Ronan Harris’ influential gothic industrial project VNV Nation has been shaping industrial music for more than 20 years. In that time, his sound has evolved in interesting directions with less harshness than his earliest work for some time now, but his central concerns have stayed very consistent. In VNV’s world, gothic sounds acknowledge countercultural rejection of the mainstream as being a dark abyss of injustice and nonsense, but the music is always geared towards finding the light beyond that. This often takes the guise of spiritual transcendence, and many fans attest that shows are nearly religious experiences as the electronic beats become increasingly uplifting and elevated, resembling a sense of light, both in feeling lighter and in the sense of illumination.
The lyrics have a remarkable poetic quality, and this has always struck me as the most Irish part of the band, but Celtic music as well factors into this. The sounds combine the influence of Celtic musical configurations which often emphasize battles and spiritual transcendence, English rave sounds, industrial and gothic music, and Germany’s considerable underground scene as a focal point for electronic music. There is also a deep orchestral and jazz influence present. What is perhaps most remarkable is that so many points of reference get translated into such remarkably clear sonic statements.
Many of the songs of VNV Nation can be deceptive to new listeners who often think that a single passage in a song sounds simple, but when placed together, the beats form a very powerful and complex tapestry that favors transcendence through sound and is strikingly visual, as the light shows at concerts increasingly amplifies. This is often described as futurepop, an uplifting style of industrial music drawing on synthpop and EBM threads. The songs are synthesizer heavy with dirty electronics, and more aggressive songs use EBM beats and techniques to create strong bodily reactions through dancing, allowing the music to be very deeply felt.
Light above dark is shown in the band’s symbolism of a torch, and the keyboard passages on the songs often demonstrate this against the drums. It’s a beautiful and relatively basic sound that allows for a wide range of songwriting and focuses on basic elements of dark synth driven music. Much like Japanese art, this strikes me as a considerable strength in allowing for greater perfection through less busy compositions. VNV songs have a remarkable directness and clarity of intent that makes them a serious pleasure in contrast to every other band, and it is one of Ronan’s most impressive qualities. His ideas are well thought out and stated in a musical way that allows people to feel what he means while also being able to thoughtfully reflect on the meaning of his songs.
Very often injustice is the theme, both in a moral and spiritual sense. The songs express genuine outrage at the horrors of political and social injustice, inequality, environmental damage, and war fighting. Those do strike me as the central problems of the 21st century in all of its dystopian aspects. People have learned that technologies they thought would free them, like Facebook, are used to assist corruption and exploitation, as has been increasingly noted even in congressional hearings in the United States. So finding such clear musical recognition of this problematic world is a wonderful development. It’s not that others don’t focus on these issues. Many dark styles of music find inspiration in similar problems, but VNV is far clearer in how the issues are approached.
There is also a spiritual side to the songs that is remarkable. Ronan’s work reflects the belief that human beings are meant for something better, that the soul is not meant to be so damaged by superficial life. Hence, the theme of transcendence or rising above factors heavily in VNV Nation songs. The band’s name stands for victory not vengeance, with the view that it is best to overcome obstacles by being better than it is to become wrapped up in petty fighting. The traditions of Ireland factored into this for him, as oppression of the Irish and war fighting were very interlinked. People should be free and fulfilled, and they should seek to find that through the most positive means of making things better.
The new album, Noire, is clearly one of Ronan’s best albums, but this is a tricky thing with VNV, because the albums are consistently excellent and create that feeling very often when a new album comes out. Still, this one has a very epic sweep that in my mind seems like another side of Empire. This is intriguing to me, because there was an exceptional tour where VNV played both the Empire and Automatic albums, and it did leave me curious about the possibility of taking the somewhat epic scope of the former album and combining it with some of the more airy and light sounds from the latter. Some of that seems to be materializing with Noire, but there is no doubt that much more is happening as well.
The album has clear ties to the 1930s era that fascinates Ronan, and this was the time when film noir was just emerging as a great form of cinema with bold shadows and subversively sensual plot lines that would take on great clarity in the postwar period. It was also a very progressive era with interest in people working together to overcome the severe problems of the Great Depression and the Second World War. At the same time, the title refers to pure black – as a musical expression, as a goth idea, and as a situation of pervasive darkness and lack of hope. All of this seems to be appropriate as an artistic mixture that is relevant to the current state of humanity against a very unimpressive worldwide political backdrop.
