When Volcano Choir started as a semi-formal collaboration in 2005, it was doubtful that any of its members could foresee their later success. Released on Sept. 2, “Repave” is the second studio album from the band, a collaboration between Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, and his friends from the Wisconsin post-rock group Collections of Colonies of Bees.
Vernon didn’t contribute any instrumental tracks to the album, focusing entirely on lyrics and vocals. The band began to develop these tracks in 2010, tearing them down, reshaping and adding to them for two and a half years.
What they produced is a grandiose, sweeping, and often brilliant album. Although Vernon’s vocals inevitably draw comparisons to Bon Iver, Volcano Choir’s music is a different beast entirely.
The group is much less personal than Bon Iver, as Vernon is merely a member of a large collaborative ensemble, rather than the director of the band. Although not quite as masterful as Vernon’s two Bon Iver records, “Repave” is an epic, widescreen-type album that bursts at the seams with innovation and ideas.
The opening track, “Tiderays,” takes a couple minutes to pick up, but as soon as the chorus kicks in around halfway through, Vernon’s vocals and the sprinkling of guitars echo around the ears for a rewarding experience. The following song, “Acetate,” is more of a rock song, one that showcases Vernon’s baritone vocals, as opposed to his usual falsetto. Catchy and anthemic, it rocks while maintaining a fascinating diversity of sounds and textures.
Next on the album, “Comrade” meshes looped instrumentation with more organic sounding keys and guitars. It is this mixture of electronic layers with great physical performance that makes so many of these songs so engaging.
But “Byegone,” the fourth track, is the show-stopper on “Repave.” A massive, catchy opening riff gets the song in gear immediately. Vernon’s vocals are perfectly timed and controlled throughout the verses and bridges as they build the anticipation for a truly magnificent chorus. The huge riff in the intro is reprised with the full band as a whole chorus of Justin Vernon’s harmonized vocals cry “Set sail, set sail,” over and over again. The chorus of “Byegone” washes over the listener’s entire body with its warm, resounding embrace, being one of the better songs Vernon has ever written.
“Alaskans“ is a far more intimate, acoustic song. Although it sounds a bit fragile at times, it is for the most part gorgeous. “Dancepack” is another beautifully grand song on the album that never stretches itself too thin.
“Keel” may be the weakest track on the record, but that is not really saying much for an album as strong as “Repave.” The densely-layered acoustic guitars that dominate the track on the song are quite pretty, but they seem to weigh the song down after a few minutes. The closer, “Almanac,” is Lord of the Rings-sized in its scope. The track itself is not hugely special, but it gets quite beautiful in its last couple minutes, as countless looped Vernon vocals envelop the last, triumphant, repeated guitar riff in a beautiful cacophony: a fitting end to a great work.
For those expecting a sound just like Bon Iver, this album may be surprising. But once one gets over the association with Bon Iver, “Repave” will inevitably please. The great singing and lyrics as always from Vernon, combined with the truly fantastic band Collections of Colonies of Bees, produce a fascinating and immersive record.
Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]