It took three years for Wisconsin natives Volcano Choir to release a follow-up to their impressive debut, Unmap. The time was well spent, since Repave proves to be an unsurprisingly beautiful study of the most relatable of human emotions.
Incorporating images of regret, disillusion, solemnity, hope, and defiance, the songs piece together the complex experience of being stuck at an existential dead-end. But “stuck” doesn’t mean “still”. Repave is flooded with the slow, meandering loops that connect it to the band’s previous sound, but it progresses, rising into a series of swells and crests before falling back again. Corey Arnold’s “The North Sea” is an appropriate cover art choice.
Several tracks perfect the build-to-burst vibe that Volcano Choir has honed, but none match the cathartic brilliance of “Byegone” and its anthemic climax. The swell is so pervasive that it’s almost impossible not to raise your own fist and join in screaming: “SET SAIL!” In contrast, it’s followed by the tender, mournful “Alaskans”, whose chorus follows you down abandoned hallways: “Decide, decide, decide, decide/Repave, repave, repave, repave” until you, inevitably, run into a mirror only to lose yourself staring at the empty black pits that were once your pupils.
But I digress.
While Repave marks maturation in the band’s identity, it might confuse fans of Unmap, due to its more traditional format. Where the latter was an otherworldly exploration of sonic texture, Repave strikes a much more earthly place. Rather than promoting a looser, aesthetic-driven format, the album delves into more emotional ground, which makes it less surprising, but more relatable.
It also leads to a more prominent role for singer Justin Vernon, whose vocals on Unmap were present in a more abstract sense that blended into the layering of instruments. Repave is made up of single statements; each song contains its own epic rise and fall, and the lyrics are more central to a song’s identity. The “wholeness” of another concept album is lacking, but the singularity of songs makes for a more successful concert experience.
Repave reeks of “message,” but it’s a hard one to pin down. There are a lot of questions asked but even more statements made, often in the form of mantra-like choruses that promote resolution… or the want for it. The triumph that rings through songs like “Acetate”, “Comrade”, and “Almanac” is an ellipsis; a call for action that provides hope, but no answers. It’s a reflection of the internal struggle that finding your direction brings, as well as an acceptance that, in lieu of other options, the anticipation of triumph is itself a win.