VNV Nation and Imperative Reaction
May 14, 2005
La Zona Rosa
The choice of venue for this show was particularly apt, as it avoided the twin pitfalls of Austin clubs, which are either cheesy, deliberately-seedy rocker establishments or urine-stained bars with a stage attached. La Zona Rosa is clean and utterly utilitarian, with a medium-sized bar, a good stage and a wide concrete floor for attendees. It can fit quite a crowd, and its airconditioner was working at peak performance, which is appropriate for a show where digital technology is the primary instrumental focus. This created a backdrop of non-event and let the event itself stand out.
As with many musical genres, electronic music is not clearly defined; to generalize, it was an outpouring of people trying to reinvent music after rock went stale in the late 1960s, finding themselves opposed to the mindnumbingly predictable spectacle of rock stardom, fan worship, and schmaltzy brainless songs about love affairs and other ego-drama. Interestingly, of the early electronic music acts, most of them took a more functional view of life, seeing humankind and technology as working together for some purpose, with the role of art being to define that purpose. This was a dramatic contrast to the “me, me, me” attitude of rock music, and was manifested in things like Kraftwerk’s poignant warnings about the robotic psyche of modernity, Devo’s hints that perhaps our individualism drew us away from meaning, David Bowie’s notorious interview in which he praised far-right dictatorships, and of course the repeated appeals toward a new collective order which boiled over into industrial music.
In this collision of subcultures, styles have proliferated, each with their own tendencies, but over time, critics have observed, these have veered back toward the indulgent self-drama of rock music. One anomaly has been VNV Nation, who take industrial themes and put them into a positive, techno-influenced, trance-y form of synthpop which bounds across the eardrums in regimented throbbing beats, with classically-influenced keyboard playing underlying it. It is as Romantic in a sense of morbid foreboding as industrial music, but it is practical like pop, in that it channels its doubt into an energy returned to the audience with the sense of rising above the morass. It steers a tight path between the mournful and serious tirades of industrial and the vapid and distracting arias of pop, as if deliberately created to bring the two attitudes together for a values definition in the tradition of electronic music.
While VNV Nation drew the crowd, the opening act was Imperative Reaction, who inhabit that misty world of industrial music crossed over with gothic-styled synthpop, emitting a bouncy but dark and sacrificial vision. The gravel-tinged voice of the lead singer mixed with the shoutlike delivery of the keyboard/console player, who sequenced sounds and riffed along on the keys while adding necessary density to the singing. That is, it was often sung, but as frequently pitched in the purring whisper of throaty chant that seems popular in this genre. A live drummer skimmed digital pads with energy, contrasting the dancelike motions of the vocalist and the constant bobbing of the keyboardist; the result was visually engaging, although somewhat trite to those cynical observers who clustered toward the rear of the audience.
Imperative Reaction’s music is wrapped in the guise of pop industrial, complete with haircuts and eyeliner popularized by Trent Reznor most recently, but at its heart, it is simple pop; its construction ramps up to a cycle of verse-chorus and then segways through a conclusion to reach equilibrium and conclude. This left an anticlimactic pause after each song, leaving the audience with memories mostly of lush, ceremonial choruses and surly growl-murmur verses. This band is talented, and writes memorable pop songs, but there is nothing more to their intent and thus not much else to derive from the performance. Audience reaction was favorable.
After the usual set break, the VNV Nation logo appeared on two video screens and the intro to their latest album, “Matter and Form,” played softly. A brief hush gusted through the audience, and then the band took positions behind two keyboard-laptop units, an electronic drumkit, and a microphone. Singer Ronan Harris immediately drew focus for his aerobic mastery of the stage, introducing himself while pacing the range of the stage, and then launching into the first track from the new album. While his presence was commanding, the rest of the band performed with a term that describes the entire VNV Nation set – professional. They moved in time to the music and accentuated each motion they made in performing it, which is necessary when one’s set involves activating switches at the right time, whether on laptop computers, synthesizer keyboards or drum pads.
The professionalism was evident in the band’s tight set, with no technical lapses audible and short breaks between songs, and in their interaction with the crowd. Beaming as if he were in a state of perfect mental balance and joy, Harris massaged the audience with questions and jokes, hinting at the concept behind this music: in a dying world, focus on what can be done by bringing people to a doubtless, energetic and exuberant mental state, in which any self-sacrifice that might be necessary comes without the neurotic confusion that comes with existential fear. He brought health and benevolence to the group assembled before him, clearly happy to be where he was, and also expressing interest in those who had assembled. While it was definitely cheesy, in the way any stage banter tends to be, it was also somewhat fulfilling: a connection between the philosophies, music and appreciators of VNV Nation.
Drummer Mark Jackson at what looked like six feet six inches tall was the most imposing presence on the stage, his strong-chinned British face shining over the metal array of his drum triggers, and put this presence to good use through regular, commanding motions that resembled a cross between martial arts and modern dance. On either side of him were the two keyboardists, who kept a flow of sampled sounds integrated with their keyboard patterns through sequencing software on their laptops. Harris introduced them later; one was Norwegian, the other German. During the same interlude, he brought up the topic of languages, and addressed his audience in English, German and Gaelic, while speaking indirectly about the pleasure one can take in heritage and history.
The music played is both easy and difficult to quantify: it is a fusion of techno and synthpop, with the unrelenting pounding beat of club-oriented music, but it is styled in song structure like some of the more adventurous industrial bands, and in aesthetics like radio pop. Keyboard tones are friendly, and there is little of the indulgence in abrasive or otherwise amusical samples, nor is there much attempt to manage atmosphere through aesthetics: that is done entirely through the writing of the music itself. The result presents well and is easy to hear, but nonetheless more emotionally engaging with greater range than “alienated” bands, while avoiding the saccharine addiction to lovesongs and other personal drama that marks rock music.
VNV Nation started their set with a selection of their work that is alarm-inducing in its insights of the psychological mindset of our current time, then drifted into lighter fare from older albums, interspersing it with five non-instrumental songs from the most recent album. Older material was tuned up a small bit, but not so much as to lose its anthemic familiarity with the crowd, and newer songs were played much as they are on record, although it seems the keyboardists improvised with effects and timing in parts. After a satisfyingly long show, in part enabled by the band’s insistence on pausing for only a few seconds between most tracks, VNV Nation delivered a double encore, closing with “Perpetual,” which as the last song on the newest album serves as an answer to the first song played (“Chrome”), and “Entropy,” both of which dissect the thought process of modernity in excruciating detail reminiscent of 1980s industrial rantcore.
This concluded a full show on the material which most accurately posits a mental response to our time, and grants to those who listen and hear a method of conceptualizing a response, including some of the most ontological lyrics in popular music. In this it formed a culmination of sorts, as if summarizing the entire VNV Nation concept and history into a tangible, practical course of action, even if on the spaciest of topics. As if to reinforce this idea, during two of the encore tracks Harris and Jackson performed alone, as they had done on previous tours. The lights dimmed finally, and with a wave and some friendly words, Harris and company departed looking as satisfied and glad to be alive in the company of the like-minded.