Introduction: VNV Nation. This is going to be an odd review for me. I’ve been exploring my favorite artists’ discographies in chronological order (technically this isn’t the debut album as the first album was re-released with some bonus tracks, so I’ll take care of the true debut later), but the issue with VNV Nation is that Ronan’s first couple albums are drastically different in style over the first few years. It doesn’t even sound like the same artist at many points. So, while I actually prefer VNV Nation over some of the other artists I’ve looked at (Andy Hunter and Ashbury Heights), this debut album will be far worse than Exodus and comparable in quality to the all too edgy Three Cheers for the Newlydeads.
Usually the VNV in VNV Nation stands for “Victory, not Vengeance.” Today, I’m not so certain.
VNV Nation – Chosen (6): VNV Nation begins this album with an ambient story. Almost makes it seem like this artist is going to be another narrative discography like Mind.in.a.box, but that’s not the case this time around. This is just one song that tells one story. A story about war.
In no way, does VNV Nation romanticize war in this song. It is displayed as a disgustingly horrifying aspect of humanity (or lack thereof). Chosen specifically tells the story of a city that has been conquered by the enemy. All its citizens live in constant fear of the brutal army that has overpowered them. Fear for their life, and fear for whether any semblance of justice and reasons exists. Comparisons are made to the most devastating natural disasters, and yet, it’s clear to see that Ronan views the nature of war to be on another level of horror. There doesn’t seem to be any victory in this story. Only defeat. It’s kind of on the lesser end of VNV Nation songs lyrically, but for this album it’s par for the course
The music however, is quite good. It definitely stands out as one of the relaxing bookends of this album (most songs have the same driving drumbeat that’s absent here). There’s a good combination of ominous bass and eerie melodies throughout much of the song. And he strings in the background give a sense of beauty to the track despite the fact that the lyrics demonstrate the clear opposite of beauty. They get their own highlight for the second half of the song once the story has concluded. And as the track dies down it concludes with a piano
VNV Nation – Joy (3.25): Joy is a lot harsher than Chosen. Much of the album has this edgy monotonous drumbeat, making the entire album seem a bit angry actually. So much for “Victory not Vengeance.” There is little variety in this song to get into. The beat begins to drone on between the same kick and snare (with the only occasional variation (like the rapidfire build-up near the beginning of the song but that was kind of annoying anyways, so it barely counts). Other than that, there’s a few basslines, but none of them really strike me as anything worthwhile. There’s a melody in there every once and a while but it only gets to exist for a couple of seconds at a time. Really the strings are the only saving grace in this song. They come in every once and a while to provide a little bit of beauty and they’re greatly appreciated. However, that only undoes some of the edginess that permeates through this song
That edginess comes from the depressing lyrics. Honestly, the only joy I can hear in this song is that I’m pretty sure that the choir is singing the word “Joy” at the beginning. Everything else is extremely edgy. It’s not Ashbury Heights levels of glorifying of depression, but the nihilism is definitely present. Countless times in the song, Ronan questions whether any positivity in love is still worth it when there’s so much pain in the world. He describes a situation in which he finds no meaning in life. He compares it to a never-ending war, in which he is losing.
And honestly that goes against everything VNV Nation would come to stand for.
There is no victory.
VNV Nation – Procession (6.25): Procession starts out well enough with a lot of focus on melody. This melody comes from a soothing collection of the strings that have so far been the highlight of this album. And yet, they don’t sound quite like strings either at points. It’s still the most beautiful part of the song (though that’s not saying much. And that’s even with the odd siren tone pulsing in the background. I feel like I should have a problem with that, but I really don’t mind at all. Overall, this is a nice break from the pulsing uninteresting drumbeat that plagues this album.
A nice one-minute break…
Fine. I guess I’m being a bit harsh. This song actually does have a fair amount of variation to it. The drumbeat is still overbearing but all the other instruments have a nice enough variety to them that I can accept that. There’s a second melodic instrument that closes off that first minute that I rather enjoy. It especially does a good job of closing out the song (Yes, my favorite part of the song is when it’s over. That sounds more negative than it is). I also rather enjoy the horn that appears in the chorus.
