best albums – probably one of the decade’s best when all is said and tallied. I spent most of the aforementioned weekend behind the tables at ATP selling merchandise.
Anyone thinking that Volcano Choir are going to be anything like Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago just because Justin Vernon is involved is in for a bit of a shock. Yes, Vernon's otherworldly vocals grace most of the songs on Unmap, but there are no real songs to speak of, no hushed backwoods folk grandeur or heartbreakingly soulful sounds. Instead, Vernon and his friends from the post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees have crafted a defiantly experimental album that relies on Vernon's vocals as just another color in the paint box, not the main focus.
If it weren’t for the sudden fame that followed the unlikely rise of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, there’s a decent chance Unmap, the debut album from Volcano Choir, wouldn’t come burdened with expectations of quality. Or even be released at all. Unmap was recorded and created in the studio as far back as 2005 by Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon and his friends in the Wisconsin band Collections of Colonies of Bees.