"PastPerfect" (Limited Edition) (DVD, 2004)
"Is it just me, or would it be wonderful to have a video (or ideally, DVD, but let's not get carried away!) of our boys and their fabulous live show? There's something unique about the rapport Ronan and Mark always manage to build with the audience, which is definitely worthy of permanent preservation. I guess the first step is to convince them of the viability of such a project...so, who's with me? :-)" -- Post on Yahoo Group thevnvnationempire, Feb 7 2001.
Okay, while the above sounds like sad fanboy drivel, it was, as far as I can tell, the first documented time anyone suggested a VNV Nation live DVD. And since Ronan Harris is a regular visitor to the group, I like to think that, in some small way, my posting (for, yes, I was that sad fanboy!) perhaps set a spark, which became a flame, which - over three years later - became PastPerfect, a record of the VNV Nation FuturePerfect tour from 2001 and 2002. You can thank me later. :-)
Electronic and industrial musicians are not generally noted for live performances, often preferring to put their energy into the studio work rather than their concerts. Synthesizers, after all, do not have the theatrical potential of, say, the electric guitar. However, there are some notable exceptions, and VNV Nation definitely qualify; the love both Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson have for live performance is clearly apparent, and Ronan is one of the great frontmen in the genre. Hence, the prospect of a live VNV Nation DVD was a great deal more credible than for many bands. But could it capture the entertainment and sense of fun found at their shows?
There's certainly plenty to keep you occupied in this two-disc set. The first features an intro video plus 11 tracks [but see below], recorded live during 2001 and 2002 concerts on both sides of the Atlantic, while the second has an interview with the band, behind the scenes footage, a piece on the making of FuturePerfect, and more. There's also a poster and a sticker, rounding out the set, albeit to no apparent purpose.
I have a couple of qualms about the presentation on the first DVD. As mentioned above, one of the joys of a VNV Nation gig - I've been to six or seven - is Ronan's connection with the audience, exchanging banter with them throughout, in a way that's unique every time. Unfortunately, due to editing, very little of it is left here; we get standard boilerplate, such as his reference to Mark being 'the engine-room' of VNV Nation, and the usual "thank you very much" after songs.
Secondly, I felt uncomfortable with the camerawork. It's obviously good to have a mix of different events, but here, a decision was made to incorporate them into the same song. For example. I believe the video footage was recorded in Berlin and at the infamous Mera Luna festival (the torrential rain is clearly apparent), but the audio mostly comes from a Washington show. Not only does the switching disrupt the flow, but occasionally leaves the DVD looking like it has been dubbed, because the sound and vision come from different continents. I believe this partly due to problems with source material being destroyed.
However, it still kicks arse. Harris's energy is phenomenal, and his performances differ in many ways, both obvious and subtle, from the familiar recorded versions. And, of course, the material is so strong to begin with, Justin Timberlake couldn't screw it up [even if that mere thought leaves me feeling queasy]. There's nothing from before Praise The Fallen, and only Forsaken of the slower songs - the rest is foot-stomper after foot-stomper. Many bands go their entire careers without producing any 'classic' songs: this DVD has Standing, Solitary and Beloved back to back.
Things don't get much better in the industrial world than that, and few bands could match such a 1-2-3 punch. Though sprawling on our couch doesn't replicate the atmosphere of being packed into a club with 1,000 other VNV-heads, it wasn't long before we were singing [if only they'd provided a subtitled lyrics track], and when Ronan demanded, "Give me your hands!"...we gave them up, living-room or not. We had been trying to decide whether to go to the LA or Denver dates on the upcoming tour - Phoenix being somewhere in the middle - but after watching this, we're giving serious consideration to doing both. That's the effect this DVD had on us.
The second DVD is probably more entertaining, but I suspect has less repeat watchability. It's mostly behind-the-scenes footage, both in and around various cities, and depicting life on tour with a light-hearted and self-deprecating approach. Both Ronan and Mark come over as genuine individuals with whom it'd be great fun to hang out... if not, perhaps, clean up after... and certainly not fall asleep near, going by the pranks depicted therein! As a picture of life on the road, it's certainly better than Almost Famous, and at times approaches Spinal Tap, with moments you just couldn't make up.
The interview is also interesting, with Ronan - as you'd expected - more or less dominating proceedings. Discussion ranges from the thorny topic of musical influences, through how life has changed for them, to the ups and downs of touring. Oddly, this is first up on the second disc, but it'd probably make more sense watched after you've seen the rest of the bonus features. Finally, there's a segment of technical info on the hardware + software used to make FuturePerfect. If you make your own music, this will likely be of more interest than it was to us, and we escaped after three minutes of synth-speak.
