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VNV Nation are arguably at the forefront of the Electronic Body Music (EBM) scene, and despite having every output since their 1995 debut 'Advance and Follow' and having seen them live a number of times, it is a shame that I am only able to review this one out currently on DooYoo.
While a quick Internet search will try and give you a definition of their musical styles I have found the following to be useful. The two men group comprising of Irish born singer Ronan Harris and Englishman Mark Jackson utilises dance beats and melodies and fuses them with darkly poetic lyrics.
In honesty I think the best way to review any album is to break it down track by track and then give my overall impressions at that the end so with that in mind I shall begin.
*Intro - 1:27*
It is fairly standard for VNV Nation albums to start with an instrumental or ambient tract to set the mood of the album and in the case of 'Matter + Form' we have dark and brooding chords highlighted with electronic noises to start with.
*Chrome - 4:40*
One of the highlights from the album, 'Chrome' starts was a jarring chord before progressing into a steady, heavy beat. The whining and screeching melody subsides to allow Ronan's distinctive vocals to start.
I've often said that there are three types of VNV Nation track. The instrumental, which can either be a pumping dance track or a classical piece with a choir accompaniment. The dance track, ranging from the pounding beat to the energetic lyrics. The dark poem, songs where the mythology and allegory takes centre stage.
This track is firmly in the dance category with the lyrics speaking of transcendence and being set free. This fist pumping track is one of my highlights of the album and fills the listener with a sense of optimism.
*Arena - 5:44*
A deep synth melody starts this track before the lyrics engage. As it progresses to get even more ominous you would be forgiven for thinking that this would be a track that descends into melancholy. However at about 40 seconds in it changes pace and a bright almost Euro-trance melody breaks through. It builds you up before the chorus kicks in.
"... brighter than all the stars combined"
I love this track in all its beauty. It may be slightly cheesy and would probably turn off some of the fans of the darker side of VNV Nation but I can't help singing along whenever it is played.
*Colours of Rain - 4:06*
The opening of this track echoes the introduction to the album, if only briefly. This is the first fully fledged instrumental track on the album and is dominated by a highly echoed piano with brilliant production values that persist throughout the entire 11 tracks.
The track doesn't really progress except with the introduction of some strings about halfway through. It's one of the things that I really admire VNV Nation for, after the floor filling 'Chrome' and the uplifting singalong of 'Arena' and then they go on to an ethereal instrumental track makes it a rather brave decision. Some it may break up the flow but the major satisfies another facet of emotions.
*Strata - 4:00*
Another instrumental but the polar opposite of the last. A short energetic build into a slightly dub inspired beat with an ever present drone in the background. It's one of those tracks that you just find yourself nodding your head to. Halfway through it builds further with more discordant electronic elements but has no melody to speak of. Quite a fun track but certainly not one of my favourites
*Interceptor - 3:25*
An instrumental dance track in its purest form. A simple repetitive beat with many of the elements from 'Strata' continued and built upon. If I had a criticism it would be that it's slightly formulaic and is in my opinion the weakest track on the album.
*Entropy - 5:17*
A return to the brooding and creeping synth melody with Ronan returning with the dark poetry.
"In the face of great defeat I heard cries for mercy"
It continues in this vein, shunting forward towards a more traditional dance beat but it never loses that murky undercurrent, reinforced by the lyrics.
"When does enough become enough? When does 'no' have meaning?"
*Endless skies - 5:55*
In amongst all the angst and dull, throbbing bass this track stands apart. It starts with a simple melody; a high note melody until the lyrics begin. It is a song about reflection and ultimately about moving on.
"No need to fear, no need to worry"
The first half of the track is the simple lyrics with the ostensibly simple melody. This rises to a zenith and tries to elicit from its listeners sincere emotion. As with 'Colours of Rain', this might turn off some of the listeners looking for the dark dance but this track does have a place and the album would certainly be less than it is if it were absent.
*Homeward - 5:34*
A moody start before a bass kicks in with a high-pitched synth melody. The chorus sings of strength and belief accompanied by a piano (certainly not a real one).
I can't find myself saying much about this track because in my opinion it is an little bit VNV Nation by the numbers. I would certainly rated above many of the other tracks that you're likely to hear around but given the expansive catalogue, it wouldn't be in my top 10.
*Lightwave - 7:00*
This is the closest you are more likely to get to a traditional techno track with its clean and progressive beats, robotic melody and bouncy breaks. The track certainly takes you on a journey as it adds element upon element until you're left with quite a competent and enjoyable track.
