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Posted on September 24th, 2009 (1:29 pm) by Mathew Plotnick

Justin Vernon no longer needs to be anything but the star of whatever he produces. After he released For Emma, Forever Ago as Bon Iver in 2007, critics and music lovers spent months gushing over the wonderful simplicity of the album. Its fifteen weeks on the Billboard 200 chart were quite impressive for a fairly unknown artist with nothing but critical praise and talent backing him up. Then in 2009, Vernon announced he was releasing a record he produced with Collections of Colonies of Bees under the name Volcano Choir, and that it would be a more experimental album than his previous work.

Volcano Choir is indeed a more experimental group, which takes away some of the spotlight that Vernon brought upon himself over the past couple of years. Luckily, Vernon is not one for the spotlight in general, and Volcano Choir’s first release, Unmap, is a very good album that showcases the talents of each of the artists involved. While the style of the music shifts heavily from what you heard in Bon Iver, it still seems to meld because of Vernon’s powerful vocals. While you may have only been attracted to this album because of the Bon Iver association, Unmap gives you the chance to hear the talent of Collections of Colonies of Bees, a largely unheard of post-rock group whom Vernon has backed, saying, “Their live show for their new record is unreal.” It’s hard to imagine that Volcano Choir would be anything but a talented group with impressive material to stand by, and it’s quite clear that Vernon made an excellent choice of collaborating partners, as Unmap is a melodic album that excellently combines experimental music with Vernon's lovely falsetto vocals.

It doesn’t take long for feelings of comfort to sink in while listening to Unmap. The opening guitar notes and crooning on “Husks and Shells” make for a relaxed sound, which carries throughout the album. There is a blunt lack of flow from track to track, which is obvious by the second song, “Seeplymouth.” What is so nice about this track is that the experimental tones in the music provide the foreground, with Vernon’s singing acting as an undertone. The hints of singing add a beautiful touch to the post-rock influenced melody. This concept of Vernon’s singing being more of a background idea rather than the main instrument is an interesting one that works well throughout Unmap.

“Island, IS” is the first single released off of the Volcano Choir debut. It’s certainly one of the more unusual sounding tracks that Vernon has sung over. The upbeat mood of the song itself is quite different coming from a sad soul like Bon Iver. I never would have thought that I'd ever find myself tapping my foot to a Justin Vernon track. Yet the rhythm and overall mood of the song almost give you no choice. Following “Island, IS” is “Dote,” a song with almost no singing whatsoever. Although you can hear a faint croon following along, it’s more of an excellent, albeit short, post-rock song. The lack of singing is short lived, as Vernon’s voice joins the sound of clapping and a beautiful piano background on “And Gather.” Unfortunately, the singing grows annoying towards the end of “And Gather,” but since the song is only a bit over two minutes long, there isn’t really much time to complain.

The experimental side of Volcano Choir is on full display in “Mbira in the Morass.” Here, there is hardly any actual music for a long time; instead, simple singing, the occasional pluck of a guitar string, and single piano notes are the only sounds. The track soon becomes trying because of its complete lack of melody. Skipping to the eighth track brings back all the warm memories of the beginning of Unmap. On “Still,” Vernon sings with a vocoder. I’ve found that people often will mix up this musical tool with autotune. They are indeed different, and you can certainly tell the difference in the gorgeous singing on “Still” compared with any song featuring T-Pain. The music on this seven minute track is as experimental as the vocals, and it they work together gorgeously.

Unmap is not the greatest album of the year and it does have its flaws. It is, however, a side project, and a damn good one at that. Justin Vernon has found some excellent collaborators, and it’s nice to see how he has stepped back, letting the music become the main point on certain parts of the album, instead of hogging the spotlight with his vocals. Rather than fueling this album with sad energy, Vernon seems to be having a good time working with the musicians, and the result is uplifting and even poppy at times. While it may not bring a Bon Iver-level of quality to the table, Unmap provides a different look into Justin Vernon’s musical style and provides a welcome showcase for the talents of Collections of Colonies of Bees. Many may never have heard of the Wisconsin post-rock group without the formation of Volcano Choir. These factors make Unmap worth listening to, and make the artists of Volcano Choir even easier to appreciate.

Track List:
1. Husks And Shells (3:43)
2. Seeplymouth (6:43)
3. Island, IS (4:08)
4. Dote (2:50)
5. And Gather (2:18)
6. Mbira In The Morass (3:51)
7. Cool Knowledge (1:07)
8. Still (6:55)
9. Youlogy (3:37)

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

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