I’m going to come right out and say that post rock really doesn’t do much for me as a genre. There’s been enough slow build and loud catharsis done since the late 90s to really have the impact of being new anymore. Likewise with the kind of music Justin Vernon plays, although he spends more time plundering old sounds to sing his muddled abstract lyrics over than trying to innovate with futility in a mined-out musical landscape.
So this all begs the question, will Justin Vernon and one of Milwaukee’s longtime musical establishments be able to combine trope-ridden genres to make something new?
Their 2009 debut Unmap suggested the seeds were there but the growth hadn’t arrived, making stone-cold classics like “Island, IS” come off as happy accidents rather than carefully executed masterpieces. Repave, their follow up that polished off the rough edges into something smoother and stranger than the sum of its parts, made good on the promise of improved songs and an expansion of the strange emotional cocktail they started brewing.
Which brings us to our next problem; can they make it sound just as good live?
The answer made itself clear as soon as the first member of Collections of Colonies of Bees made his way onstage and went through some incredibly loud organ drones that wiped the air clean of preconceptions and our minds of any idea what lay in store. Volcano Choir was here to kick ass and redefine their own sound. Every track sounded beefed up in their new live incarnations and Vernon’s voice took on a strange new youthful quality. Leaping from his trademark falsetto down to some terrifyingly deep tones and back felt natural to him now, and CoCoB pulled out all the stops to make some of the most intense yet tightly controlled bursts of sound I’ve heard in a long while. Electronics that could have been flatly rendered popped and sparkled, guitars never fought with anything else in the mix, and the bass was so meaty I nearly swore off vegetarianism. Major credit goes to their soundboard man for letting everything breathe as it shot out towards the crowd and coalesced in our ears. Everything from laptops and keyboards to acoustic guitars to the sampler and drum kit to the bass had its own area to work in and everything sounded about as close to perfect as you can get with live sound. Every instrumental touch was articulate, beautifully crafted, and felt like it slipped natural into the air. The frequent use of processing like autotune on Vernon’s voice felt as right as the occasional distortion pedal or change in keyboard voicing.
I realize this makes the whole thing seem like a bunch of music theory for theory’s sake, but the ethos of Bon Iver was always about putting difficult feelings into musical form and that isn’t lost here either. “Island, IS” was a fountain of chills and beneath the instrumental swagger of new track “Valleyionaire” lay a potent kind of ennui that’s hard to describe unless you’re upper middle class with nowhere to go.
New tracks like the aforementioned “Valleyionaire”, “Nini”, and “The Agreement” were big hits, partially because they sounded more like the traditional song structures and compositional styles out there and less like the left-turn experimental bent that made Volcano Choir such a refreshing sound in 2013. It’ll make them fans, but if they’re going to continue down this road I hope they remember how to throw a curveball to the crowd every once in a while.
So, in case you missed it, an experimental rock band that’s been quietly chugging away in Milwaukee to little national recognition for over a decade now and one of the more successful indie breakout stars start a band, release a stunning sophomore album, play a raucous sold-out show at the Pabst Theater and get the hometown hero reception and it’s one of the best sets that will grace that stage this year. Here’s hoping they do it again soon.