What has a bushy beard, a heartbreaking falsetto, collaborates with Kanye West and has yet to release a third Bon Iver album? It is, of course, Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver frontman has just been having too much fun working with ‘Ye on “Yeezus” and playing bluesy garage-rock with his duo The Shouting Matches to return to the studio to release a third Bon Iver album.
But that’s not all.
There’s his other, perhaps most impressive, side project, Volcano Choir. Unlike the simple warmth of The Shouting Matches or the backwoodsy cabin-music feel of Bon Iver, Volcano Choir is something of an electro-orchestra wunderkind.
Imagine Vernon’s characteristic falsetto in Bon Iver blended intriguingly with heavy drums and slightly glitchy synths and guitar riffs. The result is a beautiful torrent of varying influences that nonetheless retains Vernon’s ability to write poignantly about the trials of holding together as a band and within oneself.
However, the element of Volcano Choir that really brings its sound into its own is prominent electronic production tactics. Vernon’s vocals are tactfully Auto-Tuned in sections to add flare — much unlike T-Pain’s signature robo-squeal. Guitars are phased and glitched across the stereo plane, and percussion moves between marching-band snare drums and extremely low pounding rhythms in the style of Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Opening the album with an organ so full of drawbars that the first thirty seconds feel like gospel in space, “Tiderays” quickly evolves into a steady march full of lush vocal harmonies that reminisce of “Holocene” on Bon Iver’s self-titled album.
By the time the second track “Acetate” cues up, if the melodies and harmonies haven’t been convincing enough, the word play steps in to steal the show. Not only is the music tonally beautiful and impressive, but the lyrics are also subtly and understatedly brilliant. Rather than a song about being busted in the aftermath of a love gone wrong, listeners get a little oratory in chemical medicine and things not fitting where they fall.
Following all this, the album’s single “Comrade” is the ballsy track that will cause those who doubted Vernon’s manly power (falsettos holding a certain softer connotation) to recant in full. The drums come crashing and the guitars incandescing as the chorus really rocks in a way that is both unexpected and delightful.
Not only is this a wholly good album worthy of buying on vinyl, but Volcano Choir has made a relevant statement with their music: They can coexist. Not just with themselves, as has been made evident by a successful album, but also in blending several deeply rifted styles of music.
Folk rock does not often blend with electronic music, probably due in part to stigmas that exist between folk and electronic purists — one is not “natural,” the other is not “exciting.” But Volcano Choir has made one of those artistic somethings that sounds both natural and exciting, which is indicative of a hopeful future of music.
While dubstep will likely continue for a while, and while folk singers will stick to their four chords and wordplay, there’s a beautiful middle ground in there, a beautiful middle ground that’s not exactly no-man’s-land. Rather, it’s more like “all-humans’-land,” since this is territory for all musicians and audiophiles to explore together. And this land might be in the bubbling center of a Volcano.