But wait! There's more! The "limited" edition release - quotes used advisedly, since seven months after release, it's still available - includes a bonus CD-ROM, with additional interview footage, two more live performances and the stage video for Electronaut. The interface on this is, however, particularly irritating. There are also three 'Easter Eggs' (hidden features) to be found on the DVDs.
1. On Disk 1, if you press the right arrow while Solitary is selected, a VNV logo appears. Press enter to see a performance of Honor 2003. It's all taken from one concert, so is perhaps the best clip on the disk, though Ronan gets pretty out of breath by the end of it!
2. On Disk 2, press right when PastImperfect is selected; again, a logo appears. Press enter and you get an embarrassingly naff video from Mark's past.
3. As for #2, but instead of pressing enter, if you press right again, an "invisible" menu item appears. Then press enter to see Ronan assisting Assemblage 23 on Naked.
Overall, it's an very impressive package, falling just short of true greatness because of the problems on the live footage. The wealth and depth of material here is solid, and showcases the talent of Mark and Ronan, as well as their more human side. Overall - and at the risk of returning to my sad fanboy persona - it only reinforces my view that VNV Nation are one of the finest groups to pick up a keyboard in the past decade. 8/10
Jim McLennan (November 2004)
"Beloved.1" (Single, 2002)
Beloved.1 is just the first of three, yes three, single releases of this strong track from VNV's latest album - Futureperfect. There are four tracks, with three variations of the title track. Only one of the three remixes is by VNV - the opening Short Version - being just what you'd expect. On the other hand, Hiver & Hammer's UK Dub Trip version is likely to raise a few eyebrows among fans but will almost certainly gain plenty of club exposure, but I found it dragging before long. The third remix by Ernst Horn of Deine Lakaien on the other hand is a gloriously spartan and low-fi interpretation. Radically remixed, with Ronan Harris's vocals right up front, naked and pure, it's one of the best remixes of any VNV track I've ever heard. Inspired (love that retro House piano motif!) and magical. The remaining track is VNV's Original Version of Fearless also from Futureperfect, but is nothing more than a weaker mix of an already middling track. 6/10
"Futureperfect" (Album, 2002)
For a band that has always kept tight control over their image, including their black sleeve designs, the light grey sleeve to VNV Nation's fourth album should be a big enough clue to anyone that this was a marked step onto another level for the future pop pioneers. In simplistic terms, this is less heavy and intense than all the previous albums, with plenty of variety, slow numbers, instrumentals and even some mellow ballads. Yet Futureperfect remains resolutely VNV.
The first teaser single to be taken from this album, prior to release, Genesis, was a clever choice. Of all the tracks it is probably Genesis that most easily bridges the gap from the last album to this one. It could almost be from Empires, but not quite. Beloved, the second single, eases us more closely into the world of Futureperfect with its blending of beats and slower melodies that typify this album. For my money, the epic instrumental Electronaut, irrespective of some initial striking similarities with Covenant, is the highlight of the album. At over six minutes it never outstretches itself even though its bascially a beat-driven dancefloor number. The instrumental Liebestod with its wealth of strings could even probably sneak its way onto an In The Nursery album if they weren't looking.
Ronan Harris' vocals have been pushed and the results pay off with easily some of his best performances to date. Because the band are taking a few risks and really pushing the boundaries of the VNV sound this doesn't quite gel like the last two albums and as a result is maybe less satisfying as a whole. But I'm all for progress and VNV deserve every praise for refusing to rest on their laurels and move on. It will be interesting to see what the fans make of this development. 7/10
"Genesis.0" (Promo only single, 2001)
Part of a 'multi-remix single' release (two CDs), Genesis is the first peek Nation fans get of the forthcoming album Futureperfect. The promotional copy of Genesis received at the DSO HQ isn't an exact copy of either of the commercial releases and only features two tracks - both versions of the same song. Sadly, this is somewhat disappointing, with the band producing a 'typical' VNV mid-tempo entry. There's not much 'wrong' with it - it just isn't anything special. The long opening sample of the Apollo 8 crew talking to NASA hints at a new direction, but what follows often feels like VNV Nation operating on auto pilot. A poor imitation of the impressive Empires album. Looking ever closer to the shores of Ibiza, the Single Version challeneges even Covenant's forays into commercial dance territory. The C92 Mix (by VNV Nation) holds back the vocals for three minutes and displays a harder edge that will no doubt help it go down well across European club dancefloors.
