VNV Nation

Automatic

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The third decade of VNV Nation's existence begins with an homage to the past, the static spill and distorted fanfare opening "On-Air" sounding like something from a hitherto lost field recording from the 1930s, an effect that crops up again later on the album with the brief "Goodbye 20th Century." It's typical of the partnership of Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson that an act that relentlessly identifies with a greater future also considers the weight of the past as both guide and inspiration; with that in mind, Automatic is both a product of the band's remarkable run over the past years and an attempt to reconfigure it going forward. Harris' ear for instant, surging anthems and his focus on themes of individual persistence in the face of despair (or worse) remains central, and as such, Automatic is "just" another VNV Nation album like Futureperfect or Judgement at first blush. But as with those albums, it's the subtle sonic or lyrical changes from release to release that mark each one. So if 2009's Of Faith, Power and Glory was in many ways an outward-looking release, an entirely self-conscious running toward the future at the vanguard of a movement, Automatic often turns inward and toward the past at many points; the band's now trademark fusion of electronic styles drives the energy, while Harris' ever passionate, rough-edged (but never darkly gruff) voice addresses issues such as "Resolution" and "Gratitude," to quote two song titles. The rigorous surge of those songs and others remains the beautiful key turning Automatic; as in VNV Nation's 21st century work as a whole, trance promises liberation and release, and electronic body music's crushing rigidity create a constant, wonderful tension. At the album's harshest, on "Control," the basslines could come right out of D.A.F.'s work, though one break tips an implicit hat toward the more recent impact of dubstep. At its most serene and soaring -- in "Resolution" and especially in the sparkling slow build of "Nova," the album's one full ballad and one of the band's best songs in that vein -- beat and texture combine to lift everything higher rather than bludgeon it. An early theme is set with "Space and Time," the album's first song with lyrics, addressing a feeling of being lost in said situation, a kind of beautiful confusion that benefits from one of the band's best arrangements. Perhaps not for nothing is the album concluded with a similarly ambivalent song, "Radio," where Harris begins "Words will never say enough/They're just born of hope that someone will even listen." But playing off the themes of songs like Joy Division's "Transmission" or even -- in an implicitly brighter fashion -- Kraftwerk's "Radio-Activity," "Radio'"s relentless Morse code-like hook turns into a final anthem for now, the kind of forward-no-matter-what feeling that VNV Nation celebrate without either irony or a stultifying cheesiness. A rare trick in music, and life.

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