As for the lyrics, I think we have a continuing unbalance with the vengeance threatening to take over this album. Well, there’s a bit of victory sprinkled in here too. The lines are somewhat blurred and this seems to be one of their more cryptic songs so it’s hard to tell exactly what the message is. I’m definitely going to try and parse through some moments here and there though. The victory in this song seems to focus on trying to remember the heroes who’ve been forgotten. The people that pave a way for new generations to live happily. But such people while perhaps being respected briefly are just as quickly forgotten. It’s hard to tell, but this song comes really close to almost glorifying war which I found to be slightly unnerving at first, but upon second glance, it seems to be more about respecting those who were in war. You know. A Memorial Day thing. There really is less violence and vengence here than I expected.
Except for when we break some worthless necks. Where did that come from?
VNV Nation – Voice (6.5): I really don’t have much specific to say about Voice, which is strange because it is one of the better tracks on the album. Parts of this song, specifically the arp, wouldn’t feel all that out of place in a Mind.in.a.box song (my current favorite artist as you may have noted me mentioning in previous reviews). There are also a few variations on the arp and a nice driving melody that accompanies the vocals. Unfortunately, the song does get a little repetitive. Could be a bit shorter.
You know what else is repetitive? The lyrics. I’m not going to complain too much as I don’t feel like the repetition of the lyrics bothers me as much as the repetition of the music (though it is further proof that the song would be better if it was shorter). The lyrics in this one are much simpler than the last few songs which is a welcome break. The lyrics are pretty self-explanatory. We are not the same and our voices must be heard. No particular voice rules over the others. We just differ. At least that’s how I’m interpreting it. And I like my interpretation so I’m sticking with it.
VNV Nation – Forsaken (8): Forsaken is one of the two songs on this album to be later featured on The Solitary EP. Because of this, when I started listening to this song, I thought to myself “Oh I know this one.” But I didn’t. The version I knew had much more to it as far as lyrical content goes. This has three spoken lines and that’s it. Not bad though. The most important though provoking part of the song is still maintained so that’s neat.
Music first. I like to leave provoking thoughts until the end. Forsaken is thankfully one of the calmer songs on this album, meaning this break from the drumbeat, unlike the one in Procession, takes up the entire 4 minutes of the song. And it is simultaneously unsettling and beautiful. The unsettling factors in quite immediately as all the song begins with is the main melody of the song accompanied by an unfortunate heart monitor. This main melody is a slight bit irregular and at first, with the ambience surrounding it, it plays well into the ominousness. But not a minute later, combined with the strings and the arp, there’s a peaceful beauty to the whole song. It’s still the same melody but the entire tone has been transformed due to its context and I find that to be quite amazing almost serves as a parallel to the ending of the song and its entire meaning.
Forsaken is about death. This is immediately apparent when the song starts out with a flatlining heart monitor, and it’s explicitly stated in the last moments of the song, which I remember the most. There’s a few lyrics on the way to that journey, one of which I found a bit too cryptic to figure out how it fits (For thirty years, I have plotted to bring down the party. I am sick in mind and body) and the other being so vague there’s nothing much to say about it (Help me).
That final quote at the end (from Jacob’s Ladder) though really does paint a good picture of the unsettling peaceful dichotomy that is death. You can either live your life constantly fearing death, running from it despite the fact that you can’t truly escape, or you can commit your limited time in existence to a goal or meaning. Through that, you can find peace from the chaos of this world and when you reach life’s end, death is easier to accept.
Yeah, this song’s a bit morbid, but it isn’t disgustingly so. I greatly appreciate it as an artful song that sticks out like a strengthened thumb of off the withering hands of this album.
VNV Nation – Ascension (4.75): Seeing as there are no lyrics in Ascension, I’m going to have to look at this song from a musical standpoint alone. I’m not going to have much to say…
The problem is that this song is 8 minutes long. That’s a long time to commit to listening to one song, and the experience I get from this one doesn’t really make it worthwhile. There just isn’t enough distinctive variety in here to justify such a length. It has a bit of interesting progression for a bit as it introduces the various instruments, but that only lasts a couple of minutes. After a certain point the song just plateaus, and it gets harder and harder to maintain interest. I did enjoy some of the bits with the bassline and the strings working together at some points, but over time, the monotony took over. I feel like if the song had more direction, I’d be able to enjoy it more, but otherwise, I can’t bring myself to care.