In addition to the Single Version, the retail release Genesis.1 features versions by Icon of Coil and Thomas P. Heckmann as well as the previously unreleased track Weltfunk. Genesis.2 also has both the above-mentioned Single Version and C92 Mix along with a mix by new label mates Ivory Frequency and the previously unreleased track Left Behind. Perhaps this promo-only release isn't a accurate indication of the direction the new album is headed. While this may well appeal to a wider audience, there are likely to be some VNV fans who might have expected more progression. 5/10
"Advance and Follow (v2)" (Album, 2001)
There were two things that drove VNV Nation to reengineer their 1995 debut. One was songwriter Ronan Harris' dissatisfaction with the finished product. The other was demand from fans who couldn't get hold of the original, discontinued release. I was never really impressed with VNV Nation's first album, but with the benefit of hindsight and Harris' explanatory sleeve notes it does at least make a lot more sense to me now. I didn't know that Advance and Follow was a collection of material written over a seven, yes, that's seven, year period. It was also recorded in just three days. In order that fans could hear the first album closer to the manner originally intended, Harris and co-worker Mark Jackson have reworked the master tapes into Advance and Follow (v2). Some vocals and parts had to be rerecorded but at all times the aim was not 'improve' the songwriting, merely to spend more time on its presentation, thus remaining faithful to the original intent and spirit of the songs.
So what of the results? Well, given that some of the songs, as I'm sure Harris and Jackson would themselves readily conceed, are still naive or at least youthful compositions, the effect is quite remarkable. Not so much that the songs have been 'transformed' beyond all recognition, because they haven't, more that there is an extremely subtle effect of them being more polished, cohesive and coherent as a result. This must be very satisfying indeed for VNV Nation. Now, for me (and I'm sure for others familiar with 'version 1' of the album) it is as though all this time we had been looking through a dirt-smeared window and saw an unremarkable landscape beyond. With the time and effort spent on 'reproducing' Advance and Follow, it is as if someone has stepped in and cleaned the glass of the window so that we have a crystal clear view. This new found clarity enables us not only to see details were never knew were there but also affects our appreciation of the entire vista.
In addition to the original ten tracks, (v2) also offers some nice extras. Aftershock appeared on the Maschinenwelt compilation in 1994 and was the first VNV Nation track to appear on CD. The "Tormented" remix of Serial Killer is inferior to the original. Circling Overland and DSMO are both covers of Front 242 tracks (which also appear on the Sacrilege 242 Front 242 tribute ablum. Afterfire (Storm) remixes the second track, taking it more rapidly onto the dancefloor. So how does this 'reimagining' compare to the master? Is it enhanced or have VNV messed around with something best left alone? Well, it is better. Not simply because there's more technical clarity (and it is surprising just how much improvement there is in the new mix), but the intent behind the songs is also clearer now. The rough edges have been removed whilst maintaining the simplicity of these formative compositions. Vocals, some of which the band readily declare have been rerecorded, are more prominent than before (and therefore the actual lyrics come across far more strongly). Of all the songs, Frika is transformed the most, into the emotional cry for action it was always meant to be. Hardcore fans will undoubtedly still want to track down the 1995 Discordia release but, trust me, this is the better release and of the two the one I would recommend. 6/10
"Standing (Burning Empires)" (EP Double Single, 2000)
This is a limited edition (4,000) double CD single. CD one, Burning Empires, features seven tracks and CD two, Standing, has just four. With eleven tracks in total and a combined running time of over 62 minutes, you can expect to pay something close to album price for this release - so is it worth it?
The opener, Lastlight reinterprets the opening track from the Empires album, Firstlight. Despite the new title its really just a remix and not a new song in its own right. Kingdom is a remarkable song and is (in my humble opinion) one of the best VNV Nation songs of all time. Kingdom (restoration) throws industrial noise and metal straight at you before settling down in an interesting and heavily treated mix. Nevertheless, alongside the album version it is a pale imitation. Further is billed (incorrectly) on the sleeve notes as the only track included in this double EP not to appear on the Empires album. It could easily be an out-take from the same studio sessions that produced the album and although at times sounding like a mixture of various VNV song elements, manages to stand on its own reasonably well and is a welcome new addition here.
