It's been four years since Volcano Choir stomped onto the scene like a Triceratops in a tutu. Four long quiet years. But what happened after début album Unmap?
Besides six dates in Japan (documented by an excellent performance video of 'Island, IS', lest you might not believe it actually happened), the group essentially disappeared back to under the rock they initially crawled out of. It's fair to say that the majority of people hadn't heard of Collections of Colonies of Bees until Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame announced their upcoming début and it's likely that the group went back to their day job and let Vernon continue on his rise to super-bearded stardom.
At the time the world was Vernon-crazy with his impressive solo material and interesting collaborative choices (Kanye West? really?) so the climate was just enough to slip out the Volcano Choir material and leave the world to reflect on that without expectation… and then, in early 2013, Vernon once again announced out of the blue that the band were returning with a new record. So, you must be thinking, "How the hell is it?!"
Where Unmap opens with the familiar CoCoB signature (glitchy/twangy guitar sliding), Repave takes the option of crawling in with gravelly gargling Hammond organ more akin to second-album Bon Iver. "Wake up" Vernon whispers in 'Tiderays', a perfect welcome-back from a band who've lain dormant too long. As the shape forms, the old familiar processed guitar and quirky vocal-loops return except in the background this time around, allowing melody to take the forefront over experimentation. With this the tone for Repave is fully set and we've realised what has happened to the group in their absence: they've grown.
It's often read as a criticism by early fans when a band moves away from its left-field roots in favour of a more "normal" approach but it has to be understood that a certain level of skill lies in meeting the two in the middle, and with Repave we see a lot of just this.
With its room-full of chanting vocals and steady, heady drums, 'Acetate' rings with a welcome similarity to Danish post-whatever nobles Efterklang and boy! does it swell up to something big. Once again, the glitchy guitar arpeggios lie in the background, leaving the song itself to stand clear and it really does feel more personally engaging than before. 'Comrade' is the closest the group gets to this pop-format, with Vernon's favourite toy coming out the box: the vocoder. It's actually glitchier than the opening tracks, but the chorus is closest thing to R&B Vernon's come since Kanye [yes, I'm not joking, he actually did an album with Kanye].
The centre-point of the Repave is without a doubt the highlight, mostly thanks to the anthemic 'Bygone' - the huge opening single that boasts Vernon's best vocal performance of his career to date. Sorry, you'll have to forget your precious 'Skinny Love' and let it go: the man's just better now. Equally immersing is 'Alaskans', lifted straight out of the tundra with Tuvian throat-synths and a cold bite to the reverb. The lyrics read like a letter to a past lover, reminiscent and nostalgic, and it's also the origin of the record's namesake: "rely rely rely rely / repave repave repave". The inclusion of Charles Bukowski reading at the end of 'Alaskans' might seem unusual to those who are familiar with the debaucherous writer + poet, but a closer analysis of Vernon's own lyrics show a fine match. Justin Vernon has longstandingly refused to water down his lyrics for the sake of a "more thoughtful" piece of music and why should crass or mature lyricism be kept to metal or rap music? The songs in this album are mature and adult, and intended for adult minds capable of immersing and understanding the bigger picture in the ideas; lyrically Vernon really is on form, using the album as an opportunity to explore further these sent or unsent letters to unnamed people. 'Dancepack' stands as yet another example of this and combined with repeated lyrical hooks it gets the best of both worlds: "Take note / there's still a hole in your heart"
Repave is an album of growth. In the four years Volcano Choir have been away they've reflected and reworked their presentation. They've taken what was an already strong form and refined it to something more personal, more familiar, yet still strikingly original. The album holds similarities to its older brother, whilst also referencing the Bon Iver records and CoCoB material. It's an emotional record not for openly sharing and shouting about on the rooftops, because that doesn't treat it with due respect. Instead it's an album for solo immersion, or with a loved one. It's an album to be explored in time, but enjoyed in the moment.
There are moments of floating suspension, such as in 'Keel', which holds very prominent resemblance to the recent, excellent Jenny Hval record Innocence Is Kinky, and no doubt the similarities in themes and performances can't just be a mere coincidence. The album is also greatly uplifting on many occasions and leaves you wanting to scream your lungs out to the truly excellent lyrics and vocal leads. So there we have it: a group that disappeared as quickly as they emerged, only to come back from secret cocoon better than before, bigger, brighter, bolder and with a lot more balls.