[4 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s not a whole lot about Collections of Colonies of Bees out there on the Interwebs. While the band does have a MySpace page, it hasn’t – as of this writing in mid-June of 2011 – been updated in awhile. The band has also eschewed posting a video of a clip from their latest offering Giving on YouTube, preferring to go the route of posting to the lesser known Vimeo.com. You have to do a bit of digging on Google before you find anything of note on the band. One page suggested that the band got its start as a more bluegrass and folk outfit, though their most recent output is clearly pegged as post-rock. That would seemingly make Collections of Colonies of Bees, a six-piece from Milwaukee, a bit of an anonymous band, the sort of thing that hipsters who adore the obscure would dig through record bins to find and treasure. Indeed, the band is keeping a fairly tight lid on its newest material, at the very least. However, Collections of Colonies of Bees is actually fairly well known in another iteration. They form half of the nucleus of the group Volcano Choir – the other half being none other than Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. For a group that seems to be content lying the shadows, they’ve clearly had their share of being exposed to the hype and limelight that surrounds Vernon.
The 13-year-old band is now at least six records deep into their career, and Giving is quite a doozy of an instrumental album, one that should generate – bad pun alert! – a fair bit of buzz. It’s as though the group prayed and genuflected before a shrine consisting of a well-worn vinyl copy of Battles’ Mirrored before setting out to make Giving. Yes, the record isn’t earth-shattering or particularly groundbreaking. However, Giving, which is a tight four songs long and clocks in at less than 30 minutes, is a wildly propulsive and enchanting listen, as addictive as nicotine. Thanks to its short length, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. It has enough twists and turns to captivate the listener, and it plunges you headfirst into a sunglasses-wearing brew of utter coolness. Giving is as compelling a play on its first go-round as it is on repeated listens, and leaves you clamouring for more.
The album opens with the shortest track, “Lawn”, which is an epic five-and-a-half minutes long and starts with a triumphant and swirling mass of instrumentation. The cut simply gallops at a reasonable trot, and beckons the listener into the record with a series of descending broken guitar chord riffs, before building up into a torch-bearing piece of riff-shredding rock, with what appears to be a very lightly mixed banjo plucking away in the mix. Then, after about two minutes and fifteen seconds, the track gets light and nimble on its feet, as the guitars and drums play a syncopated pattern. Half a minute later, the drums simply drop out and disappear, creating a spacey and moody sense of atmospherics. Slowly, the track builds up again and gets crunching and heavy. It becomes the sort of thing you can nod your head to enthusiastically before the opening motif rears itself again, transforming it into a bit of a punk anthem.
“Vorm”, which follows, opens with a rolling drum pattern that has the giddiness of a boat rocking on stormy seas. It takes its time, gradually building up, slowly adding more instrumentation, and carries on at a clockwork-setting groove as layers and layers pile up. It eventually locks itself into a tight furrow that simply sweeps us away with its rock-based textures and cadence, still building and building its way up to a tentative climax of hand-wringing emotion.
Up next is “Lawns”, which isn’t really an inverse take on the similarly titled “Lawn” but more of a fully-realized piece of moody jangle-pop. It’s the sort of song you can imagine lyrics being placed against, though the structure of it is such that there isn’t really a place for a chorus. After two minutes and some 30 seconds of this, the track quiets down a little bit before a singular guitar chord is plucked and then begins to transform itself, gently shifting itself against the cymbal crashing beat, again signalling an almost punk attitude. Then, the guitars start a series of quickly played arpeggios, changing the track into an almost-theme from a spaghetti western. A series of reverb-heavy voices ascend from the heavens after that – the only place you’ll hear them on this record – adding further textures, before the song wildly careens over the center line into a maelstrom of melody.
“Vorms” follows this, and is the final thing on the record. Once again, the similarity to the earlier track is in name only. A series of acoustic guitar chords are plucked against what appears to be the beat of a child’s wind-up toy. At just a peg more than nine minutes in length – the longest thing to be found on Giving – the track eventually galvanizes itself into an ‘80s-style arena rock number with fragile, icy guitars playing a series of tasty riffs while another guitar lazily solos in the background. The whole thing then explodes into a transformative would-be chorus, as the drums wail away at a staccato-based rhythm, gradually building and adding more and more walls to the already dense sound. This song, like the others, eventually explores a loud-soft dynamic by breaking down into a drum-less section where repetitive piano chords gradually cascade upon each other against repetitious guitar playing. From there, the song builds upwards, like a tower reaching into the heavens, and there’s a permeating sense of victory that is resounding in feel. In its last 20 seconds or so, guitar chords chime together as though offering a klaxon-esque warning, and the whole thing breathlessly ends on a dime.
Giving is an album that shifts in and out of itself, reminiscent of the type of post-rock theatrics of bands such as Goonies Never Say Die. It takes your head and puts it headlong into a tub of water for almost its full duration, with the intended effect of leaving you breathless and dizzy. Giving is an album rooted in the theatrical. Even in its sense of experimentation with structure, there is enough of a bed of rock-based rhythms to satisfy any listener who prefers music to be heard in large stadiums as opposed to clubs. If there’s any flaw with the album, it’s that the songs tend to wilt away, as opposed to ending in a big, rousing ending. However, Giving is an album that can be played in an endless loop and leave one feeling that it keeps on, well, giving. It is a record that is confident, assured, and adventurous. It’s a big mind-puzzle with interlocking sections that would make it seem to be borderline classical music if it weren’t for the big rock and roll theatrics. Collections of Colonies of Bees may be relatively unheard of, but that hasn’t stopped one of the bigger names in indie rock from utilizing this band of many talents. Justin Vernon knows the scope and ambition that this band mines in its music. And, well, now so will you.