There’s no hiding that I love Vorn – the eponymous band of Vorn Colgan, also featuring Thomas Liggett on violin and Nick Brown on drums. I once flew to Nelson overnight to see them play in Mapua and I took my parents to the gig.
Have you ever had that experience where you’re watching a movie with your folks and then a sex scene comes on and it becomes extremely uncomfortable and you’re not quite sure where to look? Yeah… the gig was a bit like that. I’m not sure why I thought it’d be wise to take my fairly conservative mother to a Vorn gig. But I did – and on the whole it was a good time – but just left me feeling a bit unclean and borderline regretful afterwards – which I think is the natural reaction for most people who listen to Vorn’s music.
You may remember that I reviewed Vorn’s (the band) last release, which came in the format of a one-take YouTube video. The experimental format was not much of a success – if measured by how many listens the release acquires – but in true Vorn fashion, it was original and showcased some great musicianship.
Since then, Vorn (the person) has found success through other means, going semi-viral with The Wellington Sea Shanty Society, and adding trombone to his ever-expanding repertoire as a member of New Orleans styled second-line band Crash Bandihoot.
Opening track “Fanfare” brings you up to date with events that have happened over the past five years. Vorn is living (or dying, depending on what sensationalist spin he drums up to sell albums) with stage four cancer. I found this out when I saw the press release advertising his 2019 “Last Chance to See” Final Tour. That news hit me hard. It took a while to sink in and I broke down in tears at work the following day. But thankfully modern medicine (or more likely: sheer stubbornness) has kept Vorn with us long enough for him to void his “last chance” promises and putt out another album for the general public to ignore. The song is obnoxious in pedantry and weird time signature changes, but with wry humour throughout so it’s all par for the course. It also explains the album title: The Late Album, which Vorn always joked would be his post-humous next release.
Lead single “No Arms No Chocolate” discusses horrific ways to perish and the futility of life. Life goes on… or rather it doesn’t. So it goes.
I love the pacing of it – very driven with lots of pulsing stabs of rhythm. It sweeps you up and takes you for a ride. A rip-roaringly cheerful nihilism anthem. Drummer Nick Brown shared that the song title references a weird French chocolate advert but couldn’t explain what that had to do with the song’s themes. Or why he wore that questionable Santa outfit in the video clip…
Follow up single, “A Safe Pair of Hands” lives up to its name. I find the bass line especially warm and comforting. I don’t have a clue what it’s about, but I find it incredibly endearing. They’ve done well blending traditional instruments with some programmed/synthesized elements to create a dynamically catchy and inviting wee earworm. It’s a reworked version of a song that Vorn contributed to a Powertools Records compilation years ago, and I’m glad that they’ve chosen to revisit it and bring more attention to that fantastic songwriting. This is the song that I keep coming back to, and I love how it makes me feel.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow summary. No one has that much tolerance to put up with all my in-jokes. But I’ll touch on a handful of the songs to highlight the variety of what you’d expect to encounter.
“Aging Hipster Blues” is a fun, tongue in cheek shuffle with an air of smarmy jaded elitism. It conjures the image of that Simpsons meme in which Principal Skinner is questioning how he became so out of touch. “Ballad in G Sharp Minor” is a waltz but certainly not a romantic dance. “The Unbearable Dumbness of Being” sounds like post-punk mixed with electronica. “Drug Friends” is the spiritual successor to “The Tinny House Hop” from Vorn and The (2008) – fun, catchy, and about drugs.
“Somebody Wrote A Prog Song About The Internet and It Is Fire Emoji” is extremly meta and the title sums it up. At first, it’s a bit slow for me. But when it hits, damn it’s awesome. Watch your volume levels on this one, because it’s so quiet for the first half, before coming in loud and strong with riffs and distortion and cool musical elements that bogans like. This is the song that outs me as an insufferable Tool fan if I chose to discuss it. The final passage is full stank face mode.
“A Dying Man’s Curse Be Upon You” is an interesting concept – the contrarian answer to the Irish Blessing that you’d expect to find embroidered and on display at any given Pakeha Grandmother’s house. I find it both funny and genuinely upsetting, especially considering the niche band merch Vorn made to accompany the song. Take time to listen to the lyrics and laugh at just how petty the curse is.
“Zombie Rock” is always a favourite. A jazzy number that invites crowd participation with the easily learnt lyric of “BRAINS!” Vorn never learns though. You’d think he would, running niche pub quizzes every week, but he doesn’t. This crowd participation always backfires and irritates him no end when people inevitably screw it up. And I find his frustration hilarious and always heckle him about it whenever the opportunity presents itself. Anyway, the song is infectiously fun. And even more fun when you shout out BRAINS! at the wrong time just to annoy the guy who wrote the song. [Editorial note: I have since found out that “Zombie Rock” is not on the album, but will be used as a B Side. But I love the song and I like heckling Vorn so I’ve opted to keep this paragraph anyway.]
Vorn’s musical output has always been fantastic. Ceaselessly witty, and drawing indiscriminately from random genres. And Vorn has never shied away from dark themes. But I do find the subject matter of this album confronting at times – seeing how it is about one of my friends dying. Vorn wrestles with his mortality by singing about his looming demise with humour.
You can see the trio wearing matching t-shirts in the video clip for lead single “No Arms No Chocolate”, and the album art for this single features the same image. It’s Vorn’s “deathmask”. To quote him “It was custom made to immobilise my face while they fired radiation into my brain. The X marks one of the spots”. They’ve turned brain tumours into band merch. Similarly, they have been selling t-shirts of Vorn’s face with eye’s X’d out for a few years – a design that they’ve updated for The Late Album cover art. Power to Vorn for finding a way to process things in a creative and productive way, but do get a bit sensitive about it.
Vorn is a nerd. An intellectual and a musical savant. The stereotypical New Zealander loves rugby and Six60, and Vorn is the antithesis of this. So I am torn between admiring his talent, and wanting to tear him down for being the tall standing poppy that he is. But ultimately I have to concede that I am a nerd too – undeniably so, seeing how I run a music blog. So of course I love how clever and complex Vorn’s music is. The biting social commentary, the marvelous harmonies, the odd time-signatures that the band plays in, just because they are good talented enough that they need to challenge themselves like that. All packaged up in a macabre, self-deprecating album.
Kudos to Thomas and Nick for making the band more than the sum of its parts. Thomas’ violin playing never ceases to fascinate me, the ways he makes different sounds with his plucking and bowing and using effects pedals. And as a drummer, I’ve always admired Nick’s playing, and marveled at how his style is so different to my own. And when the three of them are harmonizing, the vocals are to die for. The Vorn band has featured many different members throughout the years, but Thomas and Nick have stuck with Vorn for some time now, and it really shows with how well they can lock in and interplay.
Imposter syndrome is never far from reach, and as I try to conclude this review, I am very much aware that I will never be able to do justice to any analysis of Vorn’s creative outputs. I consider Vorn (the person) a genius, and am in awe of the talent that the Vorn trio amass. I have no idea what many of his songs are about, or quite how technical and challenging they are to play. It’s beyond my comprehension. But the music is fun, funny and interesting, and certainly a departure from convention.
Recommended for nerdy musicians, intellectuals and those with dark sense of humour.