A lone douchebag calls out into the silence: “Let’s go!!”
“Where are you going?” Nathaniel Heuer, bass player and vocalist for Hello Death, calls back. “Like, do you have a plan?”
“I didn’t think so. I guess you’re coming with us.”
With a name like theirs, one could imagine where a journey with Hello Death would lead them. As it turns out, it’s a shadowy, cavernous place, but surprisingly tender. Proponents of “dark folk music from Milwaukee,” they offer up a selection of slow, mournful tunes perfect for haunting your local abandoned mansion. Heuer’s gravelly vocals switch off with guitarist/violinist Marielle Allschwang, together creating a sound that ranges from sinister to sublime.
The opening song, “Settlers”, is like a Brother’s Grimm lullaby, mixing soothing melodies with gruesome lyrics. It makes for a great introduction to the afterlife, as Heuer’s gruff voice and bass plucking take over on “Good Luck” and “Disappointed”, the latter an eerie combination of piano chords, steel guitar, and ghostly harmonies. Allschwang takes back the reins on, “The Coming Tide”, a beautifully chilling shanty. Accordions never sounded so sinister.
The set closed with “Footsteps”, a song that perfectly encapsulates the strange balance Hello Death has cultivated, as a myriad of instruments and vocal qualities cross paths to form a sound that is so singularly foreboding. Strings sink down into the floorboards while harmonies float up to the eaves, surrounding the audience with a feeling that’s apprehensive, but never frightened. Amiss, but not uncomfortable. Finally, the song builds to a smash of percussion and bass that fills the room until, suddenly, it’s gone, leaving an unsettling silence in its wake.
By the time Volcano Choir’s Thomas Wincek walked on stage to start the heavy drone that opens “Tiderays”, the audience collectively leaned towards the stage, holding its hands out to thaw. As the rest of the group filtered on, that warm glow settled over the Pabst that can only be found at a good old-fashioned hometown show. When “Tiderays” faded out into “Island, IS”, things only got brighter.
Given my penchant for waxing poetic on Volcano Choir, I’ll stick to the facts: the songs the band created for Repave are strong, but the energy they attain in a live setting is visceral. The choruses of “Comrade” and, later on, “Acetate” practically explode, while standout single and penultimate set choice “Byegone” roars so powerfully it lifts you off your feet. Even the melancholic “Alaskans” achieved a new tenderness; quiet and sincere.
But that’s a lot of feelings to feel. Thankfully, unfamiliar songs like “Valleynaire” and “The Agreement” punctuated the set, imbuing a sense of spontaneity while keeping older numbers fresh. They weren’t as strong musically, but still energetic and enjoyable, especially considering a whole set of build-until-you-can’t-build-anymore numbers would add up to an emotionally repetitive roller coaster.
But a good build has its place. As proof, Volcano Choir closed out the set with “Still” (slash-”Woods” slash-”Lost in the World”, depending on your demographic). The stark simplicity of vocals and percussion layered into seven minutes – or ten, after Jon Mueller’s lengthy series of drum solos – is a divine reminder of the elements that formed Volcano Choir in the first place, as one of the first songs the band collaborated on.
Lights faded out and back in as the band came back for an encore highlighted by more overwhelmed words from guitarist Chris Rosseau (“Milwaukee, you’re crazy!”) and an incredibly powerful version of “Almanac”, with Justin Vernon’s cathartic yells echoing out into space: “I’ll be alive/When all of this is over/When all of us are sober”.
An impromptu decision to end with “Youlogy” capped off the evening, Vernon’s face dark behind the glowing podium that housed the Repave logo. It was a perfectly full-circle choice for a group that very much understands the concept. The rest of us left to sit in the dark and comfortably consider our mortality.