The tenth of ten favorite 2011 albums — VNV Nation, ‘Automatic’

VNV Nation, Automatic

Because it made me cry.

First off, here’s the thing — the only order I’ve been sorting this list into was alphabetical. This list is also my Pazz and Jop ballot and the separate introductory post before I started it will serve as the comments I submitted for it so there ya go on that front, and all ten albums each received 10 points because even if I have a list I’m not interested in assigning those kinds of values to it anymore. (Trust me, I only do that on the AMG and Pitchfork and other similar pieces simply because it’s required.) So VNV Nation being at the end of the list isn’t some sort of sign that it’s therefore the least.

However, strictly speaking this list isn’t alphabetical in that V is before W, and When Saints Go Machine was yesterday. I switched it up a bit because I really did want my final entry and final words on the year in albums from my own whatever-it-might-be perspective to be about this one. It wasn’t like I was taken by surprise by Automatic because I had been very, very patiently waiting for it and knowing it was en route. But did I expect it to hit me as hard as it did? Thank heavens for pleasant surprises.

Perhaps, in some strange way, Automatic actually sums up my year because how parallels can be drawn between it and some of the other albums on my list. Vague perhaps, but I’m thinking about how Ronan Harris has been at this as long as the Mountain Goats and PJ Harvey and Radiohead have, how electronics is the core as it is for Planningtorock and When Saints Go Machine and Active Child, how even though there’s no guitars on the album it rocks as ridiculously well as the Joy Formidable does, how it focuses on the personal and questions of the self as much as Me of a Kind does.

And Lady Gaga? I said this earlier on a private board this year: “It just struck me that the nearest equivalent to Automatic might be Born This Way — trance used and transformed to particular purposes, building off of opposition (societal, personal, whatever) to celebrate surviving and winning, an open acknowledgement of darker impulses, a desire to reach out and beyond into some place in the future that’s better. It’s not that VNV and Gaga are the only ones doing that or that they’re really connected, but there’s a resonance in each that works beautifully, and has really done so for me this year.”

The power of VNV Nation and Harris is something I’ve talked about before here and there so like a number of my favorite albums this was a question of a pleasure of expectation as noted, something I was primed to be blown away by instead of being taken by surprise — the problem with that level of expectation is that one can almost be set in one’s ways. But I only came to VNV Nation a few years ago so this isn’t a long arc for me but a series of sudden shocks, now something of a culmination. Of Faith, Power and Glory was the first VNV Nation album I was waiting for instead of rapidly discovering in retrospect, but Automatic is another next level effort in that path. Like the Mountain Goats, like PJ Harvey, I get the feeling that the best work isn’t past, but present-and-what’s-to-come. Why rest on a laurel wreath when you don’t have to? Why should you?

Now in terms of face value it could be argued — easily — that what’s happening here on Automatic is more of an extension than anything else. Certainly it’s not radical reinvention. But I’ve thought and tried to say before, maybe unsuccessfully, that in VNV what I hear is something that parallels Harris’s use of trance for ulterior purposes — taking all the perceived darkness of the musical background he came from, that whole world of EBM that a whole clutch of us obsessing over groups like DAF and Front 242 and more all found ourselves in twenty plus years back, and turning it into sparkling, relentless light and energy. Inspiration that doesn’t feel like moralization and dullardry precisely because it grows out of something that, at its hoped-for best, distrusted that — in combination with massive baselines and beats.

I don’t argue for Harris — and of course Mark Jackson, his longtime band partner and percussionist — as being out to extend the possibilities of technological production and rhythmic innovation and so forth. And I’m not damning them with faint praise either; rather I’m simply saying the obvious, that that’s not all that needed to succeed, and I hope various earlier entries in this year’s list of mine have underscored that. Instead VNV makes things just fresh and different enough each time, finding something new, something different and distinct each time as the elements are recombined and worked. It could be in Harris’s singing, it could be in the use of melodic element, it could be as something simple as, yes, a bass wobble in “Control.” It’s not dubstep but it’s not meant to be, instead feeling like another instance of keeping your ears open to what can be done as befits one’s tastes.

And so I could go on about “Space and Time” and “Resolution” and “Gratitude” and their anthemic beauty, and I could talk about the melancholia of short instrumentals like “On-Air” and “Goodbye 20th Century,” and I could try and convey about how when the band finally gets to play an LA area show again in March that I’m very much looking forward to “Control” kicking my head in again, just as much as I am seeing if “Nova” is as heartrendingly moving live as it apparently is, according to friends of mine able to have caught them doing that during the recent tours. One thing’s for sure, Harris, with that somehow perfect rasp of his, knows just how to make some killer ballads.

