Those who regard Volcano Choir as a Bon Iver side project are in for quite a shock with this, the collective’s second album. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the post-rock group Collections of Colonies of Bees first got together four years ago with their debut album Unmap, which certainly did enough to get Volcano Choir more than a fair share of critical acclaim. Whilst displaying plenty of promise, it was all too easy to label the release as a distraction, something to fill the void after the astronomical success of For Emma, Forever Ago. Repave, then, is a record that should aim to solidify this project as something deserving of its own limelight.
Album opener ‘Tiderays’, after a sedate organ-led intro, rumbles with purpose and an intent to bely any expectation or prejudice. As the organ drones, a light guitar comes in, soon to be joined by Vernon’s familiar falsetto drifting weightlessly at the top of the mix. It sounds both alien and welcoming at the same time, a sure departure from typical Bon Iver fare, whilst retaining all the hallmarks that have made Vernon such a success in recent years. It’s clear that his varied output has helped him develop a charisma capable of carrying a record, but that isn’t particularly what makes this album such a success. The lavish instrumentation provided by the band is more apparent and immediate than on the previous record, which was written and recorded via each member working alone on their parts. Repave was written the old fashioned way. They all sat down, wrote and recorded the tracks and the difference it makes is astounding.
The trio of ‘Comrades’, ‘Byegone’ and ‘Alaskans’ prove this more than any other points on the record, and are undoubtedly the beating heart of Repave. ‘Comrades’ buzzes with a restlessness, with subtle trills and more thumping percussion leading to a chorus that explodes with an energy and wistfulness that sounds not far removed from Sigur Ros’s most recent output. The quiet-loud dynamic really suits the range and flexibility that Vernon’s voice offers and this is proven further in ‘Byegone’ which, after another subtle opening, comes to life with anthemic drums and the vocals right at the forefront. As the track develops the group are smart enough to let the music do the talking, which in a roundabout way makes the lyrics about a relationship steeped in distrust (“we’re off and definitely stumbling”) all the more potent and emphatic. ‘Alaskans’ follows, and is a continuation of the themes of lost love and nostalgia for a relationship he feels regret for. Vernon’s lyrics often look at the past, a fine juxtaposition to the instrumental force that drives the record forward but here, the track is allowed to breathe and express every sound with a weightlessness that resonates with a profound sense of loss.
The album continues to soar towards its climax with an identity and effortlessness class that belies the fact this is only Volcano Choir’s second album. The sparse and desperate ‘Keel’ is the perfect penultimate track, slowly flourishing before quietly giving way to ‘Almanac’, which is a perfect summation to everything good about this album with steady synths pulsing behind sharp guitar patterns, steadily building to a rousing crescendo that Explosions In The Sky would be proud of. Admittedly, it can sound a little formulaic and predictable, especially when listening to the record in one sitting, but this is easily remedied by the sheer quality of the music, even when it’s on in the background.
This is an album that will take you by surprise, but such is its depth it will take you by surprise time and time again. Each listen will reward with something that maybe you didn’t hear before. It requires you to delves in and pay attention but the pay off for doing so is extraordinary. As summer is about to fall into autumn, it’s difficult to imagine any album that will soundtrack these months as well as Repave.