*Perpetual - 7:51*
I would wager that you would be unlikely to find a finer example of a track that exemplifies the genre or the spirit of VNV Nation than 'Perpetual'. The track starts by lifting you up with an ethereal cord before the simple notes start. This is a staple of the live shows and it usually comes on right at the very end, just after the encore. There are so many opportunities for the audience to sing along and the glory of the track is only enhanced when experienced life.
Mark's superb percussion drives the track forward and upwards. The lyrics are some of the most optimistic on the album and the sense of euphoria that is built up the end is palpable.
At the track fades out with the repeating lyrics "let there be, that there always be, never-ending light" to angelic chords to rival that of John Foxx you wish there was more to come. Indeed, when the live shows finish the repeated chance from the audience led by both Mark and Ronan can sustain it for quite some time.
Overall this album is a fantastic piece and one of the jewels in an illustrious back catalogue. If you are new to the band or genre then this is certainly a good place to start. It is obviously very difficult to describe music, try describing the smell of a flower or the colour of sky. Since the album was released in 2005 there have been numerous YouTube videos of both the album tracks and live renditions so I highly recommend you check them out.
My store of choice for alternative music in general is musicnonstop.co.uk where you can currently pick up this album for £12. I hope you have found this review useful and I thank you for reading.
Frontman of VNV Nation Ronan Harris and Apoptygma Berzerk's Stephen Groth once coined the term Futurepop to describe what they saw as a new sound in the overpopulated Electronic Dance genre. While some may see that as a pretty pretentious, I personally think that without that term this album would be impossible to categorise into any other present genre that would have done it justice.
From the dark ominous intro to the stunnging finale of the album, VNV Nation's Matter + Form is an epic 55 minutes of classic EBM anthems, combined with optimistic lyrics and a penchant for 80s rock and electronica song structures.
After the short instrumental "Intro", the album kicks off in style with the album's lead single "Chrome". The electronics are out in full force here with a very danceable beat, but its the bridge with its fade-in sludgy synth that makes this song for me. The final two minutes of this anthem are the best you're likley to hear in the futurepop genre today.
The momentum continues in the next track "Arena". Trance synths literally do battle with a downbeat tempo that glides from verse to chorus to verse. This is one of the mellower tracks on the record, and a great one to kick back and relax too. The relaxing feel continues into the instrumental interlude "Colors of Rain", which showcases Harris' passion for powerful orchestral movements that fits in well with the albums grandeur concept.
Another instrumental, albeit a completley different style, takes form in "Strata", an out loud and proud techno song with some amazing production values which would sound simply awesome on the dancefloor. "Interceptor" too follows in a very similar way.
These instrumentals are book-ended by fast-paced dance song, rwhich sounds a little bit like VNV taking on the aggro-tech genre. However this track stands out simply because of Harris' trademark vocals that hark back to the early days of the band, circa-Praise The Fallen.
Every VNV Nation album track wouldn't be complete without the obligatory ballad, and although "Endless Skies" isn't quite on the same level as Illusion was on the follow up album Judgement, it still sticks out proudly from the rest of the tracklist. The instrumental version of this track wouldn't sound out of place on a Final Fantasy soundtrack, either.
The ballad is followed by "Homeward", a track that no doubt borrows heavily from such 80s electronic pioneers such as Depeche Mode and New Order. The lushous synths and Harris' smooth vocals once again make this track stand out where many other bands would have failed. This track is then followed by one of the best instrumentals on the album, the fantastic "Lightwave". The tempo is the highest on the album itself, and encompasses everything I love about EBM, trance, techno and Futurepop in one epic 7 minute track.
The album then ends on a high, with not only one of the best songs VNV have ever recorded, but is quite possibly the best song ever created in the Futurepop scene. The song is "Perpetual", and if you should take one thing away from this review, its discovering this song. The track itself is almost 8 minutes long, and goes from a chilled out pad with a couple of sparse synth riffs into an electro-rock epic, and then finishing with what has now become one of the bands slogans, a repetition of the line "Let There Be Neverending Light" while a fantastic synth loop battles it out with a lush orchestral sequence. The final minute and a half, where the electronics gradulay fade out to leave the orchestral loop is quite frankly one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard in modern music. It is the very definiton of an epic song.
Overall this album never ceases to amaze me, 4 years on since it's initial release and what would ultimatley lead me to discovering one of my favourite electronic acts of all time. Kudos have to be given to DJ Humate, who helped with the awesome production that can be found throughout the album. If there's one EBM album you must own, it's this one.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
4 Colours of Rain
8 Endless Skies