Then there’s “Radio.” It wasn’t the first time I heard it but I was sitting here at my same home computer as I’m typing this now, a few months back, relistening to the album and building up once more to the album’s final song, and those first tones kicked in. I don’t know why it was that time in particular, but part way through it my girlfriend walked into the office and I looked up, a little startled, and we both realized I was tearing up. I did my best to explain why it was that way, thinking that somehow it was, appropriately enough, as if that same spirit of need for connection had transferred from Joy Division’s “Transmission” to this song, only now done as simple but lovely metaphor about communication, about community.

Something about it was pitched just, just right. If I needed confirmation I still am moved by new music, there it was.

Roll on next year.

Purchase Automatic from iTunes or Amazon.

Mid-October AMG reviews

Another big ol’ catchup here, admittedly…

VNV Nation — Automatic
Morkobot — Morbo
James Leyland Kirby — Eager to Tear Apart the Stars
Mountains — Air Museum
Bump — 2
Dillon — This Silence Kills
Remember Remember — The Quickening
The Drift — Blue Hour
Rob Crow — He Thinks He’s People
Regina — Soita Mulle
Nous Non Plus — Freudian Slip
Rwake — Rest
Wiretree — Make Up
Frankie Goes to Hollywood — Liverpool (DeLuxe Edition)
Dreamers of the Ghetto — Enemy/Lover
Wedlock — Exogamy
Wolfgang Voigt — Kafkatrax
Angel — 26000
James Elkington/Nathan Salsburg — Avos
Geoffrey O’Connor — Vanity is Forever
Paul Rutherford — Oh World
Soriah with Ashkelon Sain — Eztica
Cindytalk — Hold Everything Dear
Southerly — Youth
Gauntlet Hair — Gauntlet Hair
Emperor X — Western Teleport
Spooky Attraction From a Distance — Sunflower Sutra
Roedelius — Wasser im Wind
Lazycame — Saturday the Fourteenth

And once again VNV Nation killed it

Great set at Club Nokia last night, the fourth time I’ve seen them now — while I’d heard that this was to be the case, I’ll admit to a tiny smidge of disappointment over one thing: there were very few songs played from Of Faith, Power and Glory. “Pro Victoria” served as the introduction while “Sentinel” and “Tomorrow Never Comes” both got powerful run-throughs. But I was all kinda geared up to also hear songs like “The Great Divide,” “In Defiance” and “Where There is Light” — perhaps next time, though, as Ronan mentioned that they would be returning in November or so. Meantime nobody was complaining over performances of solid warhorses like “Darkangel,” “Beloved,” “Chrome,” “Honour 2003” and more besides. The photo above is from the conclusion of “Perpetual,” as ever a fine way to wrap up the evening.

Ronan was in a very garrulous mood as well — a compliment! He admitted at one point that the jet lag was making him feel a little off but if anything I think it just translated into more fun with the crowd. (Highlights — noting the one guy on the balcony and wondering if his date had made him come, plus an extended break for drink orders from the rest of the band.)

Meantime something I’ve been keeping under my hat — without wanting to tell the whole story (it’s not mine to tell, really!), my friend Fern has become a big fan as well in recent years and so have her children, especially her son Logan, for whom the song “Illusion” in particular has meant much. To make a long story short, with much thanks to everyone involved, especially Ronan, Mark and the band’s manager Biggie, they all had a chance to meet up briefly before the show and I was on hand to snap a photo (that’s Fern’s youngest Moira there as well — her first concert, at seven years! And she loved it!):

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ronan briefly before and chatting with him a few times online; as ever he’s a warm and thoughtful fellow, and I don’t say that lightly. Chatting with Mark briefly was good fun as well, he’s no less a solid guy. Much thanks again!

I’ll conclude by recommending another of the amazingly detailed and reflective long-form interviews that Ronan’s given over the years that have left me very impressed, in this case for This just went up the other week and it’s well worth a detailed read, especially if you want to learn more about the overall sense of design and visual interpretation which has come to define the band. Also, you get to learn that Ronan’s been learning how to do the Lindy Hop with his girlfriend!

And tomorrow, VNV Nation at Club Nokia

Can’t wait — and here’s my preview of the show at the LA Weekly. A snippet:

“California may have its stereotype image for so many but not for us,” said VNV Nation’s lead figure, Ronan Harris, recently, explaining the start of the group’s new tour for its latest album, Of Faith, Power and Glory, tonight. While the Irish-born, Hamburg-based Harris referred to his band’s regular return to the area and its noticeably passionate, varied L.A. fan base, it’s a description just as easily applied to VNV Nation itself.

My VNV Nation reviews for the AMG are up

They’ve actually been up, but now that the new album has been released over in Europe and will be released here in a couple of days, might as well call some attention to them!

