:Retrowerks: VNV Nation – Transnational
Review by Stephen Beck Fey
Let me get this out of the way before we start, VNV Nation is one of my favorite bands. I can pretend to be objective about a lot of things, but not them. Their soaring anthemic futurepop was my entry point into industrial and it’s still closer to my proverbial heart than several of my blood relatives. When VNV puts out an album, I expect it to be nothing short of amazing. Since solidifying their trademark synthpop/trance/EBM hybrid on 2002’s Futureperfect, they’ve released a string of near-perfect albums and refined their sound to the point where (assuming you enjoy that sound in the first place) high expectations aren’t at all unreasonable.
So does this year’s Transnational continue that winning streak? To be honest, not really.
On the songwriting front, it sounds very much like a collection of leftovers from 2011’s Automatic. And while the actual sonic similarities probably aren’t any greater than between Automatic and its own predecessor (especially with VNV’s patented “rousing anthem to sentimental ballad to driving club track to soaring instrumental” ratio), it feels more recycled because the songs simply aren’t as memorable this time around. There aren’t any tracks here that outright don’t work; it’s just that they don’t connect quite the way you’d hope.
Some of that lack of impact may be due to the uncharacteristically sloppy production. “If I Was,” for example, is a nice little anthem in the classic VNV style where Ronan Harris sings very passionately about destiny and the future while a cloud of synthesizers does its best to convince you that you can fly, but it’s hard to really get into it when the music keeps swallowing the vocals. There are similar mixing problems all throughout the album, so when “Teleconnect Pt. 1” (and Pt. 2 a few tracks later) comes on with clear front-and-center vocals, it feels like it wandered in from a completely different record.
“Teleconnect,” by the way, is the only really great song here. It’s also the exact kind of melancholy ballad that I’m a giant sucker for; especially with Ronan’s slightly shaky voice that lends everything he sings a kind of resigned gravity. “Everything” also deserves mention for being the only other track I can remember the melody to.
Beyond that, the songs are all at about the same level. The instrumentals are well-executed (though “Aeroscope” sounds like it was supposed to have lyrics), but I probably wouldn’t listen to them outside of the album. “Primary” is similarly enjoyable while I’m listening to it, but not particularly exciting. “Off Screen” got hit pretty hard by the aforementioned mixing issues, but it could be great with a little remastering. “Retaliate” mostly just makes me want to listen to “Control” from Automatic.
Really, the problem with Transnational is more in my expectations than in the album itself. I know I’ve written nicer reviews for albums I’ve liked less. If it were released by some unknown futurepop act, I’d probably say it was a flawed, but very good album and that it showed a great deal of promise. If I had just never heard VNV before, I could probably listen to it and say, “Oh, I can see why my friends like this band.” But seeing one of my favorite bands coast when I know what they can do at full power is a disheartening experience.
Still, VNV coasting puts out better product than a lot of artists do working their asses off. Make of that what you will.
05. Lost Horizon
06. Teleconnect Pt. 1
07. If I Was
09. Off Screen
10. Teleconnect Pt. 2
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