By Ryan Smith
As a huge fan of Bon Iver, I was overjoyed to obtain a copy of this album through various sources on the journalistic grapevine. After hearing the record for the first time, I cleaned up all the drool and purchased my own copy! For those of you who don’t know, Volcano Choir is a band from Wisconsin that is made up of members of Collections of Colonies of Bees (Thomas Wincek, Daniel Spack, Matthew Skemp, Chris Rosenau, and Jon Meuller) and fronted by Justin Vernon, the core of Bon Iver. Repave is their second album together, after 2009’s Unmap. Although my fandom of Bon Iver has led to obsessive re-listenings of their EP and two full-lengths, Repave is to date the only Volcano Choir album I have listened to. I’m a criminal.
First off, the most impressive thing about this record is that Vernon, while normally a multi-instrumentalist, has elected to focus solely on vocals. While I would have loved to have heard him contribute to the instrumentation, it is an absolutely new and awesome experience to hear what he sounds like with an insanely capable band behind him. It adds a new dimension and allows him to focus on different techniques.
While his first appearance on the album is in his trademark falsetto, Vernon uses his natural voice wonderfully for a good chunk of the album. His performances are powerful and impassioned. A great deal of feeling went into the lyrics and the performance this time round. I also have to make mention of the voice modification you can hear clearly during my favourite tune, “Comrade.” Although it should seem like an odd thing to hear on a record like this, the vocal effects are bad ass, especially over epic keyboard arpeggios, and give goosebumps every time. The only bad thing is that they aren’t used enough.
The rest of the band is crazy awesome, especially the keys… bit of a bias unfortunately. There are some seriously gorgeous guitar hooks as well. The intricate arrangements are well-crafted and bafflingly interesting. Even the simpler tunes are complex and the mood is set perfectly in every piece. It’s definitely a moody record, with a reverb-soaked clip of Bukowski weeping even making an appearance in “Alaskans.” As a similarity to everything Bon Iver ever released, there’s so much weirdness in what, on the surface, appears to be an indie-folk record. Not that there isn’t a lot on the record that can pass for mainstream lucidity, but songs like “Keel” use bizarrely terse musical tapestries to provide a background for Vernon’s gripping poetry.
Finally, I would like to mention how awesome the video I’ve attached to this review is. It’s a very basic thing, featuring the band simply playing “Comrade” in its entirety, but the unique thing is that rather than doing a pantomime to the album version of the song, the band seens to have been recorded live off the floor. To the band’s credit, the song sounds almost like the record. The beauty, however, is that you can see just how awesome they play together, and that you can witness Justin Vernon’s vocal modification first hand. The song is absolutely beautiful and is among the best I’ve ever heard. I almost like the live version better… hmm… tough decision. In any case, more bands need to make videos like this. There’s just so much fluff out there.
Repave is a truly wonderful gem of an album with its stunningly subtle complexity. The dynamic that this creates is brilliant, as casual listeners looking for a sedate mood record, and over-analytic lovers of intricacy looking for something to blow their mind will both find what they are looking for in this record.
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.