Thursday, May 21, 2015

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Resonance

Every so often musical artists will come up with a way to repackage their music in an attempt to cast themselves as something else than their ascribed genre would suggest. Madonna threw all of her ballads together and released 1995's Something to Remember. Metallica got a symphony orchestra to accompany them live in 1999's S&M. Even Kiss got into the act with 2003's Kiss Symphony: Alive IV. With Resonance, or more fully, VNV Nation and the Babelsburg Film Orchestra's Resonance: Music for Orchestra, Volume 1, the band attempts to re-cast their music in a more classical fashion.

Though ostensibly an industrial act, VNV Nation have always shown a fondness for classical compositions. Frontman Ronan Harris has long cited classical composers such as Mozart, Wagner, and Gorecki as influences. And it shows in their music: nearly every VNV album has a nod to classical music. Beginning with their first album, 1995's Advance & Follow, with instrumental tracks such as "Amhrain Comhrac" and "Fiume", to the "Ode to Joy" sample that fittingly begins 1998's "Joy", through the band's dabbling in neo-classical (e.g., 2002's "Liebestod", 2005's "Colours of Rain", 2007's "As It Fades"), VNV have always relished in the clash between classical music and modern dance music.

Let's get this out of the way right now: this album is Ronan Harris's dream project. He pretty much states this in the liner notes. Originally meant to be a recording of a 2012 live performance at the "Gothik meets Klassik" festival in Liepzig, those tapes met some unfortunate production errors and had to be scrapped. Instead we get this more fully produced studio album, losing out on the live aspect of a classical performance (though perhaps that's for the better as Harris's live singing voice can be a bit rough: that's what years of whisky and cigarettes will do to a man's voice). His Irish brogue comes through a bit here too, with his "I's" sounding very pinched. For Harris I'm sure it was a delight to record this with the Babelsburg Film Orchestra in Potsdam right next door to the set where Metropolis was filmed, considering his love of that film.

Strangely, and perhaps unfortunately, Harris hasn't included a single one of VNV's classical style songs on Resonance. Instead we get a collection consisting mainly of ballads. Everything sounds exceptional; the recording quality here is really superb. The instruments are all clear and Ronan's voice sounds the clearest it's ever been (though he still has very little range). You can tell a lot of time went into the whole production. I can't begrudge them that. It's also kind of cute how they've given each song it's own fancy Italian music term.

If I have a problem with the album it's perhaps due to my own expectations. When a band announces they're going to perform with a full orchestra you expect perhaps something big, loud, and a bit grandiose. VNV Nation's music is impeccably suited for this. Following off of the band's collective name as well as the fervor that Harris is known to convey during live shows, VNV Nation's music can evoke images of a military march (following in a long industrial music tradition of military-appropriation) or a Riefenstahl-esque political rally. One only has to listen to the tracks "Pro Victoria", or the opening minute of Solitary (signals version). It all lends itself perfectly to some sort of big symphonic experience. The band has even dabbled in this symphonic sound before with the faux-orchestral "anachron" remix of "Legion" which is partly used in their live shows.

Instead what we get with Resonance is a much more subdued, even intimate affair. There's little sign of some massive orchestra backing the vocals. What we have instead comes across more like a mid-size music recital with the various instruments all feeling small and contained. The expected highs and crescendos aren't there.

Don't get me wrong, it does all sound quite lovely. But I was hoping for a bit more... wow factor. I came expecting something bombastic, something where the band's songs were amplified to a large spectacle. What I found instead was something much more reserved.

As I said above, I feel like an opportunity was lost here by not including more of VNV's instrumental tracks. While it's perfectly understandable that the tracks on Resonance are the band's well-known ballads and a smattering of other hits, I would have loved to have heard some deeper cuts.

For example, I was hoping we might get a version of one of my favorite b-sides "Distant (Rubicon II)", a song already in an orchestral style. Harris even debuted a new rendition of this song on tour about ten years ago (with this YouTube clip serving as the only remnant I can find, with perhaps the worst audio in history), and I've been waiting for them to release this new rendition for years. This would have been a perfect opportunity, but, no luck.

That's not to say Resonance doesn't have its moments. I was initially surprised when I heard that the album included two different versions of "Nova", an accomplished ballad off 2011's Automatic. Both versions are well done here, but the second version, "Nova (Largo)", is completely unexpected. It's been very slowed down (thus the "Largo") and given a treatment that I can only describe as Victorian chamber music. It's really quite unexpected.

Both of VNV's biggest ballads come across well here. It's a delight to hear actual strings at the beginning of "Solitary (Allegro con Spirito)" and "Standing (Moderato Declamando)". And though "Illusion" is perhaps my least favorite VNV song, hearing the actual piano keys on the "Andante Granzioso" version along with the accompanying strings gives the song a much more intimate feel.

When it comes to the non-ballads, the version of Sentinel here, "Moderato Sostenuto", gives the lyrics to this normally dance-heavy track the gravitas they deserve. "Resolution (Allegro con Fuoco)" a normally uptempo dance number, still comes through as uptempo here with the help of some well placed wood instruments.

In the disappointments category I'd include "Legion (Vivace con Affeto)", a remarkably short piece that doesn't reach the grand heights I'd expect a truly orchestral version of one of the band's best songs to reach. Once again, compare to the remix "Legion (anachron)" and hear what I mean (just listen to those final timpani drums!). The iTunes exclusive track, "Teleconnect, Part 2 (Adagio Sonora)", one of my personal favorites from their most recent album Transnational, fails to land. While the original consisted primarily of one long big buildup, here the buildup sounds somewhat meandering and tuneless so that when the lyrics do arrive at the end they don't hit with the same punch as in the studio version.

Overall, while the production on Resonance sounds superb, I can't help but feel mildly disappointed. It seems that VNV Nation missed a chance to go big here. Instead we get a much more subdued affair and while I'm sure this project is exactly what Ronan Harris wanted, speaking as a long time fan, it's not quite what I wanted when I first heard that VNV Nation were doing an orchestral album. The best praise I can give Resonance is that it's pleasant. However, none of the new renditions here are going to replace or become the new definitive version for me. As the album states, this is a "Volume 1", so perhaps one day we'll get those truly big sounding versions of those songs that are so deserving of it.

4/5 Zrbo points

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