Saviour (vox) adds (surprise) vocals to the former instrumental and whilst it doesn't create the impressive impact of the vocal version (of the similarly previously instrumental) Forsaken found on the Solitary EP, it is a great idea to have a vocal and non-vocal version - enabling fans to choose their preferred option. Fragments (splinter) is a fractured remix of its album counterpart which was one of my least favourite tracks but an additional bassline does give it an extra dimension. Legion appears twice on CD one. Legion (janus) has a very European trancy, almost synth-pop angle, whilst Legion (anachron) takes the mellow route and isolates Ronan Harris' echoing vocals and supports them with lush string arrangements and minimal percussion. An imaginative reworking, one of the better tracks on this EP and a nice way to round of the first CD.
Like Solitary before it, this four-track CD single extracts one of the outstanding songs from the most recent VNV album and gives it the remix treatment. There are two remixes - both by VNV. Standing (still) is a chilled out version that in toning down the original reveals a new song that is full of light, introducing some new string melodies - creating a totally different atmosphere to the album version. Standing (motion), takes the track into a more conventional dance direction, whilst Radius² is the second new song. It's a proficient mid-tempo instrumental that doesn't stand out much compared with most VNV stuff but, like Standing (motion), ought to do well in clubs. Standing (original) is (as you'd expect from the title) the original album version. This CD is also available on its own (released on the same date in an attractive and refreshingly white sleeve).
So whilst there's no questioning the quantity here what about the quality? Well, of course, with only two new tracks, it very much depends on your view of remixes and how different they are from the original versions. Some are impressive, others (and perhaps the majority) are more disposable. I wouldn't argue with the album level pricing policy but this collection is really only about giving hardcore fans something extra to get their teeth into and that it does effectively enough. Others should stick to the far superior album that spawned them. 7/10
"Standing" (Single, 2000)
Like Solitary before it, this four-track CD single extracts one of the outstanding songs from the most recent VNV album and gives it the remix treatment. There are two remixes - both by VNV. Standing (still) is a chilled out version that in toning down the original reveals a new song that is full of light, introducing some new string melodies - creating a totally different atmosphere to the album version. Standing (motion), takes the track into a more conventional dance direction whilst Radius² is the only new song. It's a proficient mid-tempo instrumental that doesn't stand out much compared with most VNV material but, like Standing (motion), ought to do well in clubs. Standing (original) is (as you'd expect from the title) is the same as that found on the album. This CD is also available as the second of two CDs on the limited edition Standing (Burning Empires) double EP released on the same date. Nothing remarkable and certainly no where near as impressive as the earlier Solitary single. Nice, refreshingly non-black sleeve design though. 6/10
"Empires" (Album, 1999) !DSO Recommended!
How does a band follow up what is probably one of the biggest selling industrial albums in recent years, namely the already landmark Praise The Fallen? Some may have expected them to play it safe by sticking to the same formula but is a measure of the band that they have managed to take their distinctive sound further forward. Whilst Empires undoubtedly echoes the war-strewn audio landscape of its predecessor, it also manages to see beyond the destruction and find hope within adversity. Thus we have more balanced, less agressive suite of compositions, reflecting a more mature and thoughtful VNV.
If Praise The Fallen was about the vicious struggle to achieve victory in war then Empires is surely a chronicle of the fall from former glories. A more reflective sense is apparent as the sleeve notes suggest ("Watching Empires Burn"). This could be an industrial soundtrack to Anthony Mann's film The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Flirting with militaristic (and Teutonic) imagery, as VNV do, is not done without due care. Rather, this is about the pride for one's country, for one's beliefs and that is why some wars must be fought to preserve those ideals. Played as loudly as is socially acceptable, Kingdom with it hopes of a brave new world and a promised land is magnificent. Rubicon is another classy, pumping floor-filler (although I do still prefer the heavier version found on Septic, the Dependent label sampler, a version which the band themselves have said they are not happy with). And Legion is a perfect example of VNV working at their (seemingly) effortless best, all with Ronan Harris' often unconventional vocal lines adding a distinctive touch to most songs.
As the band's name in full says: "Victory Not Vengeance" is apparently VNV Nation's aim. Well victory must surely be theirs, because Empires with its cocktail of emotional string movements and anthemic drums and dance floor beats is a glorious album. By taking the difficult decision not to continue down the dark path traversed by Praise The Fallen (the album that really put VNV on the international industrial map), the band show that they have the conviction of their own abilities to continue leading the international industrial scene. Although not as 'important' an album as its predecessor, Empires is more accomplished and very close to perfection in its chosen field. 9/10
"Dark Angel" (Single, 1999)
A sneak preview of the third album Empires, but with only two different songs comprising just three tracks this is only really of interest to diehards. I was disappointed by this single and appearing four months before the release of the album the title track was taken from was an almost angonising wait.
