[20 November 2008]
If you want a good approximation of the music on Volcano!’s sophomore effort Paperwork, look no further than the exclamation point at the end of the band’s name. It’s a simple and audacious message. With that single punctuation mark grafted onto its moniker, Volcano!’s presence is always, either implicitly or explicitly, going to be announced by a shout rather than a blank-faced label. In other words, this is a band that clearly has no interest in moderation or convention.
And while there’s not much actual shouting on Volcano!’s latest album, that exclamation point’s presence can be clearly heard throughout Paperwork. Tempos and time signatures shift several times on any given track, all three band members create some frenetic sounds with their respective instruments, and every song includes some element that gives it an unwieldy and fascinating shape, whether it be the hyperactive synth-line that punctuates the end of opener “Performance Evaluation Shuffle” or the post-punk fuzz of “Tension Loop”.
For all the near chaos shimmering at the corners of Paperwork, though, this is a somewhat more accessible album than Volcano!’s aptly titled debut, Beautiful Seizure, which, as anyone who’s heard that album will surely vouch, isn’t saying much. Some critics have even used comparatively accessible art-rock contemporaries Battles as a reference point in describing the sound of Paperwork, which is saying a whole lot, being that Battles falls comfortably into the subgenre of math-rock and employs vocals that are usually distorted to unintelligible chipmunk squeals. It’s a reasonable though somewhat flawed comparison. Paperwork does embrace the same cheerfully schizophrenic aesthetic as Battles, but in terms of musical structure it’s an entirely different beast. While Battles have married their considerable experimentation to complex though palatable song structures, Paperwork, despite showing off a slightly more user-friendly Volcano!, still shows the band has no qualms about outright challenging the listener.
The tracks on this album are less songs in the traditional verse-chorus-verse sense of the word than they are mini-suites that reveal their intricacies slowly, almost stubbornly. Breaking down these tracks to their individual components, there isn’t much here that will be immediately accessible to the average listener. Take, for instance, vocalist/guitarist Aaron With. On the surface, his vocal delivery could be compared to that of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke. But where Yorke’s voice typically glides lazily from register to register, With’s voice glides lazily and then stabs downward in an avalanche of syllables. It’s the same with the band’s frequently impressive drummer, Sam Scranton. His beats are, at points, less about simply keeping time than they are about adding a propulsive counterpoint to With’s vocals (or an accompaniment, as the ever-changing architecture of the song demands).
The obvious criticism towards Paperwork, then, is that it’s occasionally the sound of a band that’s pushing its avant-garde sensibilities past the breaking point. These songs will frequently dissolve into a tempest of noise that strains the rhythmic contours of the track before reforming and heading back towards what might be a logical conclusion. When used effectively, on tracks like “Sweet Tooth”, it can be a thrilling device. Other times, though, you’ll find yourself wondering if those riotous synths are doing anything besides making noise for noise’s sake.
All this isn’t to say that there are no pop conceits on this album. There are, but they’re so well-camouflaged (with the exception of “Africa Just Wants to Have Fun”, one of the few songs with an identifiable chorus) that it will take a keen ear and several listens to spot them. But even when you’re lost in the unabashed noise-rock passages of mini-suites like “Fairy Tale”, there’s something pleasingly polyphonous about all that discord. There’s a hint of some structure lurking just below what, on a surface listen, could for all intents and purposes be the sound of the band destroying their instruments.
Paperwork is a very demanding album, and one that sometimes seems to delight in leading the listener towards dead-ends. But it’s in the moments when the disparate elements of a song finally come together – when things click and you realize what the band is trying to accomplish – that it becomes apparent that Volcano! are indeed worthy of that exclamation point.