The Upward Spiral
VNV Nation stay on the inspiring side of industrial
Too often, all one has to do is utter a genre name, and the stereotypes fly forward. Say a band is “industrial,” and everything from people in black clothes beating on pipes to Trent Reznor wannabes comes to mind. In all cases, the image is of tortuous rage and depression.
That’s why VNV Nation, founded by Irish-born Ronan Harris and based out of Germany for many years, deserve far wider credit than they’ve received outside of their dedicated fan base. More than any other band tagged with the industrial moniker (purists consider them to be more of a sub-genre: EBM—“electronic body music”), VNV Nation match their relentless beats with a feeling of inclusive hope instead of solitary despair.
Playing a three-date Southern California swing next week (which includes a stop at the Grove in Anaheim Oct. 23, opening the first date of Tiger Army’s five-night stand), VNV Nation—VNV is short for “victory, not vengeance”—are one of those bands that have been around long enough to amass not only a huge discography, but also a rising wave of fans. Their initial releases—the first a Harris solo album in all but name, followed in 1995 by an expansion to include Englishman Mark Jackson as both live drummer and musical partner—were standard exercises in what must have seemed then like exhausted forms. The band’s love for acts such as Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy and Front 242 was perfectly apparent, almost to a fault.
What proved to be the turning point starting almost 10 years back was an increasingly evident knack for anthemic singles. “Darkangel,” from 1999’s Empires, has become a standard worldwide for clubs specializing in moodier electronic sounds. By hot-wiring that approach in combination with his take on frenetic and romantic trance/techno—songs aiming to energize a listener rather than simply beat you down—VNV Nation not only began to make a clearer mark, but they also started to explore a wider sonic palette.
The past three VNV Nation albums (Futureperfect, Matter and Form, and last year’s Judgement) showed the band fully embracing what Harris has described as “futurepop,” a handy way to summarize intertwined trends in parallel styles. Industrial and trance, naturally, but also everything from early ambient and synth-pop to rock-tinged brawlers.
Judgement is an overtly politicized album that simultaneously avoids being pinned down as a partisan tract and emphasizes the positive as much as the negative. If anything could sum it up, it would be the old Public Image Ltd. line “Anger is an energy”—in this case, a constructive one. Songs such as “Testament” and “Nemesis” practically explode with compressed electronic rage while calling for, to quote the latter song, “justice for the voice that can’t be heard” in a time when “those who shout the loudest impose their will.” It’s all too suggestive of modern American political discourse, to put it mildly.
In contrast, there’s the mournful ballad “Illusion,” an empathetic call to another figure caught struggling with questions of belief. “The Farthest Star” is a majestic statement of purpose, with Harris directing his words not to an “I” or “you,” but to an all-encompassing “we,” singing in his rich rasp about standing up for ideals through thick and thin. Warning about the consequences “if we should stay silent, if fear should win our hearts,” he rabble-rouses with the best of them. Past interviews have shown that Harris is one of the more thoughtful musicians out there, and it’s encouraging to see how much care he puts into discussing his work and point of view instead of sticking to generalities. (The Weekly tried to hook up with Harris for an interview, but his other commitments intervened.)
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Live, Harris, Jackson and their side players have turned into a strong performance unit—Harris’s longtime Depeche Mode fandom translates into a pretty good take on Dave Gahan’s showmanship, with plenty of audience encouraging and exhortations. But Harris isn’t above cracking jokes, even at himself, and keeping the good feelings going even at their fiercest, while their various films and computer-generated collages add extra punch to their shows.
VNV Nation’s return, right in the middle of economic chaos and high political stakes, couldn’t be better-timed—and they’re open to all, whether you wear black or not.
VNV Nation, Tiger Army and War Tapes at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2750; www.thegroveofanaheim.com. Thurs., Oct. 23, 8 p.m. $22.