Justin Vernon and his able mates set sail, under a strong wind, on what could prove to be an epic musical odyssey…
Though he may indeed be “winding it down” (as he put it a year ago) in terms of Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s sonic and spiritual adventures are ongoing under another nameplate. The tellingly titled Repave, the second collaboration between Vernon and Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, doesn’t appear to be merely another diversion in Vernon’s ever-unfolding narrative, which, since the release of 2011’s Bon Iver, has encompassed key roles on album projects with Megafaun, Kathleen Edwards, Colin Stetson and Shouting Matches, as well as guest appearances with Kanye West and POS.
No, this record has all the earmarks of Vernon’s next big thing. Unlike Volcano Choir‘s test run, 2009’s Unmap, the new follow-up is a proper album – and a bona fide rock album at that. “I felt like I was in a rock band almost for the first time”, Vernon says in Dan Hunting’s mini-documentary on the making of the LP. COCOC, comprising Volcano Choir’s other members – drummer/percussionist Jon Mueller, guitarists Chris Rosenau and Dan Spack, keyboard player Tom Wincek and bassist Matthew Skemp – is, of course, hardly a standard rock band, with an extensive discog of envelope-pushing experimental music. This project is a different exercise for both parties – the result of a back-and-forth between instrumental pieces made by Rosenau, Wincek and other bandmembers, which Vernon then manipulated (as he’s shown, he’s a masterful manipulator), with Mueller’s percussion and Vernon’s vocals as the final ingredients.
The first sound we hear is an oversized liturgical organ, out of which float those familiar stacked falsetto harmonies, but here, on “Tideways”, the groove throbbing beneath the airborne voices is wilder and more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Vernon, more four-square than previous COCOC efforts. On the following “Acetate”, he introduces his lower register amid tribal drums, Gregorian chanting and twinkling piano notes in a syncopated yet regal arrangement, with a twist of Motown in the climax. He stays with his natural voice, an earthy baritone, in the intro to “Comrade”, then slides upward, as the track churns along in symphonic splendour. At mid-song, the arrangement enlarges into all-out majesty as Vernon conjoins his low end and falsetto into an eerie hybrid, which in turn gives way to the rumble of an Auto-Tune-created humanoid, as the surrounding sounds wither away.
“Byegone”, the first single, is lush from the get-go, a lilting plucked acoustic setting the mood before it’s surrounded by the massed ensemble, the whole of it sounding like a pastoral Windham Hill piece enlarged to arena-rock scale. Vernon nestles into the plush aural tapestry with the most natural-sounding vocal he’s ever recorded; doubled in the classic Lennon style, it’s grand and intimate at once. On “Alaskans”, we enter calm waters after the preceding series of crashing waves, but there’s something unsettling here, too, as Vernon’s vocal morphs from a sort of Gordon Lightfoot-like burnished folksiness to an ominous, all but demonic growl. The groove comes to the fore on the playfully titled “Dancepack”, but it’s implied before Mueller begins to pound it out. Vernon’s vocal is playful, theatrical, Bruce-like, as he powers into the incantatory refrain, “Take note, there’s still a hole in your heart”, while an electric guitar flirts with dissonance, forming lemon-tangy chords.
“Keel” begins in suspended animation, with Vernon’s falsetto gliding over an implied expanse of woodland, as muted instrumental sounds weave a beckoning still life below him. The sustained sonic foreplay is released with “Almanac”, a titanic, shape-shifting universe of thunder-crack percussion and soulful vocal signifying that opens into a celestial chorale of burbling, over-lapping voices. There’s a revelatory moment in mid-song, as Vernon sings “ALL NIGHT/It’s on, RIGHT/SO FRESH that it sizzles”, as if marveling at the open-ended beauty they’re creating as it’s happening, and imagining where these art/soul brothers can take it from here. There’s little doubt at this point that Vernon’s overarching ambition is matched by his limitless inventiveness, and now, that of his co-conspirators. On this monumental outing, as he’s noted, he’s fronting a real rock band. My guess: there’s no turning back now.
Justin Vernon, Chris Rosenau
Is your commitment to Volcano Choir as deep as Repave suggests?
Rosenau: Right now, we’re in the moment. We’re trying to figure out how to play this stuff live and make it gigantic. At some point, someone’s gonna get a bug up their ass and write another Volcano Choir song. There won’t be a timeline, but it’s too much fun not to play with these guys.
Vernon: I’m getting a Volcano Choir tattoo next week! No, it’s been central to me. It’s been a way to take all of the confusion of the other things I’ve been doing on my own. It’s been shaping more than anything I’ve done; emotionally and [in terms of] reflection and reacting. I don’t think I’ve ever sung like this before. It was challenging, but it revealed itself to me, and it was because of these guys. It’s here to stay.
Where did the band name come from?
Rosenau: Vernon had been sending me choral stuff under the name Fall Creek Boys Choir, and that “choir” thing stuck with me. And even on Unmap, there were moments that were a portent of how huge this could be musically. John came up with Volcano Choir, and it instantly resonated.
Vernon: It also has a lot to do with marijuana!
INTERVIEW: BUD SCOPPA