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Main Category: Mope Rock
Also applicable: Punk/Grunge, Singer-Songwriters
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Joy Division fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Joy Division fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1979
Overall rating = 13

Pretty hard to put your finger on this. Let's just call it "Doomsday Rock For Those Who Are Not Afraid".


Track listing: 1) Disorder; 2) Day Of The Lords; 3) Candidate; 4) Insight; 5) New Dawn Fades; 6) She's Lost Control; 7) Shadowplay; 8) Wilderness; 9) Interzone; 10) I Remember Nothing.

Let's start by shooting down a couple myths. First, this album did not invent "Goth-rock". It is really no more "Goth" in essence than, say, the Doors (who are obviously a big influence); and in any case, it came one year after Siouxsie & The Banshees' debut, which was much more Gothic. Second, this album is nowhere near as depressing as it is often described - spurred on by the hype, I expected some kind of jarring sense-crushing doom-laden wall of sound, and... well, in a way, that's what I got, of course, but not even close to the way I envisioned it.

Now let's see what this album really is. Imagine a band that had just "grown out" of their punk origins, like, say, The Police. But instead of moving into the more "sunny-oriented" direction of New Wave, embracing reggae and New Age and stuff like that, they're moving in an opposite way, embracing the dark sound of Krautrock. Picture a drummer who uses real drums but makes them sound almost electronic - with a sharp lifeless kind of sound and a near-robotic way of playing. Then, a bass player who seems to have given a vow to never ever use any syncopation, playing straightforward repetitive lines, VERY loudly, in fact, making them the musical centerpiece of every song. Now take a guitar player who has so little ambition he uses his instrument as more of a background setting than anything else - only a distorted, jarring, reverberating setting, unlike Andy Summers. And over all this, place a guy who sings eerily close to Jim Morrison, just a wee bit higher and a wee bit more echoey. This is the formula of Unknown Pleasures.

And when I say "formula", I mean it: the same way of playing is used on every single one of the ten songs. The saving grace is that some of them are slow and some of them are fast - Joy Division don't go for atmosphere for atmosphere's sake, they're still way too much of a "late Seventies band" to throw away melodies and hooks and, well, the "actual feel of a rock'n'roll single". Thus, by alternating between the hypnotic dirges and the ass-kicking rockers, they manage to hold my attention throughout (surprisingly, that becomes way harder to do on Closer, even if that album is a wee bit more diverse stylistically).

It's hard to say what exactly these guys innovated on this album. I can name at least one album parts of which sounded extremely close to this one already one year before that: Wire's Chairs Missing (no doubt, also an influence). Back there, Colin Newman and his croonies were going for a very similar effect. But Wire suffer from being way too "intellectual" about their approach: Chairs Missing was a curious experiment, a Captain Beefheart of an album, whereas Joy Division, and Ian Curtis in particular, actually mean what they're playing/singing. Curtis' lyrics are obscure and often hard to understand (although the themes of death, suffering, temptation, and redemption go through all of them), but they're obviously personal, and while I can't imagine somebody taking, say, Colin Newman's stage character deeply to heart, I can certainly see where Ian Curtis would fit into the shoes of an idol - even not taking his tragic death into account.

So, if anything, Unknown Pleasures just takes the legacy of the Doors, Kraftwerk, Can, David Bowie, early punk, Wire, and molds it all into one exciting, heartfelt and actually quite accessible mass, turning their limitations as players into an advantage (everybody can play bass like Peter Hook - after hearing Peter Hook play it, that is. Is Peter Hook his real name anyway?) and showing the common listener what all these yesterday's avantgarde masters were actually wasting their talents on. Not to mention the classic album cover, of course.

Speaking of the songs themselves, all of them are good, and because all of them sound the same, it's hard to have favourites. Nevertheless, one is a distinct favourite of mine: the fast rocker 'Shadowplay'. Mainly because, while it has everything that any other song on here has (the robotic drums, the robotic bass, the robotic guitar line, the robotic - and yet quite desperate - vocals), it also has a totally breathtaking guitar part, showing that Bernard Albrecht was definitely no simplistic hack. He just totally melts the scene at the end of the song, giving out a solo that, for some reason, recalls Lindsey Buckingham to me (and that's a good recalling - Lindsey is one of the most fabulous, unjustly ignored, lead players of all time. But then again, there's no odder tale on Earth than to mention Fleetwood Mac in a Joy Division review, so I'd better shut up now).

In any case, practically every tune has something in the way of a hook - even the lengthy six-minute closer 'I Remember Nothing', the most authentically "Gothic" song on here cuz it's so slow and so long and Curtis' tone is so tombstone-like when he wails 'weeeee were straaaaaangers!'. The hooks are mostly vocal, but repeated listenings will probably make you want to play some air guitar or air bass as well (and that drummer boy sure trumps out some bizarre rhythmic patterns from time to time as well). 'She's Lost Control' is maybe your best bet to see one of those hooks, a repetitive, but enthralling - and even slightly fun, in a very very sick way - single-potential song about, well, somebody who loses control. For a strong guitar-led melody, check out 'Interzone' and 'Day Of The Lords', where Albrecht plays Tony Iommi (another influence!) in his use of morbid-sounding chords. For some of the best bass on here, check out 'Insight', the one where Curtis remembers "when we were young" - one could suggest that his suicide a year later was a way of God's punishment for taking life with such disrespect.