VNV Nation – Honour (7.75): The word “Honour” looks wrong to me, but that’s my own personal problem as an American speller (though this is the odd case, as I actually prefer colour and theatre sometimes). Ah well, it’s an irrelevant little thought that filled my head for a brief moment.
The music in this one is definitely on the better side of this album. The way the song begins with each of the strings, bassline and drums creeping up behind the main melody does serve as a nice introduction to everything you’re getting into with this song. And that bassline could do a very good job at keeping a good drive to the song, though the drum is so overbearing, it doesn’t really need much help (you could turn that down a little… I know you’ll balance things out in the future… but I’d enjoy this more now if you’d turn it down… he can’t hear me… I’m two decades too late). Ah well, at least it compliments the melody and strings nicely. There’s a recording or two in there related to war as well (those ground troops have got to be well notified by now), but they’re fairly inconsequential to the song’s music or message.
Speaking of the message, Honour is actually the song that I feel most closely follows the “Victory not Vengeance” message that VNV stands for, making it one of the better songs on the album. It still hides behind a wall of war metaphors though, which makes it a bit harder to decipher the message. In fact, the first half of the verse is entirely there to describe the image of the battle that will serve as the backdrop for this song (which takes place in 2012 despite this album coming out in 1998).
The second half of this verse and the chorus are a bit more meaningful, though they do have a slightly inconsistent tone to them. There’s a wavering confidence in these lyrics. At first, the singer voices his concerns of what had happened to justice and reason as the chaos of war had arisen (I still find this particular sentiment to be a bit too relevant today). He then calls on either God or the spirits of those who fell before him (or both maybe) to receive guidance on the attempt to rebuild a world broken by war. As we reach the chorus, the singer is temporarily filled with confidence, letting out a war cry to defend the values he holds dear and yet still in the back of his head there’s some doubt over whether those values are still intact. The whole thing provides for a slightly messy arc though I do think I have a slight hold on the message.
These doubts that plague his mind (as well as my own, this is a bit personal) have not left him even after he’d sought out the path to victory. However, he also continues to stand his ground and keep on fighting for that victory even when those doubts in his head threaten to overtake him. Maybe I’m self-projecting my own struggles in here but the song works regardless.
VNV Nation – Burnout (1): Oh no.
This is very bad.
Perhaps this just isn’t my genre, but this is the worst sounding song I’ve reviewed so far maybe excluding Swansong (even my low rating of Swansong was perhaps generous). But at least Swansong almost lured me in by sounding good on the surface. This on the other hand. I can’t get into this one at all. I already was uncertain of it at the beginning, but then this song did the magical thing of getting worse and worse every second. The drums caught me off guard at the beginning. A bit more violent than I’d normally prefer, but with the right context they could work. This isn’t the right context. This context is filled with loads of instruments that simply don’t work well together. Any ambiance is screechy at best. Any bassline is a bit too gritty and there’s often three of them layered on top of each other in an unfitting manner. And any semblance melody is missing (unless you count that high-pitched swinging ear irritater, which I don’t).
There’s some kind of interrogation going on at the beginning harking from an old classic movie harking back from 1936: Things to Come. I hasn’t seen the film and it was only through happenstance wild goose chase that I was able track down and confirm the source, but I must say that through my research I am quite interested in checking it out so at least some good came of this song. That’s not going to improve this abysmal rating though.
VNV Nation – Solitary (7): You would’ve never guessed this, but Solitary is one of the other two songs on the Solitary EP that I’d heard previously. A song called Solitary on the Solitary EP? Mind-blowing, right? There’s even a version of Solitary on the Solitary EP called Solitude but it’s still Solitary under a different name. I’m not going to go too much over which versions of Solitary I prefer more seeing as there’s four versions of it, but I’ll tell you that this one’s in the middlish as far as I’d rate it. I’ll do more comparisons whenever I decide to get around to that EP (really low priority unless someone requests it via Patreon).
