Audio for this feature is no longer available. The album was released on Sept. 22, 2009.
Volcano Choir is a collaboration between Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and the Milwaukee instrumental band Collections of Colonies of Bees.
Volcano Choir is a collaboration between Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and the Milwaukee instrumental band Collections of Colonies of Bees. Cameron Wittig
Justin Vernon bares his guts and soul as the voice of Bon Iver, an indie-folk band whose debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, dominated many best-of lists (including this one and this one and this one) last year. On that remarkable record, Vernon's lyrics weren't always linear or meant to be interpreted literally, but the moods were rarely ambiguous.
Enter the oddly lovely side project Volcano Choir, in which Vernon sets his layered, often chopped-up vocals atop the experimental instrumental musings of the Milwaukee-based band Collections of Colonies of Bees. Here, it's almost all ambiguity: The words tend to be hard to parse, when they're decipherable at all, resulting in songs that feel ethereal and shrouded in mystery.
The music itself may seem jarring for those who connected with the heartrending drama of Bon Iver: Much of Volcano Choir's debut, Unmap, consists of vague song-sketches that rarely cohere into traditional hooks and choruses. Still, the mysterious and beautiful record finds a way to unsettle and soothe at the same time.
Available here in its entirety for a week prior to its Sept. 22 release, the album reveals an impressive assortment of strange and lovely surprises. From the squirmy tone-setting of "Husks and Shells" to the growling heart-pounder "Cool Knowledge" — which seems poised to build into a feisty rocker until it halts abruptly at the 67-second mark — it's hard to predict the band's next move. Volcano Choir revisits the AutoTuned Bon Iver B-side "Still," jams for nearly seven minutes in the hypnotic "Seeplymouth," trots out a thumb piano in the appropriately named "Mbira in the Morass" and amps up its choral side in the breathtaking closer "Youlogy." No matter how far it delves into abstraction, this is experimental music that never loses a grip on its own loveliness.
Volcano Choir's music is bound to enchant and alienate in equal measure. Please leave your opinions of the album in the comments section below.