Joy Division

Unknown Pleasures
Closer
Substance
Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979


Unknown Pleasures (Qwest ‘79) Rating: A
Joy Division has often been called the most influential British post-punk band. This can partially be attributed to the tragic suicide of group leader Ian Curtis, much like how Kurt Cobain rose to icon status after his suicide. Although Curtis’ ghostly monotone and dramatic lyrics dominated Joy Division during their brief tenure, his bandmates would subsequently prove their mettle with their impressive achievements without him in the seminal electro pop outfit New Order. Joy Division was far less pop oriented than that subsequent band, however, and though their sparse, unsettling style was also indebted to synthesizers they were used in a heavier rock context. The band's studio sound, a far cry from their rawer live sound, was largely sculpted by producer Martin Hannett, who often used echo and effects to enhance the band's desolate soundscapes. Stephen Morris' compressed drums and Peter Hook's high-pitched bass often acted as lead instruments, while ambient keyboards and angular and/or chiming guitars by Bernard Sumner added texture. The band's cold, gloomy music was a perfect match for the grim Northern Manchester city from which the group originated, and though not all of these songs possess memorable melodies, the album's claustrophobic intensity is uniquely original (despite a debt to The Doors) and unforgettable at all times. Curtis sounds positively possessed on the churning, haunted "Day Of The Lords" and the funereal "New Dawn Fades," while "Disorder" and "Insight" have surprisingly excellent pop melodies (I dig the driving rhythms on the former as well). "Candidate" is all about atmosphere, but "She's Lost Control" is utterly awesome, with one of the best bass lines ever and Curtis at his most hypnotic. Angular guitars, clattering rhythms, and Curtis' unremitting intensity ("waiting for you!") mark "Shadowplay," while "Wilderness" is surprisingly hooky despite the usual skeletal arrangement. The groove-based "Interzone" makes effective use of multi-tracking but isn't a highlight, while "I Remember Nothing" ends the album with Curtis in his own world ("we were strangers..."), again all atmosphere but icily impressive. Strikingly intense though the band's stark, minimalist music is, it is Curtis' despairing words that have even more of an effect, with lines like “I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling,” “where will it end?” and “it’s creeping up slowly, that last fatal hour” offering fascinating and revealing insights into Curtis’ fractured psyche. Unknown Pleasures resounds with an astounding overall resonance as a result.

Closer (Qwest ‘80) Rating: A+
Ian Curtis had serious problems, including increasingly occurring epileptic seizures (his famously spastic herky-jerky dance moves sometimes obscured the actual seizures he would have onstage!), the struggle to support a young wife and child (remember, Joy Division didn't blow up big until after his death), and the guilt associated with his having an affair. Marital and physical problems aside, it surprised everyone when he took his own life, but as is often the case, in retrospect the signs were there, as anyone can attest with but one listen to Closer. Released after Curtis' sad suicide, Closer is a great goodbye on which Curtis is omnipresent, despite an equally absorbing and original musical backdrop that actually ups the bleak intensity of Unknown Pleasures. “The Atrocity Exhibition” begins with a sparse beat, ominous bass, and abrasive guitars in conjuring an industrial clatter that’s as difficult but brilliant as the J.G. Ballard fix-up novel that bears its name. About the Nazi concentration camps, Curtis' matter of fact delivery ("this is the way, step inside") makes the song that much more chilling. The rest of the album often follows suit, but on the second track skeletal bass and skittish keyboards form the canvas for Curtis to declare his profound sense of “Isolation,” a much covered song that pits self-loathing lyrics ("I'm ashamed of the person I am") against an upbeat pop melody that pointed the way to New Order, dated '80s synths and all. Curtis’ haunted vocals detail a desperate worldview, declaring himself to be “possessed by a fury that burns from inside,” while also warning “got to find my destiny before it gets too late.” When he says “I put my trust in you” it sounds accusatory rather than trustful, and the group’s big beats, prominently throbbing basslines, and grating guitars create an atmospheric drone that’s absolutely claustrophobic. The careening rhythms create a mournful yet menacing ambience that is often atonal, but the group can also toss out coldly elegiac songs such as “Eternal” and “Decades,” which at times possess a remarkable beauty. Joy Division had a uniquely sparse and disturbing sound that was taken to its logical extreme on Closer, as it isn’t hard to imagine a crestfallen Curtis staring into the abyss. Though this band, who many feel are ground zero for "post-punk," has since been oft imitated, the unremitting intensity and unflinching honesty of their music has rarely been matched.

