What did you expect Justin Vernon to do after For Emma, Forever Ago? If your answer is 'make an album with obscure post-rock collective Collections of Colonies of Bees' you're either lying or clairvoyant. Because of course, that's what he did, forming Volcano Choir and releasing the difficult, shifting—yet sometimes beautiful—Unmap in 2009.
That album was compiled in fragments sent via email, each part recorded in isolation. It sounded that way, with COCOB contributing their familiar blend of brisk guitar loops and ambient textures while Vernon attempted to find himself space in which to make a meaningful contribution.
On Repave, Volcano Choir have made a concerted effort to address those limitations. Instead of brittle sketches and a non-collaborative set of songs, the band function here as a fully-formed unit, feeding off each other and pushing in new directions.
It starts with an organ drifting into the mix, drawing out slow chords before acoustic arpeggios and Vernon's familiar double-tracked harmonies enter. Chris Rosenau's builds guitar loops in the background that nestle alongside glitches and electronic manipulation. This is 'Tiderays'—and it's a summary of all that is right and wrong with this album.
On the one hand, the upgrade over Unmap is obvious. These songs feel pored over, the result of three years of writing without deadline until they feel just right. They're tightly wound, all instruments locked in with mechanical precision. Nothing is wasted and no note is misplaced. Because of this, when the band breaks free, as on 'Comrade,' they truly soar. Here the pervading feeling is one of absolute joy—as if the whole album process was a complete labour of love for its creators.
However, the downside of this relentless professionalism is that the freewheeling spirit of Unmap is missed, instead swamped in more traditional influences. The electronic flourishes are often relegated to the background and aside from the cyclical 'Dancepack,' it's difficult to testify as to where the guys from COCOB exert their songwriting clout. With the amount of talent on this record, the fact that pre-release single 'Byegone' swims in the same A-MOR-icana waters as Kings of Leon is a genuine slap in the face. The unadulterated fun of Unmap's 'Island, IS' is noticeably absent and it's a real shame.
That said, there are moments that point to an exciting future for this collective. The droning and unsettling 'Keel' matches the album's ocean artwork perfectly and experimental closer 'Almanac' rides oscillating synth waves and guitar harmonics to near perfection. Jon Mueller's drums at first appear ramshackle and unstable but rise to propel the song—and album—to its peak before dropping out entirely for the final notes.
Over the course of the record, Vernon favours his lower register more and it suits him. When he rises to a Bon Iver-level falsetto, the urge to listen to that self-titled record overtakes the listener’s investment in Volcano Choir, which shouldn't be happening. The deeper notes he hits here have a rich warmth to them that complements the barrel-aged timbre of the rest of the record.
The impressionistic lyrics seem chosen for how the words sound rather than any deeper meaning (“tossing off your compliments/while sexing all your parliaments” but occasionally Vernon stumbles on a nice turn of phrase which draws the listener closer, such as 'Dancepack's “I'm already living for the failure” and “take note/there's still a hole in your heart.”
Despite intriguing intricacies, it's ultimately impossible to see Repave as anything other than a missed opportunity. It feels too safe, too concerned with sounding like a 'proper' band to really fulfil the promise of its members’ day jobs. Despite the obvious love with which the album's been assembled, there's no denying that Broken Social Scene have been doing this sort of thing for much longer and with more success.
6Aidan Reynolds's Score