Jonathan Daleo delves into VNV Nation’s EBM magnum opus, Empires, an Irish take on an obscure genre.
“Victory, not Vengeance.” A motto that reverberates through the black leather and steel-toed crowds of electro-industrial dance floors. VNV Nation was Ireland’s answer to an electronic question. An electronic music orchestra, created by Ronan Harris, pioneering an offshoot of Electronic Body Music called “Futurepop”. Before the genre had been a glint in the eye of Harris, EBM was the staple of bands such as Front 242 and DAF. An obscure electronic style stemming from the Low Countries and Germany, which was rooted in industrial electronic dance music. Harris, inspired by such bands, created an album which would launch VNV Nation into the consciousness of the obscure – Empires.
The introductory track to Empires, “Firstlight”, contains a sickly rich synthetic beat. An inhuman and unnatural introduction, especially to an album permeated by Roman motifs, and imagery inherently based in Antiquity, much of it Caesarian in nature. It is a grizzly and borderline unpalatable track, something which VNV Nation would become known for, particularly with regards to their older material. The perverse cacophony of “Firstlight” contrasts with the second track “Kingdom”, which contains a string instrumental accompanied by a synthesized percussion section. “Kingdom” feels natural, yet there is a sense of unease. The image of a strong kingdom, one which has since devolved into a weak and frail democracy, is seen throughout history immemorial. The lack of a direct allusion is undoubtedly a decision by Harris, alluding to events like Caesar’s march on Rome or the dissolution of Weimar democracy. Empires emphasizes the constant nature of these themes throughout history.
“Rubicon” consolidates the album’s allusions to Caesar. The Crossing of the Rubicon undertaken by Caesar was the death knell of Roman democracy. This song, specifically the title, is not just referring to the historical event. It refers to the unease that one experiences prior to undertaking a feat, a dread that Caesar or Harris must have felt before they would go on to achieve their goals. A pounding, akin to a heart, emanates throughout one’s speakers and fills the listener with the motivation to accomplish a goal. The standout song of the album, “Legion”, and the penultimate track “Darkangel”, can be easily described as poetry disguised as dance music.
Empires is an album which should be listened to multiple times – the attention span of a human being necessitates it. It is easy to get lost in the novelty of EBM and the unique sounds of VNV Nation and miss the poetic depth that Harris weaved in this album. Several of the songs explore the narrative of a person at the forefront of an increasingly radical movement, of which they have lost control. A similar thematic motif exists throughout, with the narrator abandoning more and more of their own identity to appease this movement. These explorations of such themes are relevant to today, especially with the growing polarization of the global political landscape. Harris and VNV Nation may appear, at first, to be just another pretentious and artsy music project, though this cannot be further from the truth. VNV Nation uses the genre of EBM to uniquely illustrate cyclical history, and Empires continues to convey a timeless tale. This album is not about creating Empires, it is about burning them.