Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Automatic

Several years ago I found myself driving across the Dumbarton Bridge one early morning.  I don't remember what my intended destination was, but I do remember that the experience was somewhat surreal.  It was early in the morning so a heavy bank of fog was still hovering just off the bay.  Driving along the Dumbarton, with it's span sitting just above water level, the heavy fog obscured any visible sign of land, to the point where I could see nothing but the road, the bay, and the electrical towers running parallel.  It felt as though I were driving on some infinite road in the middle of an infinite ocean.

This surreal experience was accentuated by the sounds of VNV Nation pumping through my car.  I was listening to a somewhat forgotten b-side named Weltfunk from one of the Genesis singles off of their 2002 album Futureperfect.  Weltfunk, loosely translated from German as 'world radio' or 'world transmission', is an instrumental piece, one that makes me think of a parade march for an old art deco inspired World's Fair if they had had synthesizers and drum machines back then.  It's the sound of progress-through-technology from a more innocent age.  This feeling is accentuated by the radio noise that creeps in near the end of the track, almost like the listener is slowly losing the signal.  Driving along this infinite-looking concrete bridge, coupled with the electrical towers and lines running alongside me, I felt as though I were driving into this imagined perfect future.  Weltfunk was perfect for the retro-future/art deco vibe that VNV Nation presented on Futureperfect.  With 2011's Automatic this song now feels like a prototype, invoking the same mood that VNV Nation presents the listener with on their new album.

VNV Nation are a duo, composed of Irishman Ronan Harris, and London-born Mark Jackson.  Working out of their Hamburg studio, Ronan is the real heart of VNV Nation, while Mark provides backup (the Ringo?).  Sprung from the depths of the gloomy underground electro-industrial scene, for the past decade and a half the two have been developing their own unique musical style, one they (perhaps inadvertently) ended up naming 'futurepop'.  While the term may cause long time fans to roll their eyes, it's a perfectly apt descriptor for the style and tone of music VNV Nation have been producing: a mixture of electronica, industrial, dance, and synthpop, the theme of the music being a nod towards the future and the things humanity could be if we put aside our differences.

VNV albums carry a certain DNA in their structural layout.  Each album seems to follow a certain rhythm, with mandatory instrumental (or spoken word) intros, followed usually by an uptempo track, with an instrumental to bring down the energy in the middle, then the album is built back up with a ballad, and ends on some sort of inspirational or experimental track that perhaps encapsulates the theme of the album.  In a sense VNV albums are clichéd, the fan taking comfort in the expected rhythms of each album's structure.  At this point I've come to realize that Ronan Harris has been doing this on purpose. He's not so much run out of ideas, rather he's been busy perfecting an art, each release a slightly more refined and mature iteration of the previous one. He's like a chef, creating and recreating a dish, serving up variations, all similar but none quite the same, until he hits just the right balance of flavors.  Automatic is no exception to this rule: it is structured the way all VNV albums are, and is another great addition in an already amazing catalog.

Automatic begins, as it should, with an instrumental opener to get us in the mood and give us a taste of the theme of the album.  Like with Futureperfect, and more specifically the song Weltfunk, Automatic takes it's stylings from retro-futurism, with art deco inspired cover art (see above), like some sort of missing title card from Metropolis.  The album begins with with On-Air, a three and a half minute bit beginning with some old fuzzy radio noise, like someone changing frequencies on a very, very old radio.  Eventually it morphs into a bit of light piano, but overall it doesn't work too well.  While Matter and Form's Intro was also just a bit of noise, it was so brief that it never outlasted it's welcome.  However, On-Air just dwells around a bit too long, with the opening radio fanfare repeated obnoxiously, and then the song just doesn't really go anywhere.  Typically VNV openers set the stage, getting you excited to hear what's next. 2007's Judgement began with the cinematic Prelude, while Futureperfect's spoken Foreword worked wonderfully with it's inspiring multi-lingual message.  On-Air just doesn't go very far and comes across a bit boring, a problem we'll encounter later on in another instrumental track.  It's a shame then that On-Air falls flat, as what follows is very much worth listening too.

