Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Unmap - Volcano Choir


Volcano Choir
Jagjaguwar Records.

SCQ Rating: 52%

For those casually perusing this blog for the first time, let me announce forthright: I completely missed For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008. My friends recommended it, my girlfriend owned it – hell, I even bought it as a gift for someone else – but for reasons unknown, I ignored Bon Iver’s debut until after buying Blood Bank EP. So approaching Unmap, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver)’s collaboration with indie post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees, I was bewildered by the dramatic divide separating Volcano Choir’s adoring fans and those bitterly – might I stress personally - disappointed listeners. Suddenly I’m kind of relieved For Emma, Forever Ago didn’t rock and capsize my emotional epicenter, as it’s clear that most who disapprove of Unmap are steadfast For Emma… fans unwilling to accept Vernon unless he’s loveless in a Dunn County lodge. And while Vernon knows he’s being pigeonholed, make no mistake, Volcano Choir isn’t the unexpected project to sway those die-hard expectations.

Unmap certainly makes a solid proposition to be seen as a different angle of the-man-behind-Bon-Iver, but it seems clueless as to which angle to travel. Providing a more varied platform for Vernon’s voice - the undeniable star of the show - Volcano Choir paces the driveway throughout its nine songs, occasionally kicking leaves but mostly waiting for a ride. Throughout the sound-check of guitar and voice in ‘Husks and Shells’, which is a pleasant yet reserved impasse, and the percolating guitar-webs of ‘Seeplymouth’, I held faith that this extended warm-up was part of Unmap’s dynamic, that Volcano Choir – both Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees – had considerable stake in this and sought to make a statement. Yet ‘Seeplymouth’’s eventual drone and tribal-drum freak-out blows on unwavering like a deer in the headlights, unsure where in its near seven-minute length to deviate and unwilling to take the song back to the drawing table to discuss such specifics. The record never learns or recovers from that moment, instigating breezy post-rock meanderings that sputter to shrugging ends (‘Dote’) and chastising fans with one-off minute-long goofs that reveal what an ego project this really is (‘Cool Knowledge’). When the band fully unites and commits to a song as on ‘Still’, it’s one we’ve already heard acapella on Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP, fleshed out here with free-jam guitars and thudding kick-drums. This updated Volcano Choir version maintains the inner deliberation of the former (entitled ‘Woods’) but also preserves its tedium, as the band again fails to nourish their instrumentation with new ideas. If you’re waiting for me to suggest that the best is yet to come, take a deep breath and understand that ‘Still’ is probably Unmap’s crowning moment.

Big surprise, Vernon sounds awesome; he does a haunting choir-effect on his multi-tracked vocals on ‘Youlogy’, giving it that archaic, cathedral effect and experiments with a Nina Simone / Antony Hegarty delivery on ‘Mbira in the Morass’. Yet he can’t save Volcano Choir on his own. The greater offenders are the Milwaukee-based Collections of Colonies of Bees, who despite their numbers often sound suspiciously absent from the studio. With this collaboration being the outfit’s most high-profile gig, you’d expect them to make a good impression yet their role in Volcano Choir doesn't exactly make me want to rush out and hear their independent work. Unmap isn’t disappointing because it’s unstructured or because it fails to be For Emma, Forever Ago Part II. Unmap is disappointing because it finds competent musicians who’ve been responsible for creative achievements coming together and issuing an album that’s best described as boring.

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