Solitary’s musical structure is rather similar to a lot of the songs on this album. It has a pounding drumbeat made almost completely of kicks. It has some strings that fall and rise at certain points in the song. It has a simple melody that’s played on loop at several points in the song (this one is only three notes though). Add in a bassline and maybe another synth (both of which this song has) and you have your typical Praise the Fallen song. It doesn’t really stand out in any way other than familiarity due to its titular EP. Thankfully, unlike the all too long monotonous Ascension, there’s at least some lyrics to go over this time.
This song is all about change, and if you’ve been reading my Mind.in.a.box reviews, you’ll know I love that topic. In fact, this song shares a lot of similarities with the main themes off of Crossroads, seeing as it’s a song about leaving the guilty past behind and reaching out into the future. Nearly every song on that album was about that subject. Well let’s add another one to the list! Except this one is on a completely different album by a completely different artist and contributes nothing to the narrative whatsoever
My same feelings apply though. I am a strong believer in striving to take control of one’s life and changing it for the better, leaving the past in the dust if you must. The past doesn’t have to define who we are but we, at any point, have the power to define our future.
Overall, I’d say this song is the closest to resembling the modern VNV Nation I’m more accustomed to. It has its flaws but it’s a step towards the modern standard.
VNV Nation – PTF2012 (6): As we head nearer to the close of the album, we only have two calm instrumental songs to review. They’re simple beauties so I’ll be brief. I do want to note one odd thing about this title though. This technically is the titular track of the album. It doesn’t look like it, but there is an alternate title seen in the bottom corner of the album art that matches this song name. PTF is an abbreviation for Praise the Fallen. 2012 is simply a random year that Ronan Harris chose for a once futuristic date to set this album (see Honour).
I don’t want to say this track is just strings even though that technically is true. There are no non-stringed instruments present (actually after listening a couple more times, there might be a horn but I’m not absolutely certain). However, I feel like calling it “just strings” has a somewhat bad connotation to it. The song is beautiful, and it does have a rising feel to it from beginning to end, making it a much better progression than the twice as long “Asscension” from earlier. However, it isn’t especially memorable as nothing particularly sticks out to me. It’s just a decent stringed track cooling us down after all the heavy drumbeats we’ve had.
VNV Nation – Schweigeminute (n/a): I have seen evidence, that this song exists, but I am unable to find it anywhere on the internet. I’d probably have to find a physically copy of the album to hear it. That’s okay though, because it’s apparently just a minute of silence and should hold no weight on my final review score.
VNV Nation – Untitled (6): Wow, what a fantastically interesting title. Really tells you everything you need to know about the song. This is a rather bland conclusion to the album, so I’ll be brief once again. This song suffers a bit from repetition as it perpetually plays the same melody on loop for a good 90% of the song. It has a little bit of musical variety as there’s a second synth that fades in and out like a tide. Because of this, the song almost becomes a soothing relaxing conclusion to the album, but the melody doesn’t quite reach up to its soothing potential. Ah well, still a decent experience overall.
Conclusion: Really a poor start to one of my favorite artists. This is a far cry from what he makes nowadays. I’m all about a bit of edge here and there, but early VNV Nation isn’t quite the edge I’d like from them. VNV Nation usually admits that there’s negative vengeful aspects to life while simultaneously shining light on a path through the pain towards victory and peace. That path is absent from this album. It’s almost entirely focused on the darkness and it simply doesn’t work quite as well as I’d like (though I guess the edge here isn’t as bad as it was in Ashbury Heights’ Three Cheers for the Newlydeads).
The biggest problem with this album is the overbearing drumbeat. I like a good solid drumbeat but this one was too much, and it upset the entire balance of the song, nearly drowning out all of the other melodies, basslines and vocals. The lack of a drumbeat is actually a big part of why Forsaken (the only song on the album to get a rating higher than an 8) stands out.
I would highly recommend some of VNV Nation’s newer albums that have been released in the past decade (Transnational is my favorite). You’d be better off skipping some of the older stuff. I, on the other hand, have an obsession with order, so I shall be trudging through these edgier albums first. Ah well. Next week I plan on a larger scale review of a much better album.
Final Score: (5.75/10)