Repave is not the sophomore album that I expected Volcano Choir to make. The group — which then consisted of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon alongside members of Wisconsin experimental crew Collections of Colonies of Bees — released its debut, Unmap, in 2009, just a year or so after Bon Iver’s wildly popular first album and less than two years before Vernon would unleash his second. In retrospect, Unmap’s sandwiching between these two albums makes perfect contextual sense; the comparative abstraction and experimentation of the first Volcano Choir record functioned both as an assertion of Vernon’s artistic independence in the wake of For Emma, Forever Ago’s widespread populist appeal and as an early hint of the vastly upgraded compositional complexity that would define Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
The more that I listen to Repave, however, the more problematic it seems to attempt to position this album in some sort of linear relationship with those earlier works that preceded it; Repave is its own beast, a record that certainly picks up on and develops some of the previous ideas from the Bon Iver-Volcano Choir soundworld but deploys them to entirely new and unpredictable ends. At its core, this album functions as a handshake — and an exquisitely graceful handshake, at that — between the experimentation of Volcano Choir’s first album and the sort of epic, anthemic aspirations that certain moments in Bon Iver’s work, especially some of the singalongs on that first record, often seems to take cues from.
Many of the songs here start with gurgling synth and guitar abstraction (all of which are courtesy of current and ex-members of COCOB; Vernon claims that his contributions here are solely vocal) before coalescing into surprisingly straightforward song structures. Take the record’s stunning second song, “Acetate”: the track spends the majority of its duration meandering around a variety of textural and melodic ideas before exploding in a massive moment of catharsis — replete with a hugely singable chorus from Vernon and some weighty guitar chords — that propels the composition to its conclusion. And yet, the true strength of this song (and, indeed, of much of the record) is that, even in the throes of its huge, easily gratifying climax, there are still fascinating, somewhat unexpected musical elements embedded deep within the arrangement — I’m referring here to those relentless, minimalistic descending piano chords that linger until the last moments of the song.
Volcano Choir applies a similar formula to many of the tracks here, apparently attempting to prove that strange, mildly experimental musical inclinations and epic, arena-sized aspirations can peacefully exist side-by-side. Perhaps improbably, the band succeeds on many of these songs, likely because of the impressive levels of musicianship constantly at play. Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Matthew Skemp, Daniel Spack, and Thomas Wincek are truly masters at crafting intricate, engrossing textures: the verses of “Comrade,” another one of Repave’s finest songs, feature an interpolated, stop-and-start sort of hocketing effect in the guitar and keyboard parts that, at least to this listener, seems to function as an analog reconstruction of the sound of digital sample-slicing. This stunning effect is representative of the record as a whole: nearly every song on here features some sort of novel, nuanced recombination of standard rock instrumentation; there’s almost always some sonic detail that the listener can become lost in.
Vernon’s parts also demonstrate a high level of craft. By now, we all understand the chameleonic vocal abilities of this guy (in case you’ve forgotten, he’s responsible for the most weirdly revelatory hook of 2013 so far), but Repave proves that perhaps we still haven’t heard all that his voice is capable of: the unhinged, improvisational emotivity of his winding melody on “Keel” fits the timbre of his ever-expressive voice wonderfully, illuminating new, amorphous avenues that Vernon might find productive to explore in the future. Meanwhile, the vocodered outro of “Comrade” demonstrates that, even though he’s pulled this trick before, a little bit of processing can add a welcome bit of contemporary resonance to his often temporally nondescript wail. His lyrics mostly adhere to the indecipherable, vaguely emotional poeticism of his work in Bon Iver, but there are moments that add new twists of worldly materiality to his wordplay. Who would’ve thought we would ever hear Vernon sing the line “With enough kief, you can really bore someone,” as he does on “Byegone”?
Alas, the level of synergy between Vernon’s parts and the instrumentation of the COCOB-associated members doesn’t always remain quite so impressive, particularly on the album’s latter half. “Alaskans” mires in its own prettiness without meaningfully progressing over the course of its five minutes, while the extremely emphatic vocals on “Dancepack” don’t really complement the stripped-down groove of the song. Largely, however, Repave demonstrates that the collaboration between these Wisconsinites remains quite fruitful, yielding several songs that rival the finest moments in their respective catalogues. Perhaps, just like Unmap, this record is indicative of things to come, but at the moment, it seems rather silly to speculate about its eventual significance in Justin Vernon’s ever-expanding discography. While this certainly isn’t the second album that I expected Volcano Choir to create, it’s a strong showing from a group of talented musicians, and for the moment, I’m more than satisfied with enjoying it on those simple terms alone.