New Order "Substance" (Factory Records, 1987)

New Order emerged in 1980 from the post-punk band Joy Division. When their lead singer Ian Curtis commited suicide, the rest of the group decided to continue under a different band name and were soon joined by Gillian Gilbert. At first they adopted the Joy Division sound, but soon got influenced by the New York electro and hip hop scene. From then on the Manchester band mingled their indie rock with electronic sounds and dance beats. Their 1987 collection "Substance" contains songs from the 12"s they released to that point, with A-sides on one disc and mostly B-sides on disc 2. Considering that some of these versions drastically vary from the album edits, that some singles never were released on an album before (e.g. "Blue Monday") and two songs were re-recorded, this double CD is more than just a best of album with two new songs, but a new album in its own right.

New Order concluded the 80s, their most productive decade, with the rave influenced "Technique" album and their only number one hit, the football song "World in Motion" for England's participation in the 1990 World Cup. In the 90s (apart from solo projects like Electronic) they provided us with their harmless pop album "Republic" and some techno remixes of their greatest hits, while in the 2000s they released two albums that were critically acclaimed, but for my liking were produced too polished and lacked great songwriting, which both do not stand for New Order's style and charm. There are now some rumors about a breakup (yet again), but the band appeared at this year's Cannes festival to watch the Ian Curtis biopic "Control".

Disc 1:

Ceremony The album starts with a song written by Ian Curtis and does without synthesizers. The chorus has not enough bass sound, which sometimes bothered me about Joy Division songs as well. Bassist Peter Hook plays his typical high bass lines (in the later New Order work the actual deep bass would come from the synthesizers), which became a trademark of the band. Still a good opener, rough and unpretentious. 7.0

Everything's Gone Green This seems to be their first electronic dance line, a cool staccato that accompanies the whole track. With that come some guitars, a dominant snare drum and Bernard Sumner's charismatic singing. Punk goes disco. Very effective and innovative, foreshadows "Blue Monday". 8.5

Temptation Had a little of a revival in the 90s, but I never really understood why. This is not one of their best songs, play it all you want in "Trainspotting". Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad song, it is actually pretty clean and conventional, friendly with a driving beat. But they can do better (although it has to be noted that this is a re-recorded version from 1987). 6.5

Blue Monday I guess there is not much to say about that one. Apart from this original that was the best selling 12" of all time, there have been remixes in 1988 and 1995, so that the famous um-ba-um-ba bass line should have gotten into everyone's mind. The song structure is typical for New Order's extended versions (though in this case there has never been a short one): first the song part and than kind of an improvisation with synthesizer effects and percussion elements and new melody lines. A classic. 10.0

Confusion This new version is a little softer than the original. The song has a lame chorus that exposes Bernard's vocal limitations. Funky rhythm by Arthur Baker with a lot of playing around with obscure effects saves the day. 6.5

Thieves Like Us Instead of an extended part after the actual song we have a longer foreplay here. Cold sounds and a nice beat programming, but all in all a rather boring piece, even if in the end every instrument is getting mobilized. 5.5

Perfect Kiss Had a nice "how to record this in one take" video by Jonathan Demme. With this version's 8 minutes runtime the music is nearly becoming operatic. Hard synthesizers and drum sounds after an okay song part, then it gets mellow, but in the end havoc breaks lose. Should have been in an episode of Miami Vice. 7.0

Subculture While the album version was warmer and more like Pet Shop Boys, it had terrible singing. The 12" version makes up for it and even treats Sumner to some background singers. Has a nice, catchy melody and some over the top sampling (or did they used tapes for that?). Dashing pop/dance piece, but the use of the hard beats for this particular song remains questionable. I like the fake ending and the following Hook line though. 7.5

Shellshock Similar to "Subculture", shamelessly indulging in effect gimmicks and cold sounds. I can't help but to be reminded on Duran Duran a little. The chorus is so-so, but for a party song it is probably enogh. 6.5

State of the Nation One of the few New Order songs with blatantly political lyrics (and lyrics that actually contain the song title). Composition-wise very weak, Bernard's songing could have used some support here. But the focus was clearly turned on how it would work in the clubs. The beat is impressively funky and you get a nice guitar finale. 6.0

Bizarre Love Triangle In this case I like the album version better because of the fantastic chorus, which comes out a little thin in the 12" version. Shep Pettibone remixed this one and that usually means high dance practicability. The whole production is a little brighter and more fluid than on the preceding mixes. 7.5

True Faith An exclusive track for this compilation, which actually does not mean much, since the other tracks also have been on an album for the first time. But this is from 1987, and it is flawless pop without the effects and rhythm chaos, but with an assertive beat. It is one of these songs that crawl into your mind and one day you hear it and think: 'I know this from somewhere'. That is, of course, if you are not already a New Order insider. Anyway, it's just beautiful with the gorgeous chorus, sung wonderfully sad by Bernard and back up Gillian. 9.0

Disc 2:

In a Lonely Place Another Ian Curtis leftover. Sumner actually sounds like him. Dark and melancholy with a few synthesizer strings and hopeless singing. Pulls you into a grey fog and fades away above a funeral procession. 8.0

Procession Starts with ponderous strings but gets faster. Still, the song has a more somber tone, primarily because of the singing which does not follow traditional song structures. I wonder if Robert Smith would have liked it? 7.0

Mesh (Also known as "Cries and Whispers".) Same direction. Odd strings in an otherwise conventional arrangement. I like the lasergun-like sounds after the first chorus. Somehow it gets your attention and is a little more upbeat than their first post Joy Division songs. 6.5

Hurt The beginning is kind of like Kraftwerk with a Peter Hook bass. But then... I don't know what to say about this song. It just sounds badly produced and everythings gets buried under a stentorian snare drum. Everything but Hook's bass. Still, it is somewhat fresh, different, funny, like disco night in the asylum. 6.5

The Beach This is the dub version of "Blue Monday" that, unlike an extended version, experiments more with the original material, emphasizes drum and bass tracks and uses only bits and pieces of the vocals (and in this case they are even altered with -I would guess- a vocoder effect). In the end there wasn't much you could do wrong with the source material, but you couldn't improve it either. 8.5

Confused Instrumental This is not, like "Confusion" on Disc 1, a 1987 re-recording, but the original mix by Arthur Baker, who is looking for the perfect beat. This instrumental (well, there are actually some vocals left) would also serve as a background track for some freestyle raps. Very old school electro. Appears to me like an improvised session, just that everything has been pre-programmed already. 7.5

Lonesome Tonight Back to a piece with more conventional instruments. Stephen Morris gets to play real drums, too. Slow paced, and a good example of New Order's sad lyrics about relationships going wrong, that make in this case the dreamy theme that follