Judging Unmap by its cover, you could be forgiven for thinking that Justin Vernon of Bon Iver hadn’t made it out of the wintery woods that enshrouded and shaped his astounding debut For Emma, Forever Ago. However, this collaboration between Vernon and fellow Wisconsin residents Collections of Colonies of Bees is a warmer affair, defined by gentle, ambient settings for Vernon’s vocal explorations.
Saying this, Unmap’s most straightforward track, ‘Island, IS’, is one of the highlights: tightly ordered electronic loops eddying along, Vernon’s vocals semi-submerged, intriguingly slipping between clarity and elusiveness. Volcano Choir also rework ‘Woods’ from Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP as ‘Still’. In its original form, it was a striking vocal experiment that outstayed its welcome and could best be described as vocoder marmite. It certainly stood apart from Vernon’s earlier work, but it also felt forced and lacking. Here, …Colonies of Bees aid its transformation from spectre to full-bodied song, layers of ambience drawing you in to its alien desolation, his voice rising to an epic, multi-tracked chorus.
This collaboration apparently predates Vernon’s work as/with Bon Iver, even though the material wasn’t pulled together and mixed until Winter 2008. It feels like a comfortable conversation between friends, even if it occassionally lulls into a pleasant but dull murmur. Unmap stands as an interesting companion to Bon Iver, showing Vernon to be a musician with much more up his plaid sleeve than most singer-songwriters.