Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Uncharted lands in a good winter – Volcano Choir “Unmap”

With the bank balance seriously depleted at the moment, and a lunchtime choice between some healthy food or a pretty reasonably priced new CD boasting a collaboration between Justin Vernon (the name behind Bon Iver) and Collections of Colonies of Bees (who I had never heard of, but with a name like that, who cares if you’ve heard of them or not?), the decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. I resigned myself to a bag of cheap junk food, and grabbed my copy of Volcano Choir’s Unmap.

But if you’re expecting the Justin Vernon of Volcano Choir to produce another incarnation of the For Emma, Forever Ago of Bon Iver (see 7th October), then you are probably going to be disappointed. But if you are ready to hear him use his incredibly individualised and intimate high falsetto in new, and daringly experimental ways, then you are going to be pretty impressed by Unmap.

Justin Vernon’s voice still floats, soft and whispered, often richly harmonised with itself, but now it works more as a music instrument than as a teller of stories, fading in and out of the fabric of each song.

And each song certainly has its own unique fabric, be it gently hued through the faltering acoustic guitar of ‘Husks and Shells’, or darkly vibrant through the pulsating drum beat of ‘Sleepymouth’, or spacey and psychedelic through the avant-garde electronics and distorted keyboards of ‘Mbira in the Morass’. ‘Dote’ is eerily quiet, with long, echoing drones, while ‘And Gather’ is jaunty and bright, with its handclaps and softly harmonised vocals. ‘Still’ builds almost imperceptibly from motionless, sustained electronic chords to a vast, deep sea of ambient beauty, where soft cymbals, carried by Vernon’s gently windswept vocals, glide over the surface, and ‘Youlogy’, haunting and desolate, sounds like craggy rocks jutting out of a desert plain, with lonely discords pockmarking its emptiness.

It’s the way each piece picks its path through new, uncharted territory, groping about, touching new and unfamiliar clumps of sound, until it finds something to hold onto and guide it, that gives Unmap its sense of cohesion. And, of course, that’s also what gives sense to the album’s title – it’s music that finds where it’s going without a map, not unlike some of the later work of David Sylvian.

If you like your musical journeys to be secure from the first step, Unmap is probably not the album for you. But if you like the thrill of starting out without really knowing where you are or where you’re going, but trusting the skill and ingenuity of your guide, then you will find that Volcano Choir take you to some pretty amazing places on this album.

Well worth the cost of a decent lunch.

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