This album was my first experience with VNV Nation; I’d like to say there’s an interesting story behind how I discovered this band, but they’re basically just one of those bands I stumbled upon. Of the albums by this band I’ve listened to, Empires is likely the most aesthetically consistent, occupying a sweet spot between the unintentional jank of the band’s debut (Advance and Follow) and the intentional exploration of later recordings, like Matter + Form. As far as I know, this is transitional material. When you get down to it, Empires isn’t a huge leap from VNV Nation’s past, but it mainstreams the band enough to make the differences easily apparent with familiarity.
In general, VNV Nation on Empires comes across as an earlier form of the electronic dance pop prevalent today (these days it’s all about sidechain, wubs, and similar onomotopaeia); one that’s arguably in closer communion with the various forms of EDM prevalent in the mid-late ’90s. In fact, vocalist Ronan Harris went as far as to give us a name for this – “futurepop”; it relies more heavily on arpeggio textures and certain types of repetition than… uh… contemporarypop, but it’s still generally structured in a similar fashion. There are a few more abstract tracks (“Fragments” comes to mind) to break things up between the vocal pop. I haven’t listened to anything by this band past 2005, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their overall aesthetics follow contemporary trends at most times. To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in most of the popular music out there, but VNV Nation doesn’t quite approach what passes for “mainstream” sales figures, and that does occasionally lead people to believe such bands are immune to the forces of the market when, in fact, it makes them especially vulnerable.
It turns out that Empires is kind of hard to write about in any significant aspect, at least if you’re like me and you want to compare it to the rest of their discography, but the essential similarities in VNV Nation’s discography do keep popping up. This could be the album where the band actually found itself, for all I know, but its newfound cohesion leaves it with a relatively narrow focus. Even Futureperfect, released a few years later, pushes the formula established here significantly further, although it doesn’t stop being pop music in the process. It’s not that I want to disparage Empires too much, since without it I don’t think we’d have the foundation for such later and more accomplished works, and it definitely is ahead of its (admittedly interesting if flawed) predecessors. It might even be a good starting point for appreciating the band; I would indeed be fortunate if this were the case.
Highlights: “Saviour”, “Fragments”, “Darkangel”
For a game that I’ve put so many hours into, I don’t spend a huge amount of time with Victoria II‘s music. Strategy games tend to have relatively short soundtracks compared to how many hours addictive types put into them, although Paradox Development Studio (the gaming developing arm of Paradox Interactive) has been selling additional music for their games for some time, including a license deal with Sabaton! Victoria II predates that business model, though, and has to rely on about an hour of what turns out to be compositions in the various styles of Western classical music prevalent in the 19th century.
Paradox has relied on Andreas Waldetoft as their primary composer since at least 2006, with the release of Europa Universalis III. Waldetoft uses, for better or worse, a sort of “filmscore” approach to composing for their games in that he relies very heavily on modern orchestral arrangement and recognizable leitmotifs. Victoria II is, as far as I know, the closest he comes to actually composing in period styles, but as far as I know, most of the orchestral music you hear in films these days takes its cues from the “Romantic” period of the 19th century, although sometimes a film goes a little more modern and dissonant; we have a potential benefit of hindsight that the period composers obviously didn’t. Waldetoft sometimes lifts material directly from period music, but if he did so for this game, it’s either subtle enough to avoid notice, or I need to isolate myself and do nothing but listen to Western classical for a few weeks.
The soundtrack showcases great breadth; it is, after all, trying to put sound to an entire century. A track like the vaguely Baroque and flashy “Handel This” contrasts with the somber and almost too melodramatic “Russia 1917” (that violin lead in the middle and restated at the end pulls so intensely at my heartstrings that I can no longer take it seriously), although a good portion of the music is fairly subdued. This is an instance where using the Clausewitz engine’s music scripting options might’ve helped the soundtrack of Victoria II shine better; tracks could be programmed to play more often when relevant and so forth, but to my understanding this functionality went unused, there’s no evidence of a scriptfile in the game’s music directory. Still, this dedication to period accuracy fits well alongside the attempts at plausible historical simulation (although V2 is notably more sandbox oriented than the most recent crop of PDS games), and it does stand in stark contrast to a game like Age of Empires II, where gameplay over pure historical simulation is coincidentally accompanied by the composers’ personal styles similarly taking precedence.
The only real flaw I can think of in this game’s soundtrack is that there isn’t enough of it. With any luck, the long-awaited sequel will help deal with this.
The striking thing about Magma’s debut (self-titled or named “Kobaïa” depending on what pressing you have) isn’t that it’s rather more standard jazz fusion oriented than the band’s later albums. If you want to guess, give the Christian Vander penned tracks a few more listens; I can wait.
Back? Good; a lot of my fans get stuck in the bottomless tiger traps their second time here. Vander’s material for this album anticipates Magma’s future in a way I wasn’t expecting when I first listened. On the other hand, Kobaïa is still more of an ensemble effort than most Magma albums, although Vander’s collaborators sometimes rose to play considerable roles in the band’s direction. The difference here is most likely that someone like Teddy Lasry has a different idea of what constitutes “zeuhl” than, for example, a Jannick Top, although how much of that is up to it not really having been invented by 1970 is up for you to decide.
The existence of this album does help reveal that Magma’s direction didn’t burst forth from nothingness. The first thing you’ll note is the emphasis on rock instrumentation and supporting brass. These earlier incarnations of Magma pull on a greater variety of instruments than later ones, with one crucial exception – vox here are usually rather basic. No massed choirs here, and the actual mixing pushes the (admittedly prevalent) singing towards the background. While this album doesn’t sound like later ones, as previously mentioned, some of the songwriting here is notably similar. “Auraë”, in particular, often feels like a prototype for the militant, regimented work that I most strongly associate with Magma. The other side of this is that Magma never fully abandoned their usage of jazz elements in their music, so if you ask me, it’s just the emphases that make Kobaïa come off as a radically different experience.
With this in mind, the best and most pointed criticism of Magma’s debut I can make is that it sometimes comes off as haphazard in comparison to what would follow. This is a double album from a band that tended towards single albums, and some editing might’ve come in handy. In general, things aren’t as rigorously planned and thought out as they are on later albums, but that does mean that the later stuff incorporates fewer ideas and could possibly drive them further into the ground than fits your tastes. This might be a bit more general of a trend for musicians than just Magma, but it is very important to note, especially if you’re new to the band and are looking for an entry point.
Highlights: “Aïna”, “Auraë”, “Nau Ektila”