On entering the Barbican it was clear this wasn't a standard indie-rock show. The fully-seated venue deserves an acknowledgement itself as this expansive auditorium which traditionally plays host to classical performances was trading its orchestral tones for something substantially different. The considerably more contemporary delight Volcano Choir consisting of Justin Vernon (a figure who needs no elaborate introduction) and accompanying members from the technically tuned post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees and All Tiny Creatures.
With a substantial portion of London’s knit-wearing hipster scene sat on the edge of their seats, the band eased listeners in with a sustained organ drone that engulfed the entire music hall. This indicated the start of the heavenly album opener ‘Tiderays’ as the prolonged organ hum blended effortlessly with a delicately performed acoustic guitar hook. “Wake up” is the first we hear of Justin Vernon’s feather light falsetto tones and from the word go he has the audience enthralled. This track is then characterised by pounding and almost militaristic drumming that integrates with the rest of the composition and makes for an overwhelmingly promising introduction to the Volcano Choir live experience.
From this point onwards, the band delve in to their back catalogue with the audience even having the pleasure of hearing previously unfamiliar material. One of the novel tracks was the morally strong ‘Valuenaire’ that highlighted the importance of benevolent values over monetary worth. With this sentimentally cheesy lesson in mind, this track also proved to be their most cheerful song to date as it was defined by its punchy piano chord progression and pulsing drums. However by no means did this weaken the artistic credibility of the show. In fact, this track proved to be a refreshing addition as the audience were treated to an animated Vernon bouncing on the balls of his feet as he enthusiastically co-ordinated his hand gestures to the lyrics of the song. Tracks like this as well as the more anthemic numbers such as ‘Acetate’ and ‘Byegone’ however proved slightly problematic within the seated venue as many found it difficult to fully express their enthusiasm other than by excitably bouncing their knees or nodding their heads. Nevertheless, with every track they played concluding with a roaring applause from the crowd, the band were humbly aware that their performance was going down a treat.
Considering the nature of the majority of their discography the venue proved to be an ideal environment for Volcano Choir. ‘Keel’ off of the superbly uplifting ‘Repave’ proved to be more engaging in reality compared to on the record as the contorted and warbling acoustic guitar melody provided the ultimate platform for Vernon to demonstrate the true strength of his voice. Another vocal highlight came with the mesmerising ‘Still’. Its distinctive vocal melody that has featured both on the Bon Iver track ‘Woods’ and Kanye West’s ‘Lost in the World’ was performed flawlessly as Vernon stirred up a whirlwind of engaging looped harmonies which merged majestically with the musical talent of the rest of the band. Whilst these two tracks heavily relied on various effects pedals, the band did not necessarily need to hide themselves behind such production as demonstrated through a dreamy rendition of ‘Alaskans’ that left the audience feeling genuinely awestruck. With their first ever London now embedded in history, we can only hope that Volcano Choir continue to do what they are doing and return to us with more. The band’s potential is limitless and whilst Vernon’s work with Bon Iver will be eternally praised, there is nothing stopping the work of this pioneering sextet from towering above Vernon’s previous efforts.
Words: George Hemmati