Pioneers of the 1990s 'futurepop' movement alongside bands like Apoptygma Berzerk and Assemblage 23, VNV Nation (alias Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson) are well known in international club circles for building big, cinematic synth layers, clean, pop-style vocals and meaningful lyrics upon the more rigid beat structures of EBM and electro-industrial music. Those skills have earned the duo legendary standing over the past couple of decades, not to mention the courage to explore new sonic turf while hanging on to their identity as a band. I've been digging their sound for years, so after I got an early taste of their eighth studio album Automatic with the first single "Control," I got the feeling their latest venture would be both a step forward and a look back – and of course, I had to check out the other nine tracks on this record to find out if my hunch was right. Read on for a full review...
Now that I've heard Automatic front-to-back, I realize that "Control" is the only song on the album with its roots fully planted in pure club-friendly EBM – which makes for a fun get-on-the-floor single, reminiscent of VNV's more recent work, but it's actually a departure from the rest of the material, which is much bigger and richer-sounding. Strangely enough, a lot of these songs call to mind the sweeping scale of their 2002 classic Futureperfect, but with even more epic production in play. The emotional depth of the lyrics hasn't changed either; Harris's songwriting usually leans toward the philosophical, and the themes are reflected in the band's full name (VNV stands for "Victory Not Vengeance"), but this broader sound gives his words even more emotional resonance.
The instrumental opener "On-Air" is a simple, moody and stylish piece, with a warm piano lead coming in midway through as static effects & blips weave in and out, but the momentum doesn't arrive until the following track "Space and Time," which demonstrates Harris's knack for delivering thought-provoking lyrics through catchy, uplifting melodies and seamlessly blending old and new synth sounds. "Resolution" packs another melodic punch, particularly in the sweeping, reverb-soaked chorus. "Control," like I mentioned earlier, is straight-up club stuff, and it's definitely a heart-pounder with rock 'n' roll attitude, but seems slightly out of place among its grandly soaring companions. The retro sample-heavy interlude "Goodbye 20th Century" makes a sweet chillaxin' piece after the driving beat of that single, putting more emphasis on the band's symphonic elements for a mellow mood, very reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's angelic themes for the films of David Lynch.
"Streamline" is a well-placed track if you're listening to the album in sequence, because its mid-tempo groove ramps up the intensity just enough to get your attention, and the upbeat but soft-toned "Gratitude" keeps you gliding on the same plane... but the real dramatic peak hits with "Nova" – a colossal, otherworldly electro-ballad that brings all of the band's emotional power to the game, and showcases Harris's vocal talents, which are strongly reminiscent of Peter Gabriel. After that experience, the instrumental "Photon" carries a bit less impact than it should, but it's still fairly uplifting thanks to silky keyboard washes and a smoothly rolling bass line. A similar vibe comes through on the short, simple but poetic "Radio," forming a gentle epilogue that ties up the package nicely.
I guess a return to the classic VNV sound is what I really wanted to hear, and thankfully that's just what Automatic brings: danceable melodies on a cosmic scale, with lyrics, vocals and hooks that add up to much more than just a four-to-the-floor beat delivery system. There's a human heart pumping through this machinery, and you can feel it in almost every track, making it one of the most accessible electronic dance albums of the year.
The digital version of Automatic is available now, with the physical CD release arriving in North America on October 25th through Metropolis Records; the band is also planning to debut a new EP Crossing the Divide later this month – including a free downloadable version – so stay tuned for more details. You can also listen to "Control" right here, courtesy of SoundCloud...