VNV Nation/AlterRed

Purple Turtle, London - 8th January 2012

"Passive field, January two thousand and twelve..."


When VNV were on the UK leg of their Automatic Tour last October, they had to cancel a date in Birmingham as lead vocalist Ronan Harris woke up one morning with no voice. Band and promoter apologised and immediately stated they would do something to rectify the situation. The earliest VNV could practically return to the UK to put on a replacement show was in the first month of 2012. In order to make the best use of the band’s time the idea of tagging on a couple of extra dates was introduced. One was to put on their first ever Manchester gig. The other was something any true VNV Nation fan having the wherewithal simply could not miss. VNV Nation playing in a pub in Camden, London. Said pub is directly opposite Koko - the far grander (and about ten times the capacity) venue that the band used for the London date of that tour last October. 

No surprise then that this gig at the (scene stalwart) Purple Turtle public house was sold-out in advance. This promised to be one very special night. So much so that, when the gig was announced last year, I risked partner wrath by gently notifying my wife that our plan to spend New Year in Japan had to be postponed so I could be free to attend! ;-) Thankfully, it was, and I did. (I publicly and formally thank you wifey!) 

Previously announced support act Empirion had to pull out a couple of days before the Saturday gig due to a family illness, but promoters Flag managed to rustle up dsoaudio faves AlterRed [photo: right] as a last minute replacement. Which, as much as I loved Empirion last time out, I was delighted to see. Now airing tracks from their imminent second album Dollstown, the usually theatrical AlterRed presentation (complete with costumed characters from the songs appearing on stage) was more modest than usual, but the late request to step in may have had something to do with that. 

Using a piece of Wendy Carlos' score for A Clockwork Orange was a very pleasant (and appropriate) way to set the scene for what was to follow. For the uninitiated, AlterRed is one Mikey AlterRed who writes and performs everything himself in the studio but is bolstered live by guest musicians performing all the major parts, leaving Mikey himself to lead the proceedings up front as the ringmaster. Their sound is faintly IAMX at times, but presents itself as a unique sound in its own right. The first album Mind Forged Manacles released last year made an immediate impression, and forms the first in what looks set to be a trilogy of concept albums all following a continuous narrative. Dollstown, expected around May, is the second chapter and the handful of songs previewed during tonight’s set augur well for it. 

Whether it was the sweltering heat of so many heaving bodies being crammed into such an intimate space resulting in the crowd being drained of energy, or if it was a partisan gathering of devotees who only had ears for VNV, it was apparent that AlterRed had their work cut out for them in rousing an initially quiet audience. However, digging deep and soon dripping sweat (suitably ‘in character’) Mikey did manage to energize the crowd and deliver another show that confirms a well-spring of talent that clearly still has plenty more to offer. 
[VNV Nation: Ronan Harris]

For a band with as big a global following as VNV Nation have, it was remarkable that here they were this evening, about to step on stage - in a pub. The thrill when they did delivered on all the promise that had been welling up inside fans lucky enough to secure tickets for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am long-standing VNV fan but not one of the hardcore. Of course, there were plenty of them here tonight and one can only speculate just how thrilled they must have felt standing millimeters from the band. 

Voice back to full operational capacity, hampered this evening only by the ever-increasing heat, Ronan pulled out all the stops to deliver on the potential of the billing. Whilst the pre-show marketing implied that the fans got to choose this evening’s set, that wasn’t the case. Fans could vote by email for their top three tracks, but the band then totted up the results and added the three most popular to the set. Standing was the first, followed by Precipice which only appears on the Reformation compilation as a previously unreleased (and rarely performed live) song. Not sure which was the third. Otherwise, it was a version of the regular Automatic Tour set list which, even for this pernickety-about-VNV-Nation’s-back-catalogue writer, was pretty decent. Electronaut got a shout-out twice from the crowd and, despite Harris acknowledging it both times, it wasn’t performed. 
[VNV Nation: Ronan Harris]

The Automatic Tour (and the latest album that spawned it) plays to the polar extremes of the VNV range: from epic, fast beat, trance-infused dance, to deliberately contemplative, genuinely moving slow ballads. Used to playing in front of audiences of several thousand at a time, complete with big light show, it was interesting to see how all of that transferred to a ‘pub gig’. Of course, the huge light rig was a non-starter, but otherwise it was all present and just as impacting, albeit delivered on a more modest scale. Working at such close quarters between band and fans created a truly memorable atmosphere. 

Only drawback for all concerned was that incredible heat. So extreme was it that it even quelled the audience’s energy, prompting Ronan (as if he ever needs any) to shout more than once for louder vocal feedback from the throng. He begged for an external door to be opened to try and get more air circulating on the stage. It didn’t feel like it happened. But even if everyone’s energy levels were functioning at maximum it wasn’t through any lack of passion – on or off stage. During a quiet moment in Nova a guy in the audience could be clearly heard shouting "We fucking love you!". To which Harris immediately responded: "We fucking love you too, Sir!"; perfectly summing up the relationship this band have with their fans. As the evening came to a close and Harris, Jackson and colleagues took the plaudits, they received a remarkable a five minute ovation. 

Referring to Honour, which opens with the memorable line “Passive field, January two thousand and twelve…” Harris commented on never thinking (when that was released back in 1998) that they would actually still be around to perform it - in the very month and year mentioned. It was a touching point. Of course, Harris being who he is, he then went on to joke about it being out-of-date from next month, suggesting newcomers would be asking “What’s he singing about last month for – what’s was so special about that?”! He is the consummate showman and he knows just how to push all the right buttons when it comes to performing – which is precisely what he does. In all the years they’ve been going, whatever the setting or audience reaction, you can see that Harris really is a genuine bloke. He clearly loves what he creates. Loves getting the chance to share it with followers around the globe. Loves to see and hear their reaction, and their understanding of the heart-felt messages carried in many of the songs. It was an evening that will live long in the memory. 9/10

Rob Dyer

Live footage on dsoaudio's YouTube Channel