The second track, and the first real song, on a typical VNV album is usually an uptempo, anthemic dance number. 1999's Empires cemented this with Kingdom, which acts like some sort of VNV Nation mission statement. Every VNV album since has given us something good here, and Automatic does not disappoint. Space & Time is classic VNV Nation. It starts really well too, almost to the point where I wish Ronan had broke with tradition and just started the album on this track, just bolting straight out of the gate.

The band usually leaves the third slot space to another dance number, but usually something a bit more mid-tempo or exploratory. Usually these songs are good, but not quite as anthemic as the previous track, almost like Ronan doesn't want to upstage the leadoff song.  Ronan discards this notion and gives us the terrific Resolution.  Borrowing heavily from euphoric trance, Ronan's voice guides us along in an inspirational sing-along in an absolutely perfect piece of unadulterated futurepop complete with the full trance drop-it-out/bring-it-back bridge.  Both of these first two songs are phenomenal ear candy and get the album moving along nicely.

Control is Automatic's nod to VNV's industrial/EBM roots, a rant that finishes with Ronan repeatedly chanting "Put the switch to automatic/I want control!". This song has a perfect opening with terrific energy and just pulls the listener in immediately with rebelliously fun lyrics like "I don't want 15 minutes or a reason why/I want a stainless steel road stretching off to the sky".  If you know your VNV Nation then you'll find Ronan's inspiration here in what I call the VNV-rant song.  These rant songs are a remnant of early VNV tracks like Honour where Ronan barked his lyrics more than sung them.  However, the VNV-rant was truly cemented in the song Chrome from 2005's Matter and Form, and since then has shown it's head in songs like Testament, Nemesis, and Tomorrow Never Comes.  Just like Chrome, Control gets experimental halfway through, with Ronan poking around on knobs and buttons on the old vintage synthesizers he's so fond of, to the point where the song breaks down almost completely two-thirds through, only to have Ronan somehow bring it all back.  It's a fun song that will probably get a lot of play in the clubs, though my only complaint is that once the chorus kicks in Ronan doesn't give us anymore verses, just the repeated "I want control!".

After such an energetic and powerful tune, Ronan, in typical VNV style, gives the listener a break by bringing the energy back down with Goodbye 20th Century - perhaps bringing the energy down a little too much.  Once again, we get old radio sounds which evolve into a light piano, and as before it just doesn't work.  While I understand Ronan's desire to place this track here, it's too slow and pretty much just kills any momentum, with the song coming across as an On-Air part 2.  This might have worked better as the album closer, such as Judgement's As It Fades did (which I described as sounding like something from Lord of the Rings), but it's just too slow for it's own good.

The album recovers with Streamline, a mid-tempo bit with Ronan delving more into the retro-future theme through lyrics such as "streamlined simplicity for a twenty-first century" and "electronic alchemists in the new metropolis/enlightened living through practicality".  The song fulfills it's obligation by getting the album moving again, and brings us to one of the albums best songs.

The seventh track to greet us, Gratitude, is a delightful welcome.  With a nice rhythm running through it, Gratitude finds Ronan giving some personal insight into the things that he's thankful for.  That sounds a bit corny, but it's refreshing to hear Ronan singing about people real to him, as opposed to the usual unknown "you" he substitutes in many tracks.  He even references his father in this song, the first time in any VNV Nation song where a personal figure was specifically named [edit: I've been corrected, apparently he says 'former self' not 'father's self']  (alas, we'll probably never get to know who Ronan was singing about in the haunting vocal version of Forsaken from 1998's Solitary EP).  Actually, I'm not entirely sure if the whole song is meant for his dad or for multiple people as it becomes a bit muddled partway through.  Either way, this is a truly great song, with a terrific rhythm and pacing and sweet chorus that manages to elevate itself above sappiness.

Nova (shine a light on me) is Automatic's ballad.  It's a nice song with a nice sentiment and adequately fulfills its purpose as the song VNV get to perform live while loved ones in the audience hold each other.  If that sounds cynical, then it just goes to show how skilled VNV are when it comes to delivering ballads.  Earlier in the band's career it was a complete novelty to see a band associated with the underground club culture of electro-industrial sing a ballad.  At this point in their career however, we've been given a ballad on each and every album, and they've begun to blur together a bit.  I'm not saying Nova is bad or even clichéd, it's just that some of their earlier ballads seemed to have a bit more heart to them (see Standing) no matter how much Ronan may turn up his broguish crooning here.

