If it weren’t for the sudden fame that followed the unlikely rise of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, there’s a decent chance Unmap, the debut album from Volcano Choir, wouldn’t come burdened with expectations of quality. Or even be released at all. Unmap was recorded and created in the studio as far back as 2005 by Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon and his friends in the Wisconsin band Collections of Colonies of Bees. That was well before Vernon separated himself from every other flannel-clad troubadour. If not for the huge demand for Bon Iver-related product these days, it seems likely that Unmap, an obtuse little electronic album that veers wildly between exciting and painfully boring, would go overlooked.
Because most of these songs were recorded well before For Emma, holding Unmap up to the sterling example of Bon Iver’s debut is sure to disappoint. For Emma was a heart-wrenching venture into the psyche of a dude with a broken heart, while Unmap buries its few charms purposefully in ethereal rock tics. Not to mention the stink of studio diddling that permeates out of Unmap‘s every sound. Highlights like the frantic, haunting “Island, IS” and naked closer “Youlogy” (the closest to a Bon Iver track here) give way to tracks that are the aural equivalent of a kid’s replication of a Jackson Pollock; there’s a whole lot of shit going on, but half the time it’s just a sloppy disaster. Tape hiss builds to something on “Dote,” before it falls away like someone misplaced a splice of the rest of the track. The percussive clangs of “Mbira in the Morass” replicate Chinese water torture via sound, which is a stunning technical accomplishment, in a way. And the longest track here (“Still”) is just a way-too-long remix of “The Woods,” Bon Iver’s vocoder workout from the Blood Bank EP.
If there’s one thing that becomes clear over Unmap’s running time is that it’s clear it was made before either group involved had an audience. Unmap is the definition of a vanity project, except there’s not much vanity in doing an electronic record that is inferior to the original music either group has made on their own. While sometimes a lack of artistic burden can lead to impressive albums and art, sometimes it leads to Unmap.