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21 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Unknown Pleasures' (Factory)

This is another one of those 'classics' that I'm almost embarrassed to have in the accumulation, if only because a) I rarely listen to it and b) I will certainly struggle to write original thoughts about it in 2017. Coming between the bootleg of Warsaw and the superior vision of Closer, it's interesting as a midpoint, or if you like to marvel at how far bands push themselves in a short period of time. I'm sure this is not an original observation, but Martin Hannett's production is just about everything to why this is a great record, and if you don't believe me, listen to Warsaw. I'm sure that Hannett and the band were working in synergy here, but regardless, the decision to strip out the middle of these songs, rather than filling them with crunchy guitar chords, is what makes Unknown Pleasures such a definitive turning point between punk and post. This introduction of emptiness of course amplifies the lyrical themes but it really opens up the songs and lets mood play a role, a gesture towards what is felt and not heard. Event underwritten songs like 'Candidate' gain so much from this expansion, and it still gets thick and meaty at times. 'Shadowplay' is attenuated towards a wall of sound feeling; 'New Dawn Fades' and 'Day of the Lords' are balanced, production-wise, against their baroque tendencies. It doesn't hurt that Curtis really starts to emerge as one of rock's iconic voices on this record, with the same menace as the Warsaw sound but an increased commitment to emotional delivery, meaning he's actually singing, and his 'When will it end?' is bone-chilling even if you don't consider his ultimate fate. It's a voice that is almost defiantly masculine after the 70s sounds of Bowie and glam, yet implying more than it lets on. This is still Factory rock music, made by cold men in dark warehouses, but it's inching towards a more cybernetic approach, the full-on embrace of synthesisers to come later in New Order but no doubt a concern this early on, already. Morris's drumming is more motorik, and a song like 'Insight' is far from computerised but looking at least in that direction. Synths are used more atmospherically here, swooping into the corners and occasionally roaring. There's a reason university students still walk around wearing t-shirts bearing this logo today, despite the fact that the only two songs even remotely close to being catchy/hook-based are 'Disorder' and 'She's Lost Control'. And there's a reason we still have scores of bands like Protomartyr essentially aping the sound of 'Wilderness', four decades later. 

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