Substance (Qwest ‘88) Rating: A
Released the same year as New Order’s monumental 2-cd set of the same name, this is hardly the vault clearing exercise one would expect. In fact, Substance is nothing less than the third essential Joy Division album; forget useless other compilations such as Permanent, as the band only had two proper studio albums. Of course, the very nature of this type of compilation, which collects non-album singles and rarities, ensures that it lacks the consistency of their classic first two albums. Still, in addition to some great songs, listening to Substance enables listeners to trace the evolution of the band, which began with somewhat derivative roots on the raw punk of “Warsaw” (the original name of the band) and “Leaders Of Men.” The band began to find their voice (with a huge assist from Hannett) on songs such as “Digital,” which features a memorable farting bass-line and desperate lyrics like “feel they’re closing in,” while “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (the band's signature song whose title appears on Curtis' tombstone) are inarguable classics showing the band in unstoppable dance mode. "Transmission," probably my favorite Joy Division song, has FANTASTIC riffs and an overall groove that's undeniable, plus I just love those "dance, dance, dance to the radio" exhortations from Curtis, and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is simply a lovely synth pop song with affecting lyrics that linger in listener's memories long after the last note. “She’s Lost Control” should sound familiar, but this is the more robotic and less impressive single version of the song, which is still really good and at least is decidedly different than the one on Unknown Pleasures, while the coldly beautiful “Atmosphere” is another aptly titled, utterly mesmerizing necessity. "Dead Souls," "Failures," and "Novelty" are other highlights from a very song oriented collection that veers in enough different directions to show off just about every side of the band, though these qualities also makes Substance far less coherent (but also less oppressive) than either Unknown Pleasures or Closer. Over the course of 17 tracks (presented with an irritating lack of liner note information) you’ll likely find some stuff here to be rather unremarkable, particularly during the album's second half. Then again, technically speaking the last 7 songs are cd-only bonus tracks, and you could make a strong case that the original album (the first 10 songs) is every bit as great as their first two albums. One last thing I'd like to note is that, while many people remark upon how gloomy and depressing the band was, too often they forget just how intense and yes, rocking the band's music was. The best songs on Substance mightily serve to reinforce the band’s classic, iconic status, for despite their short history and limited output, Joy Division left behind a lasting legacy.

Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979 (NMC ‘01) Rating: A
Turns out there are four essential Joy Division albums; why don't more people know about this fantastic archive live album, and why isn't it more readily available? I only found out about this album fairly recently myself, and I must say that this is a big improvement on the live stuff on Still and the Heart and Soul box set, and that it also eclipses Preston 28 February 1980, another archive live album released in 1999. Remember in the last review when I said that Joy Division rocked? Well, in the studio they certainly rocked at times, but live they most definitely ROCKED. If I could pinpoint a minor weakness about this album is that it is so relentlessly intense that it's exhausting, and these songs sound much more raw, heavy, energetic, and in your face than the studio renditions, which thanks to Hannett were more eerie, mechanistic, atmospheric, and doomy. Really, both sides of the band are tremendous but in totally different ways, and I'm thrilled to have this souvenir of the more explosive, flat-out ferocious side of the band. As expected, Ian Curtis is as unforgettable as ever, especially at his most uninhibited, but the real revelation of this album is in the way his bandmates shine. Simply put, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner are great players who play great together, and the drums are so much more lively and powerful than on the studio albums, while the guitars are far more pronounced. As for the songs, the 16 tracks are divided among those initially found on Unknown Pleasures (5 songs), Closer (4 songs), and Substance (7 songs), with only "She's Lost Control" really sticking out as a notable omission (the more ethereal songs on Closer wouldn't have fit in, also a minor problem with "Love Will Tear You Apart" and "Atmosphere" which are still welcome additions anyway). Despite the title, only tracks 1-9 were recorded in Les Bains Douches, Paris, the rest of the album comes from two January shows in The Netherlands. Most of the obvious highlights ("Disorder," "Shadowplay," "Transmission," "Day Of The Lords," "New Dawn Fades") come from the Paris show, but the whole album maintains an exceedingly high quality. Really, Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979 deserves to be mentioned among the great live albums, and Joy Division among the great bands.

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