Although I buy and – maybe two-thirds of the time, enjoy – 50 or 60 new records every year, I’m one of those people who’ll sniff innovation’s slowed to a crawl in new music, at least in the areas I claim to have knowledge of. Imitation’s been flattering giants of innovation forever, and while I’m glad so many current bands have good ears and good taste, when one of the titans wanders into town, I hide the new records in the closet so they’re not blinded by the light. New Order played the first of two Toronto shows Tuesday night (October 23), by which time I’d been living in a new music vacuum for the better part of a week.
This is a different New Order from the one that last played Toronto in 1993. That old Order was an active recording entity, wasn’t in the practice of playing Joy Division songs and had Peter Hook in tow. This newer Order is Bernard Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant project plus Gillian Gilbert, and while Hooky doubtless brought expulsion upon himself, a purist could be forgiven a twinge of sadness for the brilliant bassist’s absence. Fans romanticize about founder members in the fold, but as Sumner told Mojo earlier this year, we don’t have to live with the guy, so that’s that.
Although New Order made its share of straightforward album tracks, they always pulled the stops out for singles, which is why Substance ranks as one of pop music’s critically important compilations. Ungainly as early live NO could be – go trawl YouTube – their singles were audacious forays into the sound of next year. I don’t think there’s another pop/rock band from the past three decades who charted entire courses with the same successful daring. Rock eyeing dancefloors, synthpop seeking sinew, techno aspiring to the home stereo – any music melding rock instrumentation with sequencers and synths, or post-punk’s anything-goes credo with art rock’s extended instrumental passages, or indie’s shambolic playing with disco’s measured rhythms owes no small debt to trailblazing 45s like “Procession,” “Everything’s Gone Green,” “Temptation,” “Blue Monday,” “Confusion,” “Thieves Like Us,” “The Perfect Kiss” and “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
These were huge undertakings, a few of them on par with “Good Vibrations,” “I Am The Walrus” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for scope and influence. The songs were so ambitiously daft, it’s no wonder earlier technology vexed New Order in concert. But listeners with long memories have heard the performances tighten up due to better soft/hardware; souvenir DVDs from 1998, 2002 and 2005 showed New Order – bolstered to heretofore unimagined heights by incorporating the Joy Division songbook – morphing from mercurial to dependable stage performers. It’s made the prospect of any New Order gig a very exciting one.
So, New Order trades the thrill/agony of unpredictability in for accomplishment’s certainty: my October 23rd Toronto show was probably pretty close to recent ones you caught in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, with the prime variables being venue, song selection and Barney’s voice. What we all (hopefully) experienced in 2012 was 100 minutes’ worth of wonderful post-punk dance rock, surrounded by cheering, invigorated fans. In Toronto, the audience stood from the opening song and roared after every break. We got 17 songs, 14 from the New Order years and three from Joy Division. And Barney, bless his soul, he’s still just scrapin’ by on the higher notes, but his tone’s thicker and surer with middle-age.
The opening salvo included some nice second-drawer singles (“Crystal” and “Regret”), but they were just table-setting for the next batch: a corrosive “Ceremony,” a furiously beautiful “Age Of Consent,” a raucous “Isolation,” and 24 Hour Party People’s “Here To Stay.” That last one might seem like a throwaway unless you focussed on human metronome Stephen Morris in full-attack mode. In which case: well-played, Mauer.
A stately “Your Silent Face” followed, perhaps to allow blood to return to Morris’ fingertips. One of the era’s loveliest songs, it also bore one of New Order’s early strokes of genius: massive orchestral string patterns in place of choruses. So many of the great New Order songs used space as a dramatic device: I’m sure the band viewed the singer’s voice as another instrument, soloing for a verse, then giving way to a guitar or synth passage of equal or greater length, rather than hurrying to get to a vocal chorus or bridge. Many a classic New Order tune ran vocal-free for minutes at a time. (Space, as we might hear it.) In “Your Silent Face,” the string melody says more than the voice. In concert, it’s mesmerizing. End-of-song applause erupts and it’s like waking from a dream.
Stone classics kept coming: majestic singalongs (“Bizarre Love Triangle,” “True Faith”), pillars of long-form excellence (“The Perfect Kiss,” “Blue Monday”) and the romping union of both (“Temptation”). For each moment of mortality – Barney’s deepened voice hasn’t the winsome quality of the recorded “Triangle,” and the heavily programmed “Kiss” will give them fits forevermore – there was an astonishing response: I’m not sure anything will ever match “The Perfect Kiss”’ gorgeous, stampeding coda for breathless thrills, but “Temptation” comes close. In fact, it was more consistently great. Its cycling riffs, whooped vocal codas and explosive drum fills were dizzyingly forceful, the disco genre-derived breakdown ratcheting intensity to fever pitch. “Temptation” was a bull and the Sony Centre its china shop.
After that, New Order took a powder and came back as Joy Division. Sumner teased the crowd with song choices (he floated “Atmosphere” but the printed setlist showed “Shadowplay” and “Heart And Soul” as well) before settling on “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” As a singer, he’s no Ian Curtis. I didn’t think it would bother me in person, but the absence of that singular talent still burns. New Order were right to bring the Curtis/JD legacy into the light – in toto, the combined JD/NO songbook is the most impressive body of work in post-punk’s 30-odd years – but it’s a steep climb to channel those vocals.
Speaking of uphill battles: how’d the newer guys fare? Phil Cunningham’s not a problem. He plays rugged guitar without overcrowding the songs. (Inept percussionist, though: those weren’t George Michael Bluth-calibre fills on “The Perfect Kiss.”) And Tom Chapman, saddled with Hooky’s legacy, was equal to the mammoth task. No low-slung axe-playing or stage-hogging antics, but his tone, presence and expressiveness were respectful to Hook’s twanging leads. I only counted one disappointment, a total bail-out on the intricate, genius thread that runs through “Waiting For The Sirens’ Call.”
At present, New Order is a travelling jukebox. Whether they eventually consummate their roster makeover with records is anyone’s guess. They’re a must-see, though. Music like this – thunderously exciting and unabashedly melodic, concocted without mainstream aspirations but massively impactful on same – isn’t dime-a-dozen. Days later, I suddenly notice my new records are still in the closet.