With the release of Bon Iver's stunning '08 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon embarked on a meteoric rise, courtesy of a cerebral, yet poignant style of songwriting that was, at the time, all his own. Retreating in to celebrated isolation for months, Vernon all but defined the term "cabin folk", wringing his heart dry of everything that had treated him poorly, to the delight of nearly everyone who happened upon the album. Success soon followed, (hopefully) culminating in some much needed happiness and self-satisfaction along the way.
Which brings us to a time-honored predicament. How does an artist who capitalized on so much personal grief find new ways to stir an audience when, heaven forbid, personal circumstances have changed? Vernon's newest project, Volcano Choir, and subsequent album Unmap, provides one such answer.
Pre-dating Vernon's work with Bon Iver (though Unmap was recorded only last year), Volcano Choir is a six-piece assemblage of Wisconsinites that flush out music that, like For Emma, sounds very much a product of the time and place in which they were created. Amongst the glowing acoustic carousels, ambient drones, swishing synthetics, and warm vocal coos of songs like "Husks and Shells" or "Dote", for example, it's no great stretch to imagine wind whipping trees into a choreographed dance, icicles wasting away drop by drop, and the delicate sound of paws pressing on freshly fallen snow. Winter in Wisconsin, it seems, is living, breathing, and pumping blood through the heart of another prominent Justin Vernon record once again.
But Volcano Choir is a very different endeavor; one which will likely garner more mixed reactions than universal praise in its' audience. Where Vernon's solo work immediately stokes the heart with a collection of songs that are focused, solitary, cohesive, and deliberate, Unmap demands patience as it retreats from structure and construction, metastasizing into abstract experiments of sound, dynamics, and texture. Take the album's centerpiece, "Still", for example. Though probably the most Bon Iver-esque tune of the bunch, the seven-minute churn is essentially one continuous crescendo of light and sound. What starts as something quaint - a single hum of understated keyboards - eventually builds to a massive swell of cycloning guitars, rolling cymbals, strange vocal yelps, steady percussive heartbeats, and hysterical programming...all in the name of the song's single line of lyrics ("I'm up in the woods/I'm down on my mind/I'm building a still/To slow down the time").
Does embarking on such an obscure route to its' listener's heart make Unmap more or less effective than the crystalline path blazed by its' predecessor? Hard to say. But lost moments aside (see "Cool Knowledge") every now and then, isn't it fun to set the map aside just to see where the journey takes you? In Volcano Choir's case, it's a place that is both unexpected and familiar sounding all at once. - David Pitz