Lights Go Out strikes me as a particularly brilliant song from the new album. “Out with the old war, in with the new. Dressed to the nines, atomic chic looks so good on you. The zeitgeist trend for a new generation, for a new radiation, and everyone laughs, everyone laughs.” The song is staged as a party for the end of the world and was one of the highlights of the last Denver concert. With worsening environmental problems and renewed threat of nuclear war, this song is as true as any could be, and it has a tongue in cheek way of ridiculing the elite for creating the problem while others suffer, describing people trapped in a basement and dancing again as the world collapses. It manages to express both anger and beauty eloquently and clearly serves as a warning siren, even using that motif musically, for people to become concerned.
Immersed is a wonderful mid tempo song relative to much of the album. It seeks wonder, answers, and improvement for a broken existence. “Give me love, if love is salvation. Give me love, the spirit enflamed. Give me something. Give me peace, or give me war.” This song was quite involving live, and singing, “Immerse me in the workings of your mind,” with Ronan from the audience was one of my favorite parts of any VNV Nation show.
Indeed, the audience singing along was the strongest at this show of all that I’ve been to, which is saying a lot, because the poetic quality of the lyrics and intonation makes this the most fun band to sing with. The song portrays a state of being lost amid contemporary life and seeking answers that can explain what’s happening and improve oneself. This expresses an eternal issue but places it within a contemporary context of the world itself being lost.
Armour is more a song of salvation and captures the beautiful transcendence above darker elements that the band is capable of. Religiosity exists in the song certainly with being embraced by the divine through the refrain of, “Let your armour cover me,” but VNV Nation is nihilistic enough and serious enough about people finding answers within themselves that reading it as merely devout would be mistaken. Rather, light and transcendence are more appropriate to fill in here than anything that would take the form a traditional religious context, and it is intentionally open to interpretation.
The live show of the band is remarkably powerful and memorable every time. The last show in December at the Oriental Theater in Denver was perhaps the best of all though. It seems as though much has been building into a perfect album and tour even without the reliable presence of Mark Jackson as the usual drummer. Preceding performances of the last few years focusing on classical performance, career retrospective, and full length major album performances created an exceptionally rich background for perfecting the band’s message into what is captured in Noire. The performances are deeply gothic, but they are also a remarkably good place to be for the love of art. The linkage to major artistic moments of the past and hopes for the future in a world eroded by oppression, injustice, and technological nonsense capture a pure creative sensibility that transcends genre and is a far richer accomplishment than popular music can typically allow.
Carbon especially highlighted this when performed in the last show. Set against so many songs from Noire, the heavier and slower live version of the song seemed more profound than it does on Futureperfect. Its deep complaints about destruction and a withering environment seemed like a perfect mid show prelude to the way that All Our Sins would conclude the set. It is a long song that also is the last track on Noire, and it is a remarkable retrospective on human imperfection and failure. Sins do run very deep in the human race now more than ever, and this massive statement about that was a stunning end to the night. It was a darker and more profound way to close the show than Perpetual had been in so many other shows, beautiful though it is.
I’ve learned a lot about art from Ronan. It’s fun to interpret and muse on music and other art forms, but it’s important to remember the immediacy of creation and the boldness of making statements meant to challenge people and to be left open for interpretation, the actual creation of art as a thing meant to be experienced and surrounded with as its real testament. Is Noire the biggest statement of his career? That would be a bit unfair, because the albums stay strong enough and progress enough that there will be more excellent compositions to come, but for the moment this is a remarkable way of finely stating VNV’s message in a nuanced and sweeping way.
It does strike me as the most epic release and the fullest statement of Ronan’s vision still. The world needs this album now more than ever. Until war fighting and inequality stop, a torch standing over all of us is much needed. The album is named for darkness and takes us there, but the music of VNV Nation shows the light above that and is among the most moving of artistic experiences. It defies being captured by language and exists in the tone of the notes and the way they echo through a person’s mind and consciousness, amplified with very subtle lyrics that sway with the songs and punctuate the music, giving something of a plot line to these exciting compositions. Noire is already one of my favorite albums of all time and is a pinnacle for industrial music.