VNV Nation/Straftanz/Ayria

The Scala, London - 21 October 2009

"A magical evening"

Ayria With their date at the O2 Academy sold out in advance, VNV Nation enlisted Flag Promotions to add this extra date to the UK leg of the band's Of Faith, Power and Glory tour. Due to the last minute nature of the gig only one support act was confirmed ahead of time - the Canadian female-led Ayria. Apart from knowing the name, I knew nothing of Ayria before tonight, which probably goes some way to accounting for just how much I enjoyed their set. Citing the cold and harsh Canadian winters as inspiration but admitting they sound more like "pink unicorns attacking us all"(!) Ayria utilise strong electro beats but manage to squeeze them into creative and often quite poppy/rock song structures. And the results were quite beguiling. A bit like Nizter Ebb meStraftanzets Garbage. They're due back in London in December supporting The Cruxshadows. May just have to add that to my "To Do" list. Things had gotten off on a strong footing.

Next up were Straftanz. Again, another name known to me and, this time, I'd also heard some of their good old school electro industrial stuff (or as the band thmselves call it: industrial-street-fighting-dance), but this was my first live sampling. Apparently short of a live member or two this evening (here they were down to a two piece of the lead vocalist k-x who looks like a Romanian wrestler and -jl- on keyboards who looks like a Scandanavian neuwave business man. Not that the lack of members created any noticeable void to the ininitiated like me. Far from it. Within seconds of their opening song starting up I was simultaneously excited and impressed. Straftanz have only one rule: "Bassdrum is the Law!" and they impose it relentlessly. But although they are clearly men on a mission they don't let dogma get in the way of a good tune or sound. So in addition to the dominant punishing beats you also have the kind of melodies and sweeping synth pads not commonly found alongside the club focused components of the dance music scene.

With both members darting back and forth, sharing and alternating vocals and picking up and running around with different pieces of kit, this not only sounded great but was thoroughly entertaining to watch too. They also proved that you don't have to hit your audience around the head with faux-aggression to get them engaged or win them over. Almost in spite of the genre there was a good-natured, enthusiastic atmosphere rather than an angry, vicious or introspective one that you often get in this field. Brilliant performers who not only know how to strike the pose but do so only to enhance what is already a brilliant style and live sound. Straftanz proved to be the perfect choice of support act to VNV Nation. I will definitely be back for more.

VNV Nation: Ronan HarrisWith two acts having played the role of guests to perfection by delivering some great music so far and creating the ideal mood, the Scala crowd were well and truly ready for the main attraction. Perhaps it was down the the late confirmation of this extra London date, but the Scala was far from full. This can be no slight on VNV Nation as they never have difficultly pulling in a crowd. (Proof: the last time I was at a VNV Nation gig that wasn't at or close to capacity was when I first saw them - at Dingwalls in London in 1997!) True to their positive outlook and energy - they weren't going to let the intimately sized audience get in the way of yet another stonkingly good evening. As lead vocalist Ronan Harris said, although they can regularly play to festival audiences of around 25,000 on mainland Europe, the modest turnout here presented a rare opportunity for both the band and their fans to get way closer to one another than is ever normally possible. It was a joy to be able to be at the foot of the stage, literally just inches from Ronan as he leaned into the crowd, soaking up the music and energy. Moreover, because the venue itself is realtively small and affords a great view of the stage no matter where you stand, people felt less inclined than usual to push forward and resolutely occupy the space at the foot of the stage. This meant is was possible for me to stroll around getting different views and perspectives (and photograph angles) and yet if I wanted to get back down the front for more it was still achievable.

VNV Nation: Ronan + MarkI have to admit that I've still not purchased anything by VNV since 2002's superb Futureperfect album and singles, but the new album Of Faith, Power and Glory does appear to straddle now with their past glories more than Judgement (which sometimes sounded a tad by-the-numbers) or the wayward Matter and Form, so I'm not sure I'll ever be as deleriously enthralled at a VNV gig as I was around the turn of the millennium but depsite these 'personal issues' I'll not stop going to see them live as even now there are few other acts who can generate such a positive energy and sense of belonging as these boys do. And they've come a long way since those early, formative years. So it's no longer possible for a setlist to send chills down ones spine from start to finish, and the era when a VNV setlist was like listening to a best-of only selection has passed. For me, they're entering the Depeche Mode zone, where each successive album may not no longer be an essential purchase, but live they remain unique and still worth every penny. When the promoter said their light show put even Gary Numan's latest to shame I was skeptical. But having witnessed the massive LED array (which only just managed to fit on the stage) in such a modest environment as the Scala not only could I believe such a claim but am jealous of those festival crowds who will get to see it in all its large-scale wonder. An appropriate visual backing to the epic songs that this now well-established live four piece create.

At the heart of it all, Ronan Harris remains as genuine, honest and approachable as ever he was. In fact, probably more these day than in their formative years as (although I'm sure they won't stop trying) they've nothing left to prove. Given the extent of their live tours I'm amazed how he manages to keep up the intense passion that typifies his performances. I still find it odd that Harris regularly stops proceedings to have a bit of one-on-one banter with individual audience members or to address the entire throng. His relaxed, chatty demeanour is the very antithisis of the traditional rock star and as disarming as I still sometimes find it, would never want him to change the approach. Being at a VNV Nation gig, no matter if it is just a couple of hundred people like tonight or 25,000 at and open-air festival in Germany, feels like being part of a small family. Every gig somehow feels personal but here, more than ever, it felt like a secret performance for close friends, family and fans only. A magical evening and the best three-band line up I've seen in ages. 8/10

Rob Dyer