By Erik E. Martz
There is no "Skinny Love" on Unmap, the first album from Volcano Choir, the new side project of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver with Milwaukee experimental outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees. In fact, the closest thing to a traditional song on the entire album is looped and rhythmic advance single "Island, IS." There is, instead, a meditation--an extended session of noise and music making that seemingly has no compass and defies the listener to map its course. For those who simply expected another Bon Iver album, here be shoals.
Unmap is a soup of sound--a strange and difficult exercise in creating musical noise for its own sake. It is uninviting, even hostile to the casual listener. Opening track "Husks and Shells," its name an indicative warning, blips to life with Vernon's falsetto and a single acoustic guitar riff, both of which echo repeatedly with each other for the rest of the song in a kind of mantra. Second track "Seeplymouth," a portmanteau for "See Plymouth," lingers on a Sufjan Stevens-like interlude before erupting with Vernon's multi-tracked vocals and a thundering eighth-note homage to Native American tribal music, replete with looped studio chatter. Out of this explodes "Island, IS," itself a flowing mantra of sound. At this point the meaning of the name Volcano Choir has become apparent.
From there the album scales its sides in odd and misshapen non-patterns, sporadically referencing emotions, places, and ideas that don't stick around for very long but disarm once revealed. "Mbira in the Morass" stumbles around vague tinkerings on the Zimbabwean instrument known as the mbira dzavadzimu, Vernon's vocal conjuring the image of a wayward monk canting madly among the trees. "Cool Knowledge" indeed finds a cool funk groove before abruptly ending after a minute. And "Still" is an accompanied version of "Woods" from Blood Bank, with Collections of Colonies of Bees layering a shimmering soundscape around it.
The anchor amongst all this pull and tangle is Justin Vernon's voice. Here he continues to explore the falsetto range of the voice box, nowhere more evident than on album closer "Youlogy." As cymbals crash fitfully around him and a choir of his own voice wail in the distance, Vernon sings a melody reminiscent of the old African-American spiritual "Were You There," his voice sliding in and out of pitch with a feedback drone. "Stand back, all you five and ten cent men," he sings in the album's best lyrical moment, "dollar man knocking on my door." A white man affecting the perspective of the black spiritual can often seem a dubious proposition, but Vernon sings with such large-hearted force as to make one believe that spirit is actually the province of all souls when they are set free in song.
And if there is any key to Unmap, it must be that: be free of what was. This is a pallet sounds and ideas for what could be. Such a record can only infuriate some people. But those who enjoy a good search may find cool knowledge here. Don't listen, this album seems to say. Listen closely.
--Erik E. Martz