Ever since I became a fan of the group one of my goals has been to see if there’s a way to help them gain a greater profile outside of their general fanbase and musical milieu, so getting in reviews via the AMG is one of the bigger things I can do. Hopefully it’ll help.

The review of the Reformation 01 box set is here while the one for Of Faith, Power and Glory is here. To quote a bit of it:

Some bands make their mark from the get-go and never quite seem to escape that first burst of creativity, while others build on what they started with to reach newer heights over time. Over the course of many years and albums, Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson have proven themselves to be a stellar example of the latter, with the work of VNV Nation turning from a series of sometimes overly stern homages to pioneers of electronic body music to an increasingly warm and romantic approach combined with an equal love of rabble-rousing punk shoutalongs and stadium-scaled rave celebrations. Of Faith, Power and Glory continues a run of albums in this vein since Futureperfect and is arguably the pinnacle of the approach…

A first reaction to the new VNV Nation album ‘Of Faith, Power and Glory’

Of Faith, Power and Glory

I hope to have a formal review in the near future through one of my usual outlets. For now, then, simply some brief personal reflections:

As I’ve talked about on here more than once, VNV Nation has assumed particular importance for me in recent years — their song “The Farthest Star” in particular had a resonance for me at a time when I felt frustrated and burnt out on a number of fronts, and any number of songs from the Judgement album hold near equal power as well. The slew of live shows I’ve seen since have reconfirmed that, and the brief conversations I’ve been lucky to have with VNV mainman Ronan Harris have always left me thinking he’s quite a generous and friendly fellow. Meanwhile, I’ve also seen the personal impact his work has had on some friends I’ve introduced the band’s work to — it’s been refreshingly uncynical, for lack of a better term.

Of Faith, Power and Glory — which I’m well into my second listen here tonight, and I’m probably about to play it to death in the run-up to the LA show that kicks off the tour — feels like the logical progression in the run of albums starting with Futureperfect, as VNV have refined and focused their sound, at once of a larger piece and yet able to hit the individual mark nearly every single time. It’s a rare act that can constantly use familiar elements and never seem boring or repetitious about it — we all have our individual examples in other genres, I’m sure, but VNV is my current lodestone there.

As I said, more formal thoughts to be saved for a review first. Suffice to say I spent a good chunk of this evening dancing to this whole thing like a fiend, phrases are already leaping out at me from the lyrics as perfectly capturing states of mind I know or remember well, and I simply can’t wait for the show now.

VNV Nation at the El Rey, Oct 22 2008

Taken a couple of songs before a humorous but clearly honestly felt observation on Ronan’s part wondering what the point of spending a show looking through a video camera was. (I was just taking a couple of still shots so I was innocent…uh, yeah.)

More seriously — another great show from VNV, and as I hoped it was the kind of energy charge-up I wanted going into these last couple of weeks. “The Farthest Star” hit harder for me than ever before, and hearing it at this point just before the elections, given the importance of the song in personally reenergizing me on the social and political front last year, was only appropriate. Crowd was way into it, a lot of first time VNV showgoers (hey, I was one of them last year!), Mark Jackson spoke from the stage (turns out he’s from Depeche Mode’s corner of the world — well, Essex at least) and at one point a man wearing a Borat-style thong and a horsehead mask appeared onstage, utterly befuddling Ronan, who then told a hilarious story about an evil clown. My kind of all-over-the-place show.

Ronan also confirmed return appearances next year along with a new album. This is a very good thing. (Also had a chance to chat with him *very* briefly a little before the show — a friendly fellow!)

New in the OC Weekly — a piece previewing next week’s VNV Nation concert

We were trying to work out an interview feature but the timing wasn’t there! So my piece is more of an overall introduction to VNV for those who may never have heard of ’em. The introduction:

Too often, all one has to do is utter a genre name, and the stereotypes fly forward. Say a band is “industrial,” and everything from people in black clothes beating on pipes to Trent Reznor wannabes comes to mind. In all cases, the image is of tortuous rage and depression.

That’s why VNV Nation, founded by Irish-born Ronan Harris and based out of Germany for many years, deserve far wider credit than they’ve received outside of their dedicated fan base. More than any other band tagged with the industrial moniker (purists consider them to be more of a sub-genre: EBM—“electronic body music”), VNV Nation match their relentless beats with a feeling of inclusive hope instead of solitary despair.

Can’t wait for next week!

