Though he’s a heartfelt electro singer-songwriter who traffics solely in Big Themes, VNVNation’s Ronan Harris sings as few different notes as anyone around, except maybe James Taylor. For instance, in the song “Entropy,” when he’s going on about important things like God taking sides and “no sense of self to speak of,” he manages a range of only three notes, E up to G. Over the course of the entire Matter + Form album, Harris accumulates one note short of an octave, an astounding feat of minimalism. To give some sense of scale, when noted monotone Johnny Cash sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” he ranged over an entire octave; when Trent Reznor sang the song, he brought the chorus up and reached just beyond an octave and a half. Trent’s extra six-note range both opens the song up and emphasizes the extreme nature of his pain, something left implicit in Johnny’s hard-eyed delivery.
As it happens, Johnny also knew something about careful high-note deployment, and Harris uses a similar less-is-more strategy. When, in the final half-minute of “Arena,” he adds an extra step to the top of the bubbly-stately syncopated tune, we glimpse new vistas of hope and delight. (This is fortunate, because the words sound and read more like someone trying in vain to match the emotion conjured up in the music.) Throughout the album, Harris sticks with the notes he needs, and his slightly nasal rasp sounds like the impassive (and Catholic!) offspring of Neil Tennant and Craig Finn. The abundant pleasure in “Arena” and the closing “Perpetual” comes from hearing these little straight lines of melodies move among the swirling synth accompaniments, the beautiful repeated New Order chords working all sorts of variations and burbling sound effects until you think this is why music was invented.
Granted, that’s only two songs. There are a couple dogs of the slow atmospheric breed, but the three fast instrumentals are also great; they’re harder-edged dance tracks, full of acid fuzz and screaming TIE fighter noises. Harris doesn’t really vary his ominous techno themes, though they’ll occasionally skip a beat or sound like they’re getting flushed down a drain or something cool; more often his technique is to keep piling different themes on top. Six minutes into the flashy “Lightwave,” though, the main hook starts to modulate up the scale, and it’s “less-is-more”-is-more all over again—a minor musical change knocking a seismic impact to your hypnotically flailing limbs.
VNVNation play Irving Plaza June 17 and 18.