Monday, October 26, 2009

New Folk Pathways

Volcano Choir - Unmap (Jagjaguwar, 2009)

Following a critically acclaimed debut is never an easy task but Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has made it look easy by refusing to play the waiting game. It seemed plausible that ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ could have been one of those great one-off successes but the ‘Blood Bank’ EP suggested new possibilities, from Reichian minimalism to the unexpected vocodered splendour of ‘The Woods’. Now Vernon has made another intriguing sidestep by teaming up with instrumental group Collections of Colonies of Bees for a collaborative project. Those approaching Volcano Choir in search of more of the cabin intimacy that made ‘For Emma’ so beguiling may well be bemused by this music. This is perhaps a more calculated and less nakedly emotional beast, but its challenges are coupled with rewards.

The focus here is not on words, but on sound, texture and mood. Where lyrics are present, they are difficult to discern and are clearly not intended as the main source of meaning. Carried over from ‘For Emma’ is the use of Vernon’s voice as a presiding, haunting presence, but there is less of a sense of thematic unity. Instead, Volcano Choir feels like an artistic experiment, with a collective ensemble feeling for ideas, sometimes tentatively but more often with confidence and combined expertise.

The opening trio of tracks is particularly effective, with the subtle expressive strokes on ‘Husks and Shells’ giving way to enticing rhythmic games on ‘Seeplymouth’ and the brilliant ‘Island, IS’. This emphasis on rhythm immediately distances ‘Unmap’ from Vernon’s work as Bon Iver. ‘Island, IS’ might even be said to be founded on an angular groove, its seemingly mechanised instrumentation anchored and humanised by some delicate but physical drumming. A similar airiness pervades much of ‘Seeplymouth’ and allows space for the track’s compelling crescendos. Particularly fascinating on these tracks is the way the individual parts interlock in a way that seems almost scientific.

‘Dote’ begins with warm tones that hint at the peculiar mood pieces of Stars of the Lid, before a more unnerving fuzz drifts in, along with Vernon’s manipulated voice. It ends with something close to aggression, before suddenly drifting into the near-joyful handclaps and vocal punctuations of ‘And Gather’. It’s an unpredictable and thrilling transition.

Occasionally, things don’t quite work. ‘Cool Knowledge’ represents a potentially quirky and charming diversion into doo-wop influenced vocal layering, but it gets ruthlessly truncated before it really gets going. ‘Mbira in the Morass’ feels noticeably less comfortable than most of the material here – a rather sheepish toe being dipped into the waters of what sounds like free improvisation. It has some common features with David Sylvian’s ‘Manofon’, but lacks that record’s steely self belief and sense of space. ‘Still’ takes those wonderful vocoder-altered vocals from Bon Iver’s ‘The Woods’ and adds instrumentation, but the effect of the new drones and sounds is sadly to cause unnecessary clutter and undermine the devastating impact of the original track.

‘Unmap’ is rounded off beautifully and contemplatively with ‘Youlogy’. The crass wordplay of the title doesn’t quite do justice its carefully crafted serenity. More so than the rest of the album, it hints at the common ground between Bon Iver and this project – and also demonstrates that the more systematic, collaborative approach can still yield emotionally rich results – without recourse to something as limiting as language.

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