“How can a show not be just a whining guy with a guitar?” Volcano Choir’s lead singer Justin Vernon asked himself during an interview with Pitchfork last summer. Though the question may have been rhetorical, Vernon seems to have directly answered it with his sold-out show on Tuesday night at The Fillmore in San Francisco.
Vernon, sans guitar, sang explosively and grandiosely, playing tracks mostly off Volcano Choir’s 2013 release Repave, adding a couple favorites from 2009’s Unmap. The electronic post-rock sextet from Wisconsin opened with “Tiderays,” effectively manipulating Vernon’s vocals and falsetto in electronic looping and processing. The result could only be described as majestic. Polished crescendos swelled like ocean currents, soaring to mystical realms.
“Islands, IS” kicked the energy up at the Fillmore. Its pulsing rhythm and keyboards flowed beautifully with Vernon’s milky voice. Switching it up a bit, Volcano Choir transitioned back to their latest album for “Alaskans,” a quiet, sentimental, bleary-eyed tune playing off gorgeously painful lyrics. Toward the end of the song, “Alaskans” faded into a scratchy recording of a man philosophizing on death. This recording of Charles Bukowski reading one of his poems added a new, more poetic dimension to the musical experience.
Vernon’s relationship with his music is a visual one. One can see the intensity with which he writes lyrics through his hand gestures, his facial expressions and even the way he moves. There’s a conspicuous beauty in his actions, as if on stage he is attempting to reconcile some type of spiritual high with a secretive violence from deep within. It is this force and passion that separates Volcano Choir from any other “indie rock” band of today — if you choose to let the band fall under this category.
Volcano Choir is distinctly different from even Bon Iver, Vernon’s more popular band (famous for songs like “Skinny Love” and “Flume”). Volcano Choir is more powerful, more ballad-like, more regal. If the band were an architectural form it would be a cathedral floating in the middle of the ocean. How’s that for commanding and royal?
It all boils down to one thing — Volcano Choir’s ability to create such explosive and aggressive music, yet fill that same bursting music with a sense of clarity. “Shed skin,” Vernon croons on “Almanac,” which the group performed as its encore Tuesday night. It is a sound piece of advice for Volcano Choir concertgoers. By the end of the show one may leave feeling one layer lighter.