Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Collection of Colonies of Bees - HAWAII (2018)

Though most people's introduction to Wisconsin outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees may have been due to the fact that its members played alongside Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as Volcano Choir, Collections of Colonies of Bees have been crafting incredibly innovative and intricate guitar music for the better part of two decades not unlike a sort of Deerhoof of the Midwest. But aside from an impressively long career filled with records each more incredible than the last, that's pretty much where the Deerhoof comparisons live and die. Throughout the years COCOB has undergone a number of lineup changes sharing members with Field Report, Megafaun, Sylvan Esso, and All Tiny Creatures but guitarist Chris Rosenau has remained its steadfast captain, navigating the outfit as its most consistent and senior member since the departure of his co-founder, drummer Jim Mueller.

HAWAII, the band's most recent album and their follow up to 2014's SET, introduces those not in attendance at the third year of Vernon's Eaux Claires festival to its newer lineup which welcomes Marielle Allschwang into the fold on vocals - another shakeup for the previously solely instrumental focused band. Though the addition of vocals might in theory appear to push COCOB towards a more standard form of rock music than they've been purveying over the years, ever the innovators - Allschwang's inclusion comes with a bit of a surprise in the form of the creation of a synced pedal rig that connects Allschwang's vocals with Rosenau's guitar to further flush out Collections of Colonies of Bees' harmonic language. When first single "Ruins" dropped, I was unsure of how exactly Rosenau and Allschwang's relationship would play out over the course of an album but "Killerers", the album's opening track instantly answered that question. The entrance of Allschwang's vocals enter as a sort of stutter-stop hum - not quite tied to meaning but an integral part of the song's multitude of layers. I was reminded instantly of the technique of Ryan Lott of Son Lux where he recorded his collaborators vocals, cut them up and turned them into samples, and then tied them to individual notes. The main difference of course being that Allschwang is a present and active participant in the delivery of her vocals. Where previous albums SET , GIVING, and Birds presented Collection of Colonies of Bees as a pretty straight forward melody rich but rhythmically focused melange of guitars, bass, and drums HAWAII reintroduces the more diverse elements of the band's more distant past like the return of synths even as they push themselves toward a more ubiquitous sound.

HAWAII isn't a complete re-writing of the what the band's been about for the past decade or so however - even as they implement the use of lyrics for the first time. The band had a way of presenting engaging musical tableaux without the use of lyrics or even descriptive titles, and though hardly nonsense or gibberish - the addition of vocals by Allschwang and guitarist Daniel Spack, are largely impressionistic; another timbre to resonate in their multitudinous harmonies. Even as Collection of Colonies filter in more familiar pop leaning elements, there's an equal subversion and embrace of those expectations. Songs like the eponymous "HAWAII" which might've been a 7 minute long instrumental post rock jam elsewhere uses the added vocal framing to achieve the grandiose highs of songs like "G (F)" or "Lawn". The vocals undergo their own subtle evolution over the course of the album - enduring a sort of climax on "For Ghost" - the album's briefest and most singer/songwriter recalling effort.

While the old adage might be "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", bands like Collections of Colonies of Bees thrive by their ability to push themselves into new sounds and creative visions that inspire them and HAWAII even if you take away the seeming gimmick of the pedal rig that steers Allschwang's vocals - it's an album that's so delightfully complex without really insisting on that complexity. Take a song like "Ruins", arguably the album's most standard verse-chorus-verse type song. There's so many elements that work in tandem like Allschwang and Spack's dueting vocals but there's little embellishments that are beguiling effortless - like Allschwang's breathing being a noticeable part of the song's climatic breakdown that are hands down contribute to some of the album's most winsome moments. Collections of Colonies of Bees might've worn their influences of electronica, jazz, and post rock much more openly in their earlier days, their embrace of the familiar has added a much appreciated new dimension to their music. If Collections of Colonies of Bees are truly trying to bridge the gap between their experimental and pop tendencies, they've certainly succeeded on HAWAII - an album filled with engaging compositions that makes a bold but interesting new direction for the band.

Collections of Colonies of Bees' HAWAII is out now on Polyvinyl. You can order the record now.

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