Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Transnational

It surely must be difficult for any band to follow up a well received album. 2011 saw VNV Nation's release of Automatic, an album that demonstrated why the band was at the forefront of the so-called futurepop scene. With it's catchy synth arrangements evoking 80s synthpop and it's uplifting lyrics featuring plenty of retro-futuristic imagery, Automatic showed that VNV Nation were unafraid to take their music in new directions, shedding most of those industrial components that had originally come to define their sound.

2013's release Transnational continues in that new trajectory, but doesn't do much to evolve that sound. While Transnational still has moments of greatness there's a certain familiarity to many of the themes and lyrics resulting in an album that at first listen mildly disappoints.

Transnational seems to lack any big anthems. VNV Nation have always had a certain knack for anthemic songs with big emotional hooks that are easy to get swept up in such as Empires' Standing (1999) or Matter & Form's Perpetual (2005). This was no more evident than in their live shows where these anthems, coupled with the energy and enthusiasm members Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson brought to the stage, gave the audience a feeling that they were part of something larger (the titular "nation" perhaps?).

The songs on Transnational are almost entirely inwardly focused and personal. This is a bit strange given the worldliness of the album title. On nearly every song Ronan sings about himself, or he sings to an unnamed "you". While it's difficult to find fault in a songwriter telling us something personal about themselves, it can be difficult for the listener to make a personal connection if the "you" being described doesn't fit with the listener's sense of self. For example, on the track Everything Ronan sings: "You're hiding your beautiful mind/unaware of what it means to embrace it and defend". It's unclear whether this line, and many others like it, is intended for the listener or someone else.

The lyrics also seem to have been stripped of complexity, and on one song even delve into the realm of silliness. One strength Ronan has always had is he's adept at imbuing his words with strong emotions, so that he's generally able to sell his lyrics even when they aren't the most nuanced. On club-ready Retaliate Ronan tries to sell us this idea that he's on the hunt, but it comes across as some kind of survival-of-the-fittest rant that could be used in a trailer for the next Hunger Games movie. He manages to sell it, but just barely.

Another aspect of Transnational that is perhaps the most puzzling is the production on the album. Ronan has shown a great aptitude for production in the past, I noted in my review of their previous album Automatic "how amazing Ronan has become in the production department.  Everything on this album sounds smooth and polished, with the synths sounding amazingly powerful."

The vocals on Transnational however come across sounding a bit flat and on several tracks the vocals sound muted. This is no more evident than on the leadoff Everything. What would otherwise be a fine, up-tempo energetic song is marred by vocals buried in the background, robbing the song of emotion. That last bit is odd as over the course of the band's evolution, Ronan has put his voice increasingly at the front of the music. Before this album came out the band posted a story on their Facebook page that at the last minute one of the lines in an unnamed song had to be re-recorded (while Ronan was on a boat in the middle of the ocean no less) and it's easy to speculate that Everything was that song. As it is, the lyrics in the second half are barely audible over the music.

Transnational, without question, confers to the expected order of any VNV release. It starts with an instrumental, hits hard with a catchy leadoff, does another song, pauses for a mid-album instrumental, builds it back up with a thoughtful ballad, throws in another song for good measure, and finishes it off with some sort of epic, inspiring piece that typically includes lyrics that encapsulate the themes of the album. At this point in their career the track order, like the iconic logo that graces each album cover, is essentially part of the VNV brand.

A few thoughts on each song:

The album starts strong with Generator, beginning with slow building synths that evolve into a nice rhythm. This is perhaps my favorite opener since Judgement's Prelude (2007). I especially like how there's no seam between it and the next song.

Everything is a fine track that will probably sound great live, but the version here is marred by vocals buried too deep in the mix so as to be almost inaudible at times.

Primary is one of the better cuts from the album. Sounding the most like older VNV Nation, the song tells a loose tale of Ronan piloting some sort of craft racing through the atmosphere as Ronan attempts to control it. It's a bit of Space Oddity by way of Front 242.

The song Retaliate is VNV Nation nodding to its industrial-dance roots. Each album seems to include a song like this, so much so that when the album was first announced someone on a fan forum ventured that the hard track would be called 'Conquest' which is not too far off from what we got. At this point in VNV's career though it doesn't really fit with the milieu they've established for themselves. While the music is definitely club-ready, the lyrics ("one of us the hunter/one of us the prey/one of us the victor/one to walk away") are just kind of silly and come across as trying to hard.

The mid-album instrumental Lost Horizon, supposedly inspired by the 1937 Capra film of the same name, begins with a choir straight out of the band's Empires era (Fragments, anyone?). The track is enjoyable and fine.

Teleconnect (Part 1) is notable in that it's the first time the band has made a multi-part piece. It begins with a choir and plodding rhythm, and then proceeds to drift along with lyrics that don't rhyme, causing the song to come off as sort of meandering and directionless. The retro-futurist lyrics here also seem to be directly recycled from Automatic's superior Streamline.