Listen to Listen Again — including me on VNV Nation

So I posted the transcript of my piece some time back but now you can hear the whole evening from everyone, as I learned in this e-mail from co-organizer and presenter Josh Kun:

this took longer than we had hoped, but the audio from the Redcat
event is now up at the site of The Popular Music Project at the
Norman Lear Center
check here–
and here–

we are working to get the lists of presenters on the site as well but
for now–

Elijah Wald, 1938
Neal Pollack, 1958
Josh Kun, 1962
RJ Smith, 1966
Oliver Wang, 1968
Janet Sarbanes, 1970
Alice Echols, 1971
Anthony Miller, 1971
Ann Powers, 1974
Judith Halberstam, 1980
Eric Weisbard, 1981

Pt 2
Oscar Garza, 1983
Karen Tongson, 1988
Christine Balance, 1993
Rod Hernandez, 1997
Randall Roberts, 2005
Robert Fink, 2006
Ned Raggett, 2007

Give it all an ear! There were some absolutely killer presentations and it was a treat to be a part of it all.

My presentation for Listen Again at Redcat on VNV Nation’s “The Farthest Star”

But first, a photo, taken by my friend Aileen — thanks again! — during my presentation. Blurry but I like blurry! The time in the background indicates how much time I had left.

Me presenting on VNV

And yes yes, all the 420 jokes, very clever. (If you don’t know what I mean by 420 jokes, be glad. Seriously.) Anyway, Redcat is a wonderful venue, the staff were sharp, professional and friendly — that’s Jeff there sitting next to me, keeping an eye on levels and raising and lowering the volume of the song as needed — and the whole experience, as mentioned earlier was grand. Lord knows I was nervous as hell while reading through it, but folks said I handled it all very smoothly. Perception is all!

So, here’s how to recreate the effect — load up VNV Nation’s Myspace page, which at the present time still has “The Farthest Star” as the lead single. As soon as it starts playing, read along in a measured fashion, with appropriate pauses noted. The whole idea of five minutes to present on a song grew out of what Joshua Clover called ‘critical karaoke’ — talking about a song during a song as it plays — so why not karaoke of critical karaoke? If you like.

The text below is as I wrote it, though I made a couple of on the fly changes, which are incorporated as I can recall them. Enjoy!

VNV Nation call themselves futurepop. This is important and I’ll yet explain why. But let’s talk about pop first, the way that this song, “The Farthest Star,” builds and begins with some pure pop drama.

*the beats begin*

The feeling is immediacy, a combination of things that are obvious, from trance, from industrial. It’s a big part of why I love it. So too with Ronan Harris’s voice and wonderfully obvious lyrics.

*Harris sings the first three lines of the song*

The words are almost designed to be written on a 10th-grade-textbook cover in a moment of boredom, to be quoted on a Myspace profile. It’s a combination of so many perfect tropes I still marvel at it, unironically – will to power, rising above yourself, confronting the ‘truth,’ self-motivation as reason for achievement. Harris’s speak-singing was once described by writer Josh Langhoff as the ‘impassive offspring of Neil Tennant and Craig Finn’, and all three of them love their anthems. Langhoff also noted that anthemic touch that makes things monumental in VNV’s best work – establish a pattern, then do something simple but effective to lift it higher. So that’s why the chorus works for me so well.

*Harris sings the chorus in full for the first time*

The imagery of the farthest star appeals to the astronomy buff in me, I admit – the one who watched Cosmos wide eyed as a young boy, listening to Carl Sagan speak on the reach and range of the universe. Electronic music formed the backbone of that series’ soundtrack, appropriately enough, but it was more of the contemplative variety, while elsewhere in my life disco rhythms could be heard all over the radio. So maybe everything about what VNV call futurepop is really just nostalgia, and I’m only reacting to a dead form – but then why were the thousands of people I saw at their show in June so whipped into a frenzy by the band, nearly all of them much younger than me? Why did I keep going back to their Myspace page and listening to this song again, and again, and again? It’s because they do know pop so well, as another dramatic moment like this shows:

*just after the second chorus, the music drops away to a quiet synth part and a soft delivery of a few lines by Harris*

In this moment of sudden restraint, space opens up…and then the future of futurepop comes to me, a sense of the future I dreamed of as an eighties kid, beats and synths and more somehow always looking ahead, driving outward. This song, more than any piece of art last year, reinspired me and reinvigorated me when it came to engaging with life, politics and more, a personal recharge that seeks to reach all the universe even though it never could. That the lyrics reference a ‘we,’ not an ‘I’ or a ‘you,’ may only be a dream of inclusiveness in the end but it’s a fantastic dream. And when the third chorus hits, I’m always left perfectly speechless.

*Harris sings the chorus for the third and final time*

A final teasing out of that astronomical metaphor, the sound swirls out slowly and slowly, trying to reach that end point, and trying to show and sound that there’s a reason to stand by your ideals, your loves, whatever they are. It’s simple, it’s basic, it’s glorious. And it is pop. Thanks very much!

And there you go!