(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

CD review - VNV Nation, Empires

"Victory, not vengeance." A friend recommended VNV Nation to me and I tracked down Empires, which is considered their breakthrough album. (Thanks, Constance, for the tip.)

VNV Nation is really just two guys, Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson. They play a mix of dance style music crossed with industrial. There are elements of New Order and Depeche Mode, but also a fair amount of Front 242 and more modern trance and electronica. Empires is based largely on an Electro-Industrial approach. Throbbing synth beats with layers of sounds and an energetic, relentless feel are typical. The album as a whole is driven and focusing. There are also a number of interesting lyrical themes that run through the songs: the search for meaning, the need to be understood, unclear paths, and redemption of a sort. While these are big ideas, the sum total is coherent, moving, and satisfying.

The album leads off and closes with the same musical theme in the form of firstlight and arclight. The songs start out with synth "boop" sounds and a beat. Pads and washes layer in complexity, but they stay in balance. This produces a pensive feel of reaching for majesty, but sensing something darker.

The first song with lyrics is kingdom, which paints an image of an evil, spent world. Rather than submitting to this, the song dedicates itself to a higher ideal. There are some elements of progressive rock here (and throughout the album). If the beats were toned down and some guitar were added, these songs could fit in on a Porcupine Tree album. Of course, those beats are a fundamental part of the song, with ratcheting relentlessness that set the mood to match the lyrics.

The mood shifts with a more orchestral sound on distant (rubicon II). The beginning is sad and moving, with a sense of loss and ruin. The lyrics are assertive and uncompromising, almost embracing ruin.
the solitude and anger that do battle inside me
will always guide me to the answers that I know I may not see
they are the bonds that hold me tighter
they are the chains that weigh on me
one day, I know they will be gone
This introspective shift from the drive of the previous song provides a nice interlude. It also leads into standing, which begins with an Alan Parsons Project feel. Echoed synthesizer notes push the song forward as the beat builds into a full dance groove. This is where a ghost of New Order is evoked. standing balances the loss of distant with a sense of deep significance of the moment.

The next to last song, darkangel starts with an organic groove, then picks up drive. When the full dance beat of the verse comes in, there's a sense of inevitable determination. The interaction between the synth groove and the percussion sounds is intricate and interesting. There's some deep orchestration here that reveals more detail with repeated listenings.

Even people that aren't really into "dance music" can dig some value in Empires. The lyrics and prog-rock aesthetic propel this out of the dance club and make it a satisfying bit of mind candy. At first I was thinking some flavor of martini, but there's something here that a blended Irish whisky would complement.

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