Volcano Choir breaks new ground

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Pay attention to what’s bubbling beneath the surface on Volcano Choir’s sophomore outing, Repave, and you might rightly conclude that the band’s tastes run beyond the shit-hot indiefolk that’s made some of the group’s members famous.

There’s no shortage of desolate guitars and 2 a.m. vocals on tracks like “Tiderays” and “Byegone”. But what’s most interesting is the sonic diversions. Take “Acetate”, which begins with monklike chanting and then lumbers off to postrock heaven before an outro that drags glitch-pop to the opera. The falsetto soul of “Comrade” includes a vocoder-rap salvo, blurry synth washes, and what may or may not be a harpsichord interlude, while the exotic electro-vibed “Almanac” makes a good case that the Doors’ Jim Morrison is not only alive and well but currently being fitted for leather pants somewhere in Cairo.

Most impressive of all might be “Dancepack”, where the Wisconsin-based unit kicks off with a skeletal guitar soundtrack for exploring abandoned farmhouses and then brings a hypnotically repeated riff to the party. That repetition seems more common in the world of electronica, something that Volcano Choir keyboardist-singer Thomas Wincek says is exactly the point.

His band might include indie-folk superstar Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, but that doesn’t mean that no one has heard of Boards of Canada.

“When I go through phases where I want to be outside of my comfort zone, pretty much what I listen to is metal and electronic music, and that’s it,” the engaging musician says with a laugh, on the line from a New Mexico highway. “Electronic music is what I’ve been doing the longest. I’ve been making music on my own since I was 13 with a computer. I also had a techno show when I was in high school, which was a great thing because they would send me promo records. I got to hear everything on the cutting edge.”

Where Volcano Choir—which includes drummer Jon Mueller, guitarists Chris Rosenau and Daniel Spack, and bassist Matthew Skemp—is breaking new ground is by exhaustively manipulating songs that basically sound organic and guitar-based in nature. First coming together as a collaborative project, the group released a well-received debut, Unmap, in 2009. The follow-up not only took a long time to coalesce thanks to everyone’s schedules, it was also anything but quick once Volcano Choir got busy writing: Wincek and his collaborators tinkered for a good year with material that was brought to the table.

“We’ve all got our things that we like and don’t want to let go of, but we’re pretty good about realizing that something isn’t working,” says Wincek, who’s no stranger to weirdness with his other band, the folk mashup unit All Tiny Creatures. “With Repave, there are two songs that actually stayed pretty close to how we started them. Then there are songs like ‘Almanac’, where we were working on it and then we’d go, ‘This fucking sucks.’ We’d go, ‘What’s good about this?’ and then take everything else away and start over. That’s when I came up with things like the 303 sort of acid-house line you’ll hear in that song.”

Yes, you read that correctly: a band that no one has exactly associated with the modern EDM explosion drawing on the pioneering, made-for-superclubs sound that made 808 State famous.

“There’s something about that whole late-’90s period—and I hope I’m not just being nostalgic—where people were listening to some really crazy shit,” Wincek says.

In a weird way, Volcano Choir would have fit right in.

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