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The Lead Review

The Lead Review: Mick Middles On New Order's Music Complete
Mick Middles , September 25th, 2015 09:09

As they release their most promising record in recent years, Mick Middles looks back at the tumultuous history of the Manchester group, examining the barrelling acrimony and the quiet influence of Mark Reeder

Music Complete? One hesitates to pass comment on a title that, given the thunderous acrimony between Peter Hook and New Order and, more to the point, the fans who appear to have gathered in opposing camps, might appear loaded. The faintest mention of this oncoming review on Facebook was enough to trigger responses laced with equal measures of aggression.

"NO PETER HOOK, NO FUCKING NEW ORDER," one cheery wag screamed from my phone.

"HOOKY'S JUST EFFIN KARIOUKI," countered another. And so on and so forth.

It does seem odd, especially given the deadening vibes of the band's last two albums that anyone should really care about a new New Order album, let alone approach it with such defensive passion. However, the New Order/Joy Division fandom has been gifted a number of books and articles that have seemingly stoked the fire. Deliveries such as Hooky's claim that "Gillian was like a wonky table leg," neatly deflected by Gillian who correctly stated that she had "played on all the band's best records", certainly added to this unholy tumble.   Just for the record, speaking as someone who recalls embryonic rattlings of Stiff Kittens, let alone Warsaw or Joy Division, I can't be bothered fencing for either camp. We move on. Not everyone agrees.

But just maybe this barrelling acrimony might actually serve to add much needed spice to the music. There are moments on Music Complete where Bernard Sumner's grumbling irritation is unleashed to glorious effect. On 'Plastic', and on top of an irresistible swell of popping funked electronica, the singer's simplistic lyrics cut deep. "You're like plastic, You're artificial, You don't mean nothing baby, so superficial" he snaps, reminding this listener of similar moments in, for example, 'Your Silent Face', (from Power, Corruption And Lies, another loaded album title). This welcome sense of juvenile em-battlement is something that was undoubtedly lacking in New Order's two lack-lustre previous albums. These guitar-led affairs largely lacked the infectious spit'n'pop fizz that provided the youthful zest that typified their finer moments.

"I bet it sounds like 1987," sneered ex-Joy Division manager and New Order technician Terry Mason to me recently when I informed him of the content of this new album. "It's better than that, Terry," I told him. "It's like 1983-85."

Sometimes one has to reach back in order to move forward. If this album had mere shards of the spirit of that band at that special time, I told myself as the record company stream hit my screen – then it would be a welcome illumination to Autumn 2015.

Well, for the most part, it does and is.

Here's a snapshot: July 7 1983. Down among the dead men in the merciless swelter of New York. Exhausted, intoxicated, bored senseless and jaded beyond human tolerance, New Order had reached the tail end of their tour. A gig at New York's cavernous corrugated disco, Paradise Garage beckoned before a short hop to Washington. Fractious, unwelcoming to vulturous reporters and fans alike, the band comforted themselves with the thought that they would soon be home in Manchester and Macclesfield. It had been arduous indeed although, unwillingly in the main, they had pulled it off. This was New Order at their most effective. Just at the moment when their confidence had been sapped and they formed a defensive huddle. Unbeknownst to the band, several white label mixes of 'Confusion', the single they had made with dance producer Arthur Baker, had leaked into New York's vibrant dance scene. The band hated, and still hate 'Confusion' although caught that moment in Manhattan with uncanny perfection. 'Confusion', little more than an outtake from the Baker produced 'I.O.U' by Freeze – omnipresent in New York that summer - the track just seemed hang in the air – perfectly captured the sheer frenetic rush of The Big Apple in the summer heat.

At The Paradise Garage that night, everything that could have gone wrong, did. It was a gig coated in fractious glory. When their equipment shuddered to silence for the third time, Sumner uttered, "We are sorry about this, we will be with you in a moment", before adding, "We are not sorry really, we couldn't give a shit. I couldn't, anyway." Later he would openly note, "You are the most apathetic audience I have ever stood in front of", and then, (muffled), "Yank bastards". Oh what a night. Great fun too, to see the band stood stock-still on-stage while, before them, the disco revellers of Manhattan danced and cavorted with unreserved glee. The band were not amused. At the time I closed my eyes, perhaps attempting to trap this vision. I knew that this band would never seem so vital again. (With the exception of Low Life and Technique, I was right).

Until Music Complete. Or at least some of it.

A truly refreshing, innovative and inspiring album does sit within the bloated 65 minute running time. It's a shame a little more bullish A&R handling at Mute didn't gently encourage the band drop the fillers. Perversely, one of these is the opener and preceding single, 'Restless', a tepid unconvincing floater of a song capped by ineffectual vocals. This and mid-album chugger, 'The Game' strongly hint at a record stuffed with the guitar driven stodge that dulled the edge of those last two albums. Thankfully, these are the exceptions.

This is the first New Order album not to feature Peter Hook's iconic driving bass, although Tom Chapman's low end growl surfaces to almost identical effect across the tracks. For those who want a New Order of funk spit and pop – (Confusion style) this will delight over and over. If you count New Order as one producer, then three hands can be heard guiding this ship. Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands adds simply joyous clicks and whoops on the thrusting funk of 'Singularity' and, even more impressive, the smashed mirror-ball attack of 'Unlearn This Hatred'. His deft hand is also found as co-producer of 'Tutti Frutti' which, as you might expect, is the sound of a particularly gruelling far-flung holiday.

'Stray Dog', with its ghostly inclusion of guest vocalist Iggy Pop, is a cool twist, indeed. Pop's distinctive dark, honey-dripped voice adds an unlikely edge to Sumner's ambiguous lyricism. It also tugs the album back to his Berlin-era, the dense and hypnotic 'The Idiot', and a time when Joy Division were being piloted towards Germanic sounds-capes by one Mark Reeder. Reeder, a close friend of Ian Curtis, skipped his native Manchester and his role as bass player in the Mick Hucknall-led Dentonians, Frantic Elevators, to live in a grand squat in Berlin, where he began an unlikely career in the German music industry. Reeder was, and still is, thoroughly obsessed and immersed in the then largely untapped Berlin underground. His feeding of Ian Curtis with Germanic beats and artefacts has been well reported, although his role as shadowy fifth member, has been curiously left in the dark. Now famous in his adopted country, he still works with a variety of artists from West Bam to Sumner himself. While there is no direct Reeder input into Music Complete, his ghost lurks in every corner, and it is the Reeder-inspired Moroder elektro-beat that creates the true heart of this effortlessly pulsating music.

There are other more tangible guests here. As unlikely as Iggy is Brandon Flowers who tops the full throttle candy-flossed disco of 'Superheated'. Produced by Stuart Price, who's worked with both Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys, it is a shameless, infectious, dizzyingly open-hearted slice of pop. After the insular and uncertain meanderings of 'Waiting For The Siren's Call', how wonderful to see this band in full flight, once more.

There are further nods to the mainstream. La Roux's Elly Jackson allows her voice to creepy eerily alongside Sumner's, most effectively on 'People On The High Line'. Even on an album heavy-stacked with nods to the eighties, this id distinctive with its open retro notions. Tuck in funkadelic here, or even the feint edge of 80s Brit-funk. Light Of The World and Beggar and Co lurk comfortably in the shadows cast by 'High Line'. It is nothing short of intoxicating.

Music Complete is mostly a return to stumbling in a state of one's own genius. This is a band who, as Joy Division and New Order, have twice defied the odds. This almost wonderful album glimpses a third miracle. Don't bet against them and please, enjoy the positives from both warring factions.

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