Premiere: Waldemar’s Expansive Folk ‘Visions’ See A Future In Wisconsin’s Past

Folk music has always been about time. Did the past matter?, it wonders, by elevating it, will the future erase this form?, it asks, self-possessed with the only answer that could be true. Yes. Of course, folk as we currently conceive of it emerged during an era before electronic music became just as synonymous with the needs and lifestyles of everyday people as acoustic guitars, fiddles and harmonicas were.

To me, folk music can just as easily be electronic, lean into the synths, beats and sampling that artists like Bon Iver and Angel Olsen have willing adopted. Plenty of other artists who started off more acoustic have been drawn toward these influences, too. That doesn’t erase the background elements of folk music, though; a precise, sweet songwriting style remains intact, as do cyclical melodies, and that ever-looming preponderance with time — Justin Vernon’s It might be over soon, or Olsen’s: I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.

Waldemar, who hail from the same neck of the woods as Bon Iver, are just as struck by this deep sense of time as many of their folk counterparts. It’s hard not to compare Gabe Larson’s sweeping, auto-tuned harmonies to Vernon, so let’s just get that out of the way upfront shall we? There’s a clear lineage here, that may be due to the Eau Claire connection, or may not; many artists took Vernon’s vivid, quicksilver merger of folk harmonies and synth possibilities and ran with it. Waldemar’s Visions EP, which comes out this Friday, is one such example, but it stands heads and shoulders above many similar projects.

Larson named his musical project after his dearly departed grandfather; Grandpa Waldemar (Wally for short) was nothing if not steadfast, a World War II veteran who spent his entire life farming cattle, and living on the same plot of land that Theodore Roosevelt granted to his immigrant Swedish family as part of the Homestead Act. That’s the kind of legacy that Larson has found in Wisconsin, even if the memory of his grandfather himself seems shrouded, obscured.

Visions is an attempt to move through that personal fog, to part the cloudiness of time and memory, kicking off with the brass-driven whirlwind “Totem.” A nearly two-minute instrumental lead-in finds Larson torching mementos from the past, looking for closure in the smoke. It’s a song about the catharsis of letting go, destroying as cleansing, with dappled crescendos of synths and insistent chug of percussion driving the process forward.

The EP is Larson’s attempt to grapple with depression, family burdens, and his own struggle coming to terms with the label “artist.” Like most works born out of this kind of struggle, it is deeply empathetic and easy to fall into, odds are it will be a comfort to many who are facing their own set of demons this January.

From there, it slows down a bit for “Brotherly,” a track with a fitting title given the close working relationship between Gabe and his own brother Nick, who contributes vocals and drums throughout the EP. This song unfolds like a hymn to the silence, growing from a quiet hum of cymbals and isolated vocals into a joyous, fervent ode to filial ties.

The defining feature of the Visions EP is that of crescendos, it is a body of work concerned with the change in state, and each song is allowed to unfurl and billow as it will. That these songs don’t bow under the weight of so many changing parts is due in no small part to production from Evan Middlesworth (El Vy) and Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Local Natives, Sufjan Stevens, Indigo Girls).

The title track is the most subdued, spiked again with gentle brass and awash with harmonies, it closes out the brief EP along with the final eight-minute plus “Signe,” which is perhaps the best song here. It ebbs and flows through tricky guitar lines, surprising jolts of synth and high, howling harmonies that trace the melody like wind whipping a conversation out into the night. It’s the most folk-like in a traditional sense, but also the most experimental, a fitting close to an EP that redefines the bounds of an old genre by excavating personal histories while still insisting on moving forward.

We are premiering the full Visions EP today, you can listen below, and if you like what you hear, pre-order it below via Bandcamp.

Visions EP is out 1/13 as a self-release. Get it here via Bandcamp’s pay-what-you-can model.