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Live Review: Volcano Choir @ The Barbican, 11/11/13

Silencing a room is by no means an abnormal feat for Justin Vernon, though this sold-out show at London’s Barbican seems a genuine delight for the humble multi-instrumentalist.

Best known as the creative mastermind behind the much-loved Bon Iver, Vernon last year called an indefinite hiatus on the band that many hold close to their hearts. Though from that, we are gifted with the return of members from Collections of Colonies of Bees, Pele and All Tiny Creatures, as they join Justin Vernon as Wisconsin outfit Volcano Choir for a stunning evening at the Barbican.

Far from a Bon Iver side project, it’s a sonically adventurous collaboration between a singer and the band that inspired him; and in the singers very words, “Volcano Choir is where my heart is at these days”.

It’s been four years since the luscious experiment that formed Unmap, the band’s debut release as a creative entity. Ever one to break boundaries, the record was written via mail and pieced together over several years of passing notes and audio through Wisconsin. Several years on, this Autumn, the band released their follow-up Repave and earlier this week, returned to London for their first ever UK headline show.

A lone figure stood amid the gloomy backdrop, softly lit as an atmospheric, droning organ led opener encompassed the surroundings, welcoming the rest of the band onto the stage. Taking centre stage behind a netting covered lecturn, the bearded, wispy haired Vernon adjusted a set of headphones, before the intricate acoustic opening of Tiderays’. Vocoder effects enthrallingly distort the frontman’s ghostly vocals whilst rolling drums and a switch to electric guitar build to an instrumental crescendo, all the while, Vernon gesticulating his every lyric to the admiring audience.

A seamless structure and confidence is evident throughout; affirming the musicians’ ability in one another as an outfit. Effortlessly reaching anthemic peaks, yet somehow revealing moments of utmost vulnerability through Vernon’s rich falsetto and nimbly plucked acoustic riffs, Volcano Choir certainly know how to put on a show.

With his effortless charm yet slight awkwardness on stage, Vernon’s lead role in this setup barely sees him away from the lecturn; in fact, rather interestingly, Vernon doesn’t play anything on the record, recently claiming, “I wrote one guitar riff”. Though, in the odd occasions he does step away, he fully immerses himself in the talents of his surrounds; joyfully playing air guitar and dancing his way through instrumental interludes. A stark constrast to his Bon Iver live shows, though a welcome one at that.

There’s a genuine sense of excitement and modesty apparent on stage; with guitarist Chris Rosenau regularly thanking the audience: “You guys are nuts, this is amazing.”

The simplistic workings of ‘Alaskans’ lead an emphatically impressive four-track departure, with its poetic citations, soaring vocals and scratchy recording of Charles Bukowski. Building tempo, the anthemic Acetate’ follows before rousing highlight ‘Byegone’ showcases the very best of Volcano Choir; as Vernon joyously proclaims “he’s a legend / I’m a legend and we both go tripping through the door”.

Vernon introduces set closerStill’, taken from debut offering Unmap – “hopefully it will fuck your brains up”. That it does, though in a simply spectacular and resounding display of fine musicianship. Sampling Bon Iver’s exquisite ‘Woods’, much to the delight of fans, it’s a masterful display of the Wisconsin septet’s talents, albeit a little awkward for the enthusiastic Chris Rosenau who takes a tumble, much to the amusement of his fellow bandmates.

All in all, it’s a triumphant performance; one that further cements how Justin Vernon, it seems, can do no wrong and long may it continue.

- Hannah Daisy

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