When VNV Nation broke out in the goth-industrial scene in the late 1990s, they changed everything. United online by the emerging shareability of the Napster-era internet, that assemblage of darkly compatible genre enthusiasts experienced a ripple effect as trance-adjacent tracks like “Honour” and “Solitary” off Ronan Harris’ Praise The Fallen LP quickly became international club staples. With a voice that flipped from Nitzer Ebb-ish monotone to soaring performative croon, he fused the romantic synthpop of Depeche Mode with the foreboding dystopia of underground techno, spinning wild tales of triumph with heavy metaphors and allegory.
The only thing hindering its perfect balance of gloomy danceability and dramatic darkness was the relative unavailability of Praise The Fallen in the U.S., the album’s cult status prompting quite a bit of piracy among DJs and devotees until its 1999 domestic release via legendary imprint Wax Trax! Records. Subsequent albums Empires and Futureperfect yielded new anthems, niche classics like “Beloved” and “Standing” that exuded overwrought emotionality and compelled the corseted and the corpsepainted alike to move their Doc Martens to the beat. Even as VNV’s heroic themes led some to mock its sincerity and D&D-level lyrical poetics, it was hard not to admire Harris’ pop-wise execution, especially in comparison to the many imitators that followed his lead and essentially created a subgenre regrettably dubbed futurepop.
Twenty years after Praise The Fallen, Harris continues his hero quest with a 10th full-length for the project entitled Noire (Metropolis). With the sort of consistency one expected from late-period Motorhead and Ramones, he’s still pumping out hopeful music for the dreariest of dancehalls, evocative would-be new wave hits. Alight with electronic pomp and synthesized majesty, Noire is another gratifying glimpse into VNV World, one where neo-EBM thumpers “Armour” and “Immersed” mingle with the more pensive and expansive fare of “Collide.”
Apart from instrumentals like “Requiem For Wires” or the modern classical piano detour “Nocturne No. 7,” Noire puts Harris’ expressive vocals reliably at the fore. With a knack for retro cool, he goes totally ’80s for wistful “Wonders” and “When Is The Future,” recreating the intonations of the past for present-day listeners. As “Only Satellites” bleeps with luminescent arpeggios and an exquisite melodic lead as he sings his heart out, VNV Nation remains victorious in proverbial battle once again.
Marie Davidson: Working Class Woman (Ninja Tune)
Both on her own and as part of the duo Essaie Pas, this Montreal-based artist’s discography often relies on repurposing classic electronic sounds and forms to build inventive new tracks. Her latest album takes the approach toward new provocations. Echoes of proto-EBM acts Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and Liaisons Dangereuses as well as italo disco revivalism stalk Working Class Woman from start to finish, though the work comes out thoroughly original. From the jarring performance poetry of crackling opener “Your Biggest Fan” onward, Davidson imbues the retro familiarity with deliberate disquiet and discomfort. Much of that comes straight from her mouth, spitting sardonic and pointed lines over taut minimal wave. She scoffs through the teutonic funk of “Work It,” screams into the gnashing maw of “The Tunnel” and sings confidently over the pulsating “So Right.” Pseudo-therapeutic re-enactment “The Therapist” seems schizophrenic in execution, though its bassline holds its shape while the rest twitches and trembles. Even the beat-less “Day Dreaming” haunts like an enchanting nightmare.
Heavy-K, Respect The Drumboss 2018 (Drumboss Muzik / Universal)
Though South Africa’s thriving house scene boasts decades worth of music, its producers rarely get the shine they deserve outside of the country. Thanks to the ubiquity of streaming services, however, Mzansi artists like Port Elizabeth native Heavy-K at last have a better shot at visibility here in the U.S. Following a string of regional successes in recent years including a number of SAMA awards, his new album showcases close to 80-minutes worth of clubby tracks brimming with pop promise and dancefloor vibes. His ear for melody shines through on “BANINGI” and “MCULO,” each blending classic stabs with crisp and contemporary production values. With vocal help from Mondli Ngcobo and Ntombi, respectively, the rollicking polyrhythms of “SIPHUM ELOKSHIN” and “NDIBAMBE” reflect the spectrum of his sound while maintaining a fluid consistency as part of the whole. Though guest performances dominate the set, the whistle-accented exception “DRUMBOSS RHYTHM” proves he doesn’t need any assistance.
Kelly Moran, Ultraviolet (Warp)
A pivotal part of Oneohtrix Point Never’s current live lineup, this Long Island, New York, native comes into her own as she makes the shift centerstage. An admitted worldbuilding effort, her Ultraviolet eschews the opaque rigamarole of her oft-bewildering labelmate’s latest LP to present a vivid soundscape series buzzing with life. While fans of last year’s critically acclaimed Bloodroot assuredly won’t be disappointed by what they hear here, Moran’s new material branches off from the prepared piano experiments of her prior work into uncharted terrain. In the urgent escalating tones of “Helix” and the controlled chaos of “Nereid,” her compositions breathe and boggle in equal measure. The ease with which one gets lost in her milieu hides from view the intricacies of her process, more detailed and contemplatory than a lot of what passes for new age music these days. More natural in feel than academic, “Water Music” gleams with fluidity and flourish as its drip turns to a veritable babbling brook.
Slugabed, Pandemonium (Activia Benz)
Trying to pin down what kind of music U.K. producer Greg Feldwick makes is not just an exercise in futility but one that comes with an obligatory month-to-month gym membership and a 10-pack of personal training sessions. His complex and complicated work under the Slugabed moniker for labels like Anticon, Ninja Tune and Planet Mu includes warbly electro funk, dubstep maximalism and a lot of just plain inscrutable electronica. One thing his latest mini-album has in common with the rest of his discography is how thrilling it sounds. Ostensibly classifiable as bass music, Pandemonium lives up to expectations of the unexpected, vacillating between dreamy nihilism on the grand and gorgeous “Boney Horse” and creepy crawling terror for the Hitchcockian “Stalker.” A highlight, “Winter” floats and sputters like classic Warp Records fare, making sharp lefts and slo-mo u-turns throughout. Fellow sonic misfits Iglooghost and Kai Whiston deliver respective remixes truly characteristic of the absolutely manic and soggy niche they so proudly occupy.