[dropcap]C[/dropcap]enturies were once defined by the empires that ruled them, so it’s appropriate that VNV Nation’s third album, the operatic, electro-industrial masterpiece titled Empires, would mark its release in both the closing of the 20th century and the very early stages of the 21st. Released in Europe on October 25, 1999 and celebrating its 15th anniversary across the Atlantic on Saturday, Empires didn’t crash stateside shores until May 16, 2000, its dual release dates book-ending the changing of a century and ushering in a new appreciation for electronic music.
Incorporating elements of EBM (electronic body music), industrial, trance, and dark-electro, Empires gave a jolt to an increasingly tired late-’90s goth and industrial scene that started to grow stale a few years its flirtation with mainstream culture. Re-imagining aggressive industrial beats and harsh synth lines with positive lyrical imagery and melodic tension, VNV Nation essentially wrote the book on what is probably best known today as “future-pop,” and Empires remains one of the great releases not only of the genre it spawned, but the others it touches on over 51 breathtaking minutes.
1998’s Praise The Fallen established VNV Nation as major players in industrial circles, but with Empires, the multi-national duo of vocalist/producer/lyricist Ronan Harris and drummer/producer Mark Jackson smoothed out the rough edges and created an album that was listenable not only in the dark corners of underground nightlife, but anywhere.
An emotional, inspiring, and relentless record, Empires (almost incredibly) takes the musical ruthlessness of industrial and filters it through a synth-pop romantification. Though VNV Nation would perhaps achieve greater heights a few years later with tracks like 2002’s anthemic “Beloved,” it’s the mental and emotional journey of Empires that makes it such a landmark and important release in the history of electronic music.
So with that in mind, we take on the impossible task of ranking the songs of Empires for the latest edition of New Ordered, our series that determines the best and worst songs of a record celebrating an anniversary. But first, a caveat — what makes VNV Nation such a powerful duo is the personal connection one feels when absorbing the music and the lyrics of Harris. VNV Nation is liberating in its musical philosophy, so personal agenda is hard to ignore. The duo’s fans, who no doubt will comprise most of the readership of this piece, likely know every lyric, every synth loop, every beat.
The opening rev of “Saviour” is like that of a jet engine, nearly 90 seconds of ascension before overdrive kicks in, and for the next six minutes, it refuses to let up. The ironic thing here is that VNV Nation’s strongest element is Harris’ vocal melodies and lyrical wisdom, and yet, “Saviour” is an instrumental track. But the weightless synth line that hovers over the beat is almost like a guitar solo, possessing a voice as its own. The synthesizers speak loudly here in warm, compassionate tones, and while there’s a “Vox” version of this song, Harris’ voice only suffocates what’s truly a majestic piece of music.
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The musical sequel to Praise The Fallen’s“Joy,” here is the classic case of VNV Nation allowing heavy bass-beats to throb and pummel along. But just as the rigid old mechanical ghost of ’80s industrial stands above you with scythe drawn, the heavens emerge under the aural ecstasy of one of the most engaging choruses in the duo’s catalog. And it boasts one of Harris’ greatest lyrical turns: “And I believe that we’ll conceive/To make in hell for us a heaven/A brave new world/A promised land/A fortitude of hearts and minds/Until I see this kingdom’s mine/I’ll turn the darkness into light/I’ll guide the blind/My will be done until the day/I see our kingdom has been won.” A few years later Harris would famously sing the words “eternity awaits,” but for most VNV Nation fans, the salvation had already arrived.
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We decided to combine the opening and closing tracks, the 2:10 “Firstlight” and the 5:01 “Arclight,” as the intro is essentially the same composition. But as “Arclight” develops, after 45 minutes of so of what the listener has experienced before it, a pulsating rhythm starts to emerge. “Forget your fears, and want no more,” Harris offers over a delicate and deliberate house beat, and the song’s uplifting, accepting message coupled with a gentle, orchestral composition is the perfect closer for an otherwise emotive thrill ride. I don’t want to elicit the notion of “death,” but this closing track always embodied, to me at least, how a human being would want to pass: eyes closed, peacefully, comfortably, on the bed, drifting off through the portal of sleep. Harris’ delivery of “…And want no more” as the album’s closing message is perfect.
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For as gentle and careful as “Arclight” is, “Legion” shows the dance-floor punch like few other tracks of the era. I don’t want to turn this onto a Ronan Harris Lyrical Retrospective, but the words here are important and lines like “None can change in me these things that I believe” and “Enveloped in a sentiment, a sound that rushes over me/Engage an impulse to pretend, I have a faith that’s pure” over a coiling bass hook, monk-like chants, and twinkling synths are just what makes this album so fucking special. “Legion” is the soundtrack before that moment of conquest, that realization that the impossible can be done, that self-empowerment that leads to getting up off the floor. This is where the superhero finds his identity.
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“Standing” may be to the industrial party what Pulp’s “Common People” is to the Britpop night, but after the eyes stop rolling it’s vital to appreciate why it holds such a distinction. It’s slightly odd to rank what is likely VNV Nation’s most popular song — and the first one I ever heard, personally — so deep down in this list, but it’s a testament to the songs above and nothing more. People like to joke that this is the ladies’ preferred VNV song, but at its core it’s a fantastic pop number that in a fucked up bizarro world would crack the Top 40. The construction, the progression, the symphonic nature of “Standing” all add up to one classic song that holds its own in any genre. More than a few EDM songs that are popular today owe a bit of their success to it.
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Another victim of the greatness of the songs before it, “Darkangel” weaves in and out of aggressive harmony, and showcases Jackson’s talents more than the other tracks on Empires. When performed live, it seems to be the song where the eyes are drawn to Jackson’s feverish live drumming. But there’s a reason why this was the album’s lead single, and many times I wish that outro synth loop around the 5-minute mark was extended into something more.
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At more than six minutes long and packing a forceful wallop that seduces as it strikes, the only drawback to “Rubicon” is its slight repetitiveness and familiarity to the songs off Praise The Fallen. Nothing really sticks out lyrically here, though it does have merit and its percussion stands tall. Being wedged between “Kingdom” and “Savior” on the Empires tracklisting has made me hit “skip” on more than one occasion.
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8. “Distant (Rubicon II)”
By far the shortest non-“intro” song on Empires (a very Biblical 3:16), and coming in as Track 6 on Empires, “Distant (Rubicon II)” always felt like an intermission. It’s orchestral and pretty, but there’s just not enough here to best the seven tracks above it. And though it’s billed as a sequel to “Rubicon,” it might have been better served to appear right before it rather than a few tracks after it.
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For a while in the late’90s and early-2000s, it seemed every industrial-flavored musical project needed to whip its dick out and flash it around for the rivetheads, and that’s what we have here. It has traces of edgier 1995 debut record Advance And Follow flowing through it, and its aggression and heaviness falls flat against the beauty that surrounds it. To quote Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, “They can’t all be winners, kid.”