If I Was begins with a lot of promise. A bouncy bubbly synth accompanies Ronan introspecting while riding a train and watching the world pass by outside. It's nice enough, perhaps a bit too saccharine, but goes astray when the lyrics shift halfway through from Ronan talking about himself to talking to this figurative "you". When he sings "Put aside your burdens/put away your fears/I'd carry them as I carry you/until the very end" does he really mean he's going to carry my burdens, or is he singing to someone else?

Aeroscope is another instrumental which is kind of fun in the way the song boomerangs back just when you think it's done.

Off Screen is, lyrically, a bit of a departure for the band. The lyrics are not only theatrical, they are literally theatrical, with Ronan equating the roles in relationships to roles on the stage. I've seen several commenters who were thrown off by this song and unsure what to make of it, but I actually enjoy it quite a bit. I get a strong 80s vibe with a synth line that could be mistaken for vintage Gary Numan, Off Screen is one of the album's catchiest songs. It has a lot of energy, and sounds more like what I would expect VNV to be doing at this stage in their career.

Finally, Teleconnect (Part 2) ends the album. As I stated above, the final song on a VNV album is usually something uplifting that drives home the overall message and theme of the album. Part 2 is basically one very long buildup, beginning with a delicate synth that slowly builds into a big sweeping wall of luscious sound, and then proceeds to keep building. Knowing that there's eventually going to be lyrics is key, as the listener is increasingly teased with a big cathartic moment that doesn't come until 3/4 of the way through. But when it comes, Ronan delivers what he's so good at: an epic man-on-top-of-the-mountain moment bearing his heart for all. The first time I listened to this song I was honestly left in tears, though upon repeated listens it doesn't affect me nearly as much. It also seems to end somewhat abruptly, as do several other songs on the album. I recommend listening to this one while alone, preferably with the volume turned up.

Overall Transnational is bit confusing. It almost sounds like two EPs mushed together, with the string of songs starting with Lost Horizon through Aeroscope sounding like they might belong to another album. At times the songs feel like they're leftovers from Automatic that didn't make the cut.

Around the time when Automatic came out Ronan said something (perhaps on Facebook  which makes this difficult to go back and verify) that he had so many songs for Automatic that he couldn't fit them all onto one album. In a sense, Transnational could be seen as an 'Automatic Part 2', though not nearly as strong.

Transnational takes a while to get into, and is not quite what was expected after the excellent Automatic. There's a feeling that VNV Nation are currently in a bit of a holding pattern, though as always, it will be interesting to see what they do next.

3.5/5 Zrbo points


Anonymous said...

In regards to your comment about who Ronan lyrically is addressing to, "himself or to someone": It's up to YOU. For a song like "If I Was", he's expressing to you the way he would like someone to express to him. You're suppose to adopt it to a scene or situation in your head where people are having a dialogue with the lyrics. NO ONE complained when "Illusion" came out. Same situation here.

In regards to your comments about the vocal mixing in the songs. Yes,as far as EFFECTS go, I would have liked to have heard some more reverb & echo to enhance the emotion of the song. Especially in a song like "Everything". However, as far as if the vocal track is mixed to quiet with the rest of the sounds; I disagree. Vocals have a "dry" mix, like what he did in "Chrome" vs. a "wet" mix like he did in "Fearless". Having a "dry" mix makes the voice more up close and personal vs away but dramatic. For "Everything", the "dry" mix works considering the lyrics but I subjectively like effects on vocals normally.

I don't see this LP as a recycled "Automatic", I just think that VNV has found a niche to distinguish themselves in the ebm/futurepop community. It's like telling a Black Metal band, "Hey, ever tried not singing about Satan for once?".

Teleconnect pt.1 reminds me of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" and some Vengelis. Part 2 does end abruptly but I think that was with the intention of waking up the listening from the world the song brings you in as you described. "You listened to what I had to say, now go and live".

As a whole it's an LP that can be played live in its entirety since there are not intros or intermission classical tracks like in Automatic. Every song, it's one beat after the next. I'm stilling waiting on some more interviews to learn more about the recording and writing process and see why this LP was so personal this time around.

Interesting review none the less. I wrote one as well on Amazon with more detail.

Herr Zrbo said...

Hi, thanks for commenting.

I've always found Ronan's use of "you" to be a bit of a crutch. I realize I'm in the minority but I particularly DON'T like "Illusion" as the "you" he's addressing doesn't speak to me at all. I would venture to say it's actually my least favorite VNV track.

My main problem with "Everything" is really that I just can't hear the vocals. Especially near the end ("there's glory in the epic of life...") the music just drowns out the vocals so completely that I just can't make out what he's saying. I just want the vocals turned up a few decibels mainly.

I might have been too harsh in my review, but at the same time I'm still somewhat dissapointed with the album. Maybe with a title like Transnational I was expecting more "banners and victory parades" kind of lyrics and not personal, introspective lyrics (this is what I meant by lack of anthems). The album's grown on me somewhat, but I still think Automatic was a better album.