Music

Volcano Choir: Repave

Unlike any of the bands that supposedly live up to the genre’s name, Repave is a “post-rock” album in the truest possible sense. It simultaneously cops traditional rock music’s techniques and sounds nothing like them.


Volcano Choir

Repave

Label: Jagjaguwar
US Release Date: 2013-09-03
UK Release Date: Import
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One can accuse Justin Vernon of many things, but being devoid of a sense of humor isn’t one of them. Any conversation about either him or the Bon Iver name necessarily conjures up the ghosts of shock that were felt when the collective indiesphere, after sitting through the first nine of Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s 10 tracks, came upon the zany troll that is “Beth/Rest.” Few likely imagined that the market—either economically or artistically—for ‘80s sex scene backing songs was still viable, but lo and behold, there it was: an unabashed, Casio-drenched ballad that culminates in a dual saxophone solo. “Curveball” is an understatement; while most of Bon Iver, Bon Iver marks an enhancing of the rustic formula established by For Emma, Forever Ago, “Beth/Rest” represents a moment of wild experimentation. Sonically it manages to fit in with the airy quality of the rest of the LP, but its working parts are something else, something daring. In the year of Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s release, that song was on both my best and worst song lists; its divisiveness is, if nothing else, a feat in its ability to get emotions about the album raised high.

Yet while foreseeing “Beth/Rest” within the context of listening to Bon Iver, Bon Iver through and through is difficult to imagine, Vernon’s creative streak was plenty evident prior to that record. In particular, Volcano Choir—Vernon’s collaboration with members of the post-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees and All Tiny Creatures—has provided him with opportunities to branch beyond the guy-in-a-cabin mythology that he’s perpetually associated with. Their first recording, 2009’s Unmap, is a hodge-podge of things—some folk here, some rock there, some cut-and-paste methodology throughout—and though it’s technically the initial marker of this project, it’s also not exactly a “band effort.” As guitarist Chris Rosenau puts it in the making-of mini documentary for Repave, “With the first record, no one was in the same place, because it was really just an experiment—there was no Volcano Choir at that point. We were just all friends trading ideas back and forth and seeing what weird kind of stuff we could come up with.” He further goes on to describe how strange the band’s short 2009 tour in Tokyo was because there had been so little face-to-face interaction amongst the six members.

It’s fitting for Rosenau to bring this up, as the first and most obvious difference between Repave and Unmap is how much the former feels like an actual collaborative LP. Genre is a tricky thing with this particular outing, but even in the struggle to find what words to pin on Volcano Choir it’s plain to see at this point that there’s unmistakably a sound there, all nomenclature aside. That said, the remarkable accomplishment of Repave is its resounding post-rock quality, and when I say “post-rock” I’m not talking about the long, (de)crescendo based instrumentals of Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky. This is a rock record, but it goes about that directive in ways that most rock outfits wouldn’t think to go—this is, of course, is the intended definition of post-rock: “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes."

Take opener “Tiderays”. After segueing from a Sigur Rós-esque organ to some fingerpicked acoustic guitar—a move Vernon is quite familiar with at this point—the song builds into something quite majestic, with rolling snare drum and alternating guitar figures giving the proceedings a real heft. Best of all are the final moments of the track. Vernon declares, “Brace for the tiderays,” and the music ends on a powerful strum, leaving the listener feeling as if she’s just gotten hit by one of the ocean waves on the LP’s sleeve art. Vernon’s choirboy falsetto is enough to keep one thinking that Repave can’t really be a rock album—which, in many ways, it isn’t—but more often than not, this music rocks. Hell, “Acetate” even bounces, not unlike the way that makes Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” the classic it is. The incredible lead riff to centerpiece and show-stealer “Byegone” has both the drive of anything Joe Perry has ever played and the defamiliarizing quality that sums up Repave. The chorus of that song, punctuated by cries of “set sail” (one of many aquatic references in the lyric sheet), draws a lot from Vernon’s previous ventures into naturalistic exploration, but fortunately his capable compatriots prevent this from delving into For Emma rehashing. This genuinely feels like something new, not merely a perplexing one-off for music antiquarians to mine for years after it’s passed.

With the breaking of new ground, however, often comes an uneven landscape to navigate after the fact. Such is the case with Repave, which counteracts every innovative idea it throws out with a choice better left to the cutting room floor. “Comrade” features a powerful, soaring chorus, but rather than letting that be, the group throws in autotuned vocals towards the end, trying foolishly to retread the unique success of Bon Iver’s “Woods” (and its reworked version on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). That is but one example of an undercurrent of electronic influences that bubble up here and there, which on the whole could have been done without—stripped of these influences, the music speaks very much for itself. A more minor quibble arrives with the lyrics, which—save for the occasional witty line—range from the nonsensical to the headache-inducing. I’m not sure what “Ticonderoga’s shit” is, nor can I imagine what it means to “promise at the north end of monogamy,” and it’s hard to envision even the most imaginative of alt lit writers piecing together a coherent explanation for them. I say this is a “minor” quibble because, like Hard N’ Phirm once explained, one can sacrifice intelligibility if the reward is emotional resonance, which Repave has in spades.

At this point in time, Volcano Choir has made it clear that despite what the scattershot structure of Unmap may have indicated upon its release, this project is for real. Whether it remains on the musical radar for years to come remains to be seen. Vernon’s decision to “wind down” Bon Iver even after dropping its most successful LP shows that the wind can change the course of the sails in ways one might not expect. For now, these Wisconsinites have made a statement about who they are in a distinctive, inimitable way. They’ve come some length from a gaggle of “friends trading ideas back and forth and seeing what weird kind of stuff we could come up with” and have blossomed into a bona fide musical group with an identity comprised of but not bound to the respective sounds of its composite members. There’s still some weird stuff left behind, but at least the good outweighs the bad and Volcano Choir’s conception of “weird” doesn’t include “Beth/Rest.” For the time being.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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