Just one final warning: don't go after this album expecting a musical Bible of sorts. Primarily because you'll be disappointed (I know I was on first listen, and it took a sixpack of good will and tolerance to overcome the antihype), and secondarily, because if you're not disappointed, you're probably a bizarre OCD-suffering weirdo guy, and I don't want to have anything to do with you. Okay, that was a joke - but remember, the guy did hang himself!



Year Of Release: 1980
Overall rating = 12

Welcome to the one and only Prophet Curtis show. A religious experience not to be missed!

Best song: THE ETERNAL

Track listing: 1) Atrocity Exhibition; 2) Isolation; 3) Passover; 4) Colony; 5) A Means To An End; 6) Heart And Soul; 7) Twenty Four Hours; 8) The Eternal; 9) Decades.

The Unknown Pleasures vs. Closer dichothomy is one of those classic oppositions that often says more about the band fans than the band itself. Very few people like both albums equally - roughly half prefers the poppier hooks and more upbeat tunes of Pleasures, while the other half goes for the atmosphere and spiritual catharsis of Closer instead. Ah, if I had a dollar for every single dichothomy like this, I wouldn't have to work another day...

Closer is, undoubtedly, a harsher album than its predecessor. Musically, the band steps away from the earlier formula - only a few songs consist of the same ingredients. Keyboards are now featured quite prominently, sometimes putting them even firmer in Kraftwerk territory (doesn't 'Isolation' sound exactly like some obscure Florian/Schneider outtake?); the drumming now borrows both from "tribal" elements and 'synth-drumming'; and a couple of the pieces drop well-defined melody lines altogether in favour of pure trance-like atmosphere. Besides, there are only nine songs, and generally they're much longer than before.

At the same time, lyrically Curtis goes off the deep end - adding witty, hard-to-take religious references all over the place and at times sounding more like Prophet Ezekiel than Jim Morrison (the album cover fits the general impression perfectly, too). I may be wrong about this, but I also suspect his vocals are brought up higher in the mix this time, or maybe it's just that the music isn't nearly as loud as last time around, so there's no escaping the lyrical message, and this was obviously done intentionally. No wonder hardcore Curtis fans worship this so much more than any other Joy Division material. Me, I don't - but that's because I have an inborn suspicion about pretentious-sounding "confessionalists" like Ian, even if he's better than most.

Nevertheless, count this as a pretty high 12, very close to a 13. If I don't take the dark confessions of Curtis as a boost for the album, I certainly don't take them as a disadvantage either. And the songs, arrangements, and moods are mostly excellent. Personal favourites would differ here, I guess, but mine is definitely 'The Eternal'- there's something about this mildly Gregorian-chant-inspired dirge that, I think, captures an entire epoch of depression and disillusionment. No guitar on here, just a stately, solemn funeral march driven by unnerving echoey drums and a creepy gravelley piano melody, over which Curtis croons out the lyrics in an almost romantic manner, making this delicious upwards vocal twist at the end of each verse - 'possessed by a fury that burns them i-i-i-i-n-siiiiide...'. Just a couple simple things crossed together - works beautifully.

A very different thing is 'Heart And Soul'. Faster, more energetic, this time driven by yet another of those complex drum patterns, building up a subtle menacing groove from the intro right on to the centre of the song, with Ian's echoey vocals rising out from waaaaay down below and that unforgettable chorus - 'heart and soul, one will burn, heart and soul, one will burn...' Joy Division sure have a way to imprint themselves in your memory: on Closer, they work more like a 'groove' band than a straightahead 'hook' band, but they always pick the right groove. And the right finishing touch - at the end of the song, the drums suddenly become louder as if it was the drumming that was the main part of the song all along. Could well be!

From the remaining seven songs, it's impossible for me to choose favourites: nothing strikes me as particularly "besting" the others. Yet, on the other hand, they are nowhere near as uniform as the formulaic unity of Unknown Pleasures. 'Atrocity Exhibitions' has this ethnic-sounding percussion beat and this "squirming" mass of guitar noises, as well as the "this is the way - step inside" chorus hookline. Indeed. 'Isolation' is that Kraftwerk-soundalike-thing with a synth riff the likes of which no other Joy Division song really has. 'Passover' has no "memorability standard" of its own, but is a great object of study for Curtis-o-philes anyway - with all that incessant flurry of half-sung, half-spoken lyrics. 'Colony' rocks mean and hard, the closest thing on the album to a wail of schizophrenia; is "colony" a metaphor for earthly existence in general here? Probably so. And so on and on, up to the epic conclusion of 'Decades', a song for all you intellectually-oriented disillusioned teens to identify with: "Here are the young men/A weight on their shoulders/Here are the young men/Well where have they been?"

Well where they have been is not quite clear, but where they would soon be is - Curtis hung himself pretty soon after the release of Closer. Which, of course, makes the album even more of a cult classic; every record that has the shadow of death of its primary troubadour hanging above it uses that as a boost, as cynical as that may sound (heck, I suffer from that too; I always evaluate Double Fantasy exclusively in the context of John Lennon's death, even if it has nothing to do with it per se). But even taken out of the context of Ian's suicide, this is still a pretty strong personal statement, and enormously influential on the then-nascent indie scene, of course - hey, you could argue that bands like the Smiths wouldn't even exist without this album.


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