VNV Nation’s tenth studio album, Noire, is an enigma. The title, which suggests darkness or absence of light, is a startling choice for a band that’s spent two decades composing electronic anthems about “the neverending light.”
But so much has changed in the six years since VNV’s last album, Transnational, and I can’t help but think Noire’s “lights go out” is a reaction to the darkness that seems to have engulfed the world. (It should also be noted that the departure of longtime drummer Mark Jackson makes one wonder if there are personal demons in play.) While VNV’s contemporaries like Covenant and Grendel are tackling global issues head-on, VNV mastermind Ronan Harris remains coy about his political beliefs, keeping the lyrics vague enough for anyone to project unto themselves, and leaving fans left to wonder if there’s any point. It’s a huge missed opportunity.
Oftentimes, Noire feels like an artist stuck in limbo, churning out the same tricks with nothing new to say. Several tracks are staples of the VNV catalog, bordering on cliche. “God of All,” for instance, recalls the lines of one of VNV’s best songs, “Savior,” which gave us “A god of love, a god of care,” etc.
Every VNV album has what I call the “Stuart Smiley” track. They’re inspirational anthems with tattoo-ready lyrics (“Resolution” and “Illusion” are my faves), but “Armour” may be the worst of the lot. The lyrics about being broken and paths bringing you home feel recycled from older, better songs.
The less said about this album’s three instrumental tracks, the better. They’re not only boring, but classical piano piece “Nocturne No. 7” is wildly out of place here. It absolutely murders the momentum built on Noire’s first half. Short of deleting it from my library, I’ve renumbered it track 100 so it doesn’t interrupt listening sessions.
The best tracks on Noire, however, are stunners. Not surprisingly, they’re the songs that contribute most to the album’s barely held together theme about the light fading. And each is a song that starts out as one thing and becomes something else, as the tempo picks up and Harris piles on additional layers of sound.
Track one “A Million” sets the stage for the album’s theme with a dark, driving beat and sinister lyrics about a “dying sun.” “Collide” and “Immersed” continue toying with the lights out theme, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse structure for stark, memorable lines like “all worlds must collide.”
But the heart of Noire and one of the most unusual songs in VNV’s entire oeuvre is “Lights Go Out.” It plays like a narrative with a Matrix-like setting at a place called Club Vertigo, acts of violence, people dressed in atomic chic. It feels like both a dancefloor stomper urging you to throw up your hands AND a condemnation of people dancing away while the world crumbles, which is a tricky feat to pull off. Plus, airhorn blasts.
Noire concludes with “All Our Sins,” a 7-minute opus warning of what’s to come if we let the light fade. “All Our Sins” features some of VNV’s strongest, most straightforward lyrics ever: “I hope that their cries haunt you till the end.” And the music recalls earlier VNV masterpieces like “Kingdom” and “Honour” with a bit of orchestral flourishes. It’s extremely evocative and the best track on Noire.