Philadelphia, PA, Trocadero Theatre 12/10/2011
On a cold December night on the edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, a line of people – dressed mostly in black – was stretched around the block as they filed slowly into the newly renovated Trocadero Theatre. Shivering though they were, spirits were high. For some, it was their first chance to see their musical heroes VNV Nation in concert; other diehard fans never miss the founders of futurepop when they pass through town. In support of 2011’s masterful Automatic release, VNV Nation set out on a crusade of over 80 cities with Germany’s Straftanz across North America and Europe, a tour that spanned the end of one year and start of another.
Straftanz has been receiving much attention since the band’s inception in 2006, starting as a loose affiliation of German producers from different projects ([:SITD:], The Fair Sex, Preverse) and then evolving into the live touring duo of Kai Schwenkler on lead vocals and Jörg Lütkemeir on keys and backing vocals. Steering clear of overly romantic strings and moody melodies, Straftanz instead brings strength and economy of sound to the dance floor. The results are sonically inventive and fun, and it’s no surprise that some of their tracks have been catching the ear of some American DJs. On stage, the duo engages their audience with driving dance rhythms, an intense militaristic blend of EBM and rhythmic club noise, and an alternating team approach to vocals. The towering Schwenkler commands the attention of the crowd, his eyes flashing wildly like a madman as he shouts during the intense track “Mainstream Sellout Overground.” To the non German speaking audience members, the songs “Tanzt Kaputt, Was Euch Kaputt Macht!” and “Finale Vollendung” are just great tracks dance to. Schwenkler’s angst-ridden guttural vocals on “Monkey Do Monkey Say” fit perfectly into the landscape and are reminiscent of other great vocalists like Douglas McCarthy (Nitzer Ebb) and Dero Goi (Oomph!).
On occasion, Lütkemeir ventures out from behind his bank of synths to contribute enthusiastic screams to the crowd. In a dress shirt and blazer, Lütkemeir seems like a slick salesman dealing out punishing beats and distorted bass sequences to a crowd that can’t get enough. The track “Turbo” nearly rocked the entire Trocadero off its foundation with enough energy to power two jetpacks to Germany and back. Despite their brutal beats, Straftanz was very approachable after the show, eager to connect with their American fans. Being on both legs of the Automatic Tour with VNV Nation will definitely expose Straftanz to a large number of crowds and their energetic music and stage presence will no doubt take them the rest of the way to the top of the genre.
And then, to a packed house, VNV Nation takes the spotlight.
Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson’s contribution to modern electronic music would be impossible to measure, but it might never have happened at all if Harris hadn’t made choice to share his demos with his friends. In an interview with ReGen Magazine, Harris talked about how the seminal Praise the Fallen album was created mostly out of self-exploration. “I write this music first and foremost for myself,” he said just before performing to hundreds of people in Philadelphia. “I wrote that album never to be released. It was just through my friends begging me to release it, who got a copy on cassette, that I ended up finding a record label for it.” 15 years later, in a theatre full of fans that know every line from every song, its no wonder Harris gets a little choked up sometimes on stage.
The intro sequence of “Chrome” launches and Ronan skips out onstage to deafening cheers. A huge LED screen backdrop adds to the futuristic feel of the music. VNV Nation live has a compact and powerful sound, deep and crunchy, each throbbing beat resonating in your chest. Ronan’s voice occupies its own frequency in the wall of sound. “Space & Time” is one of the standouts from the new Automatic release with its penetrating and catchy lead synth and upbeat simplicity reminiscent of earlier era tracks like “Standing (Motion).” Seeing the enthusiasm from the crowd, it’s clear that the song is already lovingly accepted. “They’re going nuts about it,” said Harris, “and they sing along. It’s been like this for us in Europe; it’s been like this for everywhere. Even from the day the album came out, people were already listening to the song over and over in order to practice the lyrics.”
On “Sentinel,” Jackson relentlessly attacks the electronic drum pads with extreme focus, flanked by Mike Wimer (Glis) and Gabe Shaw (mindFIELD, Ionnokx) on backing synths. Amazingly, Harris calls out to familiar faces in the crowd in between songs. He actually remembers their names! It’s no wonder VNV Nation fans are fiercely loyal because the band returns that loyalty in kind. Glancing around the crowd, one could witness a range of emotions. Some completely abandon themselves in the beat; others are overwhelmed by emotion as they mouth the words to the songs that have special meaning to them; everyone feeling a connection to the energy that radiates from the stage. VNV Nation is known as much for sensitive ballads like “Illusion” as for powerful, floor killing beats. “Epicentre” packs as much power as it did when it first broke through with the Futureperfect release of a decade before, and as the rock & roll inspired bit-crushed synth riff carries through “Control,” it’s clear that Jackson and Harris are still loving what they do. As soon as I get on stage,” said Harris, “and even if I feel tired before it, my energy kicks in right away. I feel very, very inspired by seeing people being entertained, and I want them to have the show that they’ve come for. So that keeps me going.”
For the encore the band plays two favorites from early albums: “Legion” from Empires and “Joy” from Praise the Fallen. Both receive thunderous cheers with the crowd shouting out the lyrics. On “Fearless,” Harris strays from the album lyrics and seems to be free-styling the words to himself as he has been known to do during live versions of the song. After over an hour of performing, the unrelenting cries from the crowd are rewarded with a second encore including the poignant “Beloved,” the beautiful and powerful new track “Nova,” and the uplifting rock beat of “Perpetual.”
It’s a visceral experience seeing VNV Nation live. Your guts get shifted around by the deep bass, your brain spins from complex layers of sequenced melodies, and you feel uplifted and more human somehow. It makes you want to finish that creative thing you started, work on that painting you never finished, or write that song that’s in your head. Who knows, maybe you’ll be on a stage soon, in front of hundreds of people singing your words back to you.
Lüke Haughwout (Mechanical_Harvest)
Photographs by Mandi Martini (Mandi_Martini)