The second-to-last track is Photon.  If you know your VNV Nation then you know how they like to include a long danceable instrumental track somewhere on their albums.  Empires birthed Saviour (and later Saviour [Vox] ), Futureperfect begat Electronaut, Matter and Form featured Lightwave, Judgement generated Momentum (har) which added some spoken word, and 2009's Of Faith, Power and Glory continued the spoken word instrumental (how else do I describe it?) with Art of Conflict.  Photon is a fine addition to this lineage (and the name is so similar to Lightwave and Momentum that one wouldn't be blamed for confusing which song was which) and it allows us to move on to the final song off of Automatic

Radio begins with some synthesized blips and bloops and then partway through adds a thudding drum beat to provide some rhythm.  Radio functions as the album's final departing message, with VNV albums usually giving the listener something profound and stirring to ponder.  This song is exactly that, and brings us all the way back to Weltfunk, with the radio as a metaphor for broadcasting VNV Nation's vision that "one should strive to achieve, not sit in bitter regret".  In fact, attentive listeners of this song can hear the distant crackle of a radio between Ronan's opening lines, while the beat that kicks in, despite being unrelentingly thumping, has a surprising amount of bounce to it.  This song takes a while to sink in, but provides some great payoffs.  There's a certain urgency to Ronan's voice here that creates just the mildest bit of uneasiness, something the unrelenting rhythm accentuates.  Rather than go with something wondrous and whimsical like Futureperfect's album closer Airships, here we are given something with just a little bit more edge, but something that fittingly caps off an album devoted to retro-futurism.  Lastly, I have to point out that the song's length is 7:47, a number I'm curious if Ronan deliberately chose (we've seen Mark and Ronan hanging out in front of vintage planes before).

Like it's earlier cousin Weltfunk, Automatic presents us with a vision of a world from a more innocent age, where it was hoped that technology would one day provide for and unite all people's of the Earth.  As VNV Nation's music has progressed, the lyrics have become a tad bit simpler, with the synthesizers given a bit more room to breathe.  Gone are the days of overwrought lyrics and harsh industrial noise.  Though some fans may lament that VNV are no longer the industrial band they once were, it's amazing to see just how far they've come in terms of style and sound.  What began as an infusion of more trance into their earlier sound with the album Futureperfect, has slowly evolved into a wonderfully distinct sound that really sets VNV Nation apart from any of their contemporaries.  I also have to note how amazing Ronan has become in the production department.  Everything on this album sounds smooth and polished, with the synths sounding amazingly powerful.  Ronan is known to toy with his collection of vintage synthesizers, and it would seem that he's become quite proficient in their use.  At this point I wouldn't mind seeing Ronan provide some production on another band's album just to see how he'd fare.

I remarked in my review of Of Faith, Power and Glory that "with each new release Ronan Harris not only expands on the group's sound, but shows that he still has a good ear turned to the club scene. Not a single bleep, bloop, or synth seems misplaced... VNV Nation's strength comes from their ability to meld industrial anthems with catchy hooks and emotive lyrics."  At the time of that writing I thought Of Faith, Power and Glory was the pinnacle of VNV Nation's sound, and could act as a perfect final album for the band if they so chose.  Instead I was completely mistaken, as it seems that it was only with that album that they finished laying the foundation for their future, or, in their own words, "all great things to come".  Like my surreal morning drive across that bridge, VNV Nation are heading down that same stretch of highway and they understand where they're going better than ever.  4.5/5 Zrbo points.


Anonymous said...

great review, olin!

Little Earl said...

Who's Olin?

I detect some top-notch AMG-isms in this one:

"Sprung from the depths of the gloomy underground electro-industrial scene"

"another great addition in an already amazing catalog"

"Both of these first two songs are phenomenal ear candy and get the album moving along nicely"

"with a terrific rhythm and pacing and sweet chorus that manages to elevate itself above sappiness"

"no matter how much Ronan may turn up his broguish crooning here"

"There's a certain urgency to Ronan's voice here that creates just the mildest bit of uneasiness, something the unrelenting rhythm accentuates"

Herr Zrbo said...

I've been practicing my craft :)

Herr Zrbo said...

Looks like Mr. Raggett's AMG review is up, and he gives the album 4 1/2 stars! Woo!