When I reviewed Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” last year, I ended the piece by saying, “Whether [Justin Vernon] is heading out of his father’s cabin towards a long, significant career is hard to predict, and the perverse romantic in me almost wants him not to bother trying. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is such a hermetically sealed, complete and satisfying album, the prospect of a follow-up – of a life for Vernon beyond the wilderness, even - seems merely extraneous.
When I reviewed Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” last year, I ended the piece by saying, “Whether [Justin Vernon] is heading out of his father’s cabin towards a long, significant career is hard to predict, and the perverse romantic in me almost wants him not to bother trying. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is such a hermetically sealed, complete and satisfying album, the prospect of a follow-up – of a life for Vernon beyond the wilderness, even – seems merely extraneous.
Since then, however, Vernon has become something of an unlikely, if still rather, discreet success story: only last week Bon Iver sold out a 3,000-capacity tent by the Serpentine in London, confirming that his apparently solipsistic music has a much greater life and range than even some of his most ardent fans might initially have expected.
His follow-up of sorts to “For Emma”, though, is not quite what many of those followers might have expected, but is a brilliant way of moving on from the lonesome intensity of that debut. For a start, “Unmap” is not even, technically, a Bon Iver album. It’s credited, instead, to Volcano Choir; Vernon and five other Wisconsin musicians whose previous work, as Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, is totally unknown to me (if anyone knows more, please share).
“Unmap” was recorded at Vernon’s hut in the forest again, and it shares many of the frail, lovely atmospheres of “For Emma”. This time, though, it’ll be nigh-on impossible to label Vernon as a folk singer, or his music as a nuanced reconfiguration of alt-country. On these nine largely entrancing tracks, the experimental textures that hovered in the background on “For Emma” are pushed gently to the fore. Formal, assimilable songs are relatively scarce – instead, “Unmap” is an immersive, though never intimidating, experience.
From the broken acoustic figure and processed glitch that opens “Husks And Shells” onwards, it feels like the key influence on Volcano Choir’s music may be a sort of aesthetically-pleasing, looping post-rock; the stuff that cross-pollinated with leftfield electronica, rather than the quiet-quiet-loud strain.Earlyish Tortoise spring to mind, minus the time-changes and jazz chops, but also a few good second-tier post-rock bands who moved nearer to electroacoustic and contemporary classical terrain, like Radian and The Threnody Ensemble (check out “Seeplymouth” and “And Gather”, especially).
If that sounds forbidding, it shouldn’t be, not least because that opening “Husks And Shells” soon enough arrives at a hugely reassuring choral sigh courtesy of Vernon. His voice is extraordinary here and throughout, often disregarding words in favour of warm emotional textures. On “Seeplymouth” (a distant relative of Bon Iver’s “Team”) and “Island, IS”, he floats in over ornate, chiming and strikingly lovely looped passages that suggest a rock band with a featherlight touch who’ve listened to a lot of Phillip Glass.
“Island, IS”, though, is the closest to a conventionally focused song here, and also recalls TV On The Radio (circa “Cookie Mountain”, maybe) or, from about three minutes in, the elliptical R&B of The Dirty Projectors (a comparison you could draw with “And Gather” and “Cool Knowledge”, too). Elsewhere, Vernon follows up on those hints of Fennesz on “For Emma” with plenty of sweet ambient fuzz and hum, so much so that “Dote” could pass for something off “Endless Summer”, while “Youlogy” is, in part, a processed electronica piece reminiscent of Oval, perhaps.
Over that noise, however,Volcano Choir construct a shimmering spiritual piece reminiscent of “Amazing Grace”, a showcase for Vernon’s tremendous vocals. Here, and on “Mbira In The Morass” (a bit dislocated John Cage, this one, though the title implies thumb pianos rather than prepared ones), his distrait soulfulness is strong enough to put Antony Hegarty in his rightful place.
Strange, then, that he chooses to disfigure his voice on “Still”. A new version of “Woods” from the Bon Iver “Blood Bank” EP, it again finds Vernon Autotuning or Vocodering his voice, though this time the band flesh out his refrain into a dense, cumulative drama seven minutes long. It’s a ravishing song, but Vernon’s use of such a firm digital tweak still sets my teeth on edge, too close to Kanye West on “808s And Heartbreak” for my comfort. At least, it’ll wind up a few musical puritans, I guess…