My initial disappointment stemmed from the track sounding rather too similar to the material on Praise The Fallen when I was hoping for a more substantial development. The two remixes, Dark Angel (gabriel) and Dark Angel (azrael) are dance versions, with (azrael) carried aloft by a heavy EBM styling. The third track Tempest (which doesn't appear on the album) is a relatively sedate wrap up track carried by sequenced bell sounds and some unusual percussion sounds and is a rather nice track. Still (fortunately), the Empires album would deliver far more than this single suggests. 6/10
"Solitary" (EP Single, 1998) !DSO Recommended!
A follow-up to the second album Praise The Fallen, this is a terrific single. Terrific largely because the title track is magnificent and is the focus of this release and because with a total of eight tracks this also offers great value. There are four versions of Solitary on this EP along with a Prologue, a superb vocal version of Forsaken that even manages to surpass the instrumental version on the album, Freude (remixed by :wumpscut:) and Fallout. I guess this could be considered as necessary only for VNV enthusiasts (and DJs), but for those wishing to sample the VNV Nation sound before comitting to an album purchase - this is the ideal introductory sampler. The wealth (and high standard) of material on this single provides enough for even the casual listener to obtain a deeper insight into the emotionally-charged world created by this great British industrial two-piece. Definately not just for enthusiasts and easily recommended. 8/10
"Praise The Fallen" (Album, 1998) !DSO Recommended!
After an interesting but not entirely successful debut album (Advance and Follow), this British industrial act moved labels to release Praise The Fallen upon an unsuspecting audience. In stark contrast to the first album, PTF displays an alarmingly confident approach to song creation and performance and now stands alongside the definative industrial concept albums of the past two decades as a landmark release.
Passionate and direct, the tracks on PTF are as much a clarion call to the industrial music scene as they are a call to arms in their warfare subject matter. Easy to accuse of being overblown and possibly even prententious, the songs here are nevertheless always genuine. And in a genre that is often only concerned with moving your feet, it is nice to know that there are still some out there fighting to create music that is also thought-provoking. Based upon tried and tested EBM principles, PTF uses this style as background inspiration only. They use heavy percussion and pumping beats, yes, but their unwritten manifesto also emerges in thier work as strings and ambient soundtracks to war-ravaged landscapes.
Whilst tracks like Joy, with its sheer power, seem content to (expertly) get you on the dance floor, instrumentals like PTF2012 and Forsaken prove that VNV Nation have a more sedate and just as stimulating side to their audio personality. Others manage to achieve both and the utterly spellbinding Solitary is one of the best anthemic industrial tracks I have ever heard and for many this will be up there with the likes of Front 242's Headhunter in the annals of industrial music history. The military theme is carried through to a superb and logical conclusion with Schweigenminute - one minute of silence in memory of those who have indeed fallen on behalf of so many more. Whether you are just looking for perfect industrial club music to dance to or are seeking a more profound means of musical sustenance, VNV Nation's Praise The Fallen delivers it all. 8/10
"Advance and Follow" (Album, 1995)
Presently discontinued, VNV Nation's first full length release is something of a mixed bag. In many respects this feels almost as if they had to purge themselves of these youthful attempts at expression in order to begin their serious work. I'm always willing to give credit to any band that is able to introduce something to music that I've never heard before, and on one track, Amhráin Comhrac, it's Celtic industrial! That's right, music that has the unique sounds of Ireland (fiddles and all) wrapped up in an industrial music package. Not totally convincing, but original as far as I know.
The album vears between extremes and stylistic approaches meaning that it never gels as a complete work. There are some very good tracks like Serial Killer, Amhráin Comhrac and Requiem QCN that provide early clues as to the direction VNV would subsequently pursue, but the majority of the remainder struggle to find a unique voice and influences throughout are apparent just a tad too much. It is interesting to note that the advertising for release of their third album (on their third label) deliberately tags Empires as "The Second Album". It seems clear that VNV Nation has decided that, in comparison to the monumental Praise The Fallen and Empires, Advance and Follow wasn't up to their subsequent high, self-imposed standards and is already something of a musical anachronism in their output. It will be interesting to see if the band will authorise a reissue in the future. Whatever the band's views (or reservations) are on their first album, fans who understand its limitations may still like to get hold of a copy. 5/10
Official VNV Nation website: http://www.vnvnation.com