Having had a pretty hectic and tiring week in the run up to this gig, it was only the day before that I actually remembered this was happening. Come the day itself I felt pretty knackered and not what you’d describe as being in a gig mood. But knowing the transformative potential of VNV Nation gigs I knew I had to summon up whatever resources were required to get my arse in gear and up to London on a Sunday evening. I’m glad I did.
German two-piece Solar Fake are supporting VNV on their short UK tour and the choice of them for that role was readily understandable. Though, in a live setting I confess to being a tad disappointed as they didn’t sound as varied nor fresh as they sound on their two albums to date. Having said that, they undeniably went down well with a partisan audience filling the gloriously tiered Baroque venue that is the wonderful Koko (formerly Camden Palace). Lead singer Sven Friedrich's strikingly piercing grey eyes could even be clearly seen from the first balcony level where I stood for the second half of their set (they were already underway by the time I arrived) – remarkable and a more than a touch spooky. His voice (due to the set) was harsher than I was expecting having heard and liked some of their more gentle pop stuff. By the time they walked off stage an enthusiastic crowd were suitably warmed up in preparation for the main act.
This London leg was the second on VNV Nation's UK tour. Only Saturday’s gig in Birmingham (just the night before) was cancelled at the last minute after lead singer Ronan Harris woke up without a voice. An official statement on the Flag Promotions website passed on the band's obvious disappointment in letting down the Brummie fans but stated that after receiving medical treatment Harris would be good for the London and subsequent dates (selfish 'phew!'). Harris made this clear at the start of their set just in case anyone previously unaware thought his voice was, as he quipped, more ropey than usual. Not sure if I should say it didn’t really impact too much on his delivery, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as he feared. Besides, VNV audiences are generally a pretty dedicated and faithful bunch (even here in hard-to-impress London).
The intro piece counted down 60 seconds that appeared on the massive light screen on stage – an ideal way to build up the anticipation. Then it was straight into Time & Space from new album Automatic, a well-chosen opener. What happened next was pretty remarkable even by VNV Nation gig standards (which are high) as the London crowd, spread across all three of Koko’s levels, spontaneously gave a standing ovation that went on for several minutes, non-stop clapping. Ronan was clearly chuffed at the reaction, even struck speechless for a while (which as any VNV fan will testify is quite unusual!). What followed was a cracking night.
Harris has few peers when it comes to getting an audience to eat out of his hands but this lot were well and truly up for it and, in spite of being ‘on the meds’ Harris led yet another emotional live performance. The Automatic material sounded better than I might have expected not having bought the last three VNV albums. The 1930s retro-American-future styling indicates a clearer, certainly more solid, vision of what they wanted to achieve this time around, and they’ve managed to pull off what I’ve missed for the last ten years. That’s a bridge from the formative years when they first really found their voice (on 1999's Empires) to something new that doesn’t sound either like a mis-step or an imitation of themselves. The new album material spans all their strong points and delivers live – without sounding like a compromise.
The performance was accompanied by another dazzling light show and credit to the guys responsible for pulling that off in combination with the massive light screen behind the band throughout. As an operational unit, the live band featuring original member Mark Jackson on drums and two synth assistants works perfectly. Just the right balance between the guys that are there to ensure a decent amount of each song gets performed live and core members Jackson and Harris whose long-running partnership continues to ensure were in no doubt that, at its heart, VNV Nation is Ronan Harris (he writes and records all the material) but that when the two share the stage a chemical reaction occurs meaning another substance is created. That is the chemistry of the two of them that then carries from the stage and into the audience at virtually every VNV gig.
Tonight felt more like a large party than a gig. Harris’ (still unusual) manner of having sometimes long, casually rambling chats with the audience is irrepressible. It having taken me more than a decade to get used to it, I now fear the day he doesn’t feel like engaging the crowd that way. Few scene ‘stars’ come across on stage as genuine as Harris does, and that goes a long way in the audience reciprocating any way they can – mostly vocally. Fewer still are able to create the impression that singer and audience are so close on an emotional level. When on-form (which is virtually every time I‘ve seen them) the band create a unique atmosphere at their gigs. It’s a sometimes discombobulating mix of emotional exhilaration (created by the music) and observational stand-up (from the self-deprecating humour of Harris).
Of the new material Resolution, Gratitude and Nova were the most special. There was a rare, wonderful moment in the middle of Nova when Ronan's voice gave way as he was overcome with the emotion. Sure, I continue to want more, older classics, and I do still hanker after sets that finish on Electronaut, nevertheless, the current album has, for me, elevated the enjoyment up a notch over the last few tours. Let’s keep this in perspective. I am splitting very fine hairs here, but if any band warrants and earns such close attention and scrutiny its VNV Nation. Almost as if part of a one-man crusade, Harris says at one point that he wants us “…all to leave happier than when you came in.” An admirable goal, and one surpassed with almost ludicrous ease. For some, VNV Nation almost create a psychological connection on a par with religious belief. I don’t quite feel the need to worship, but I can’t tell you how thankful I am that they exist. 8/10
Live footage on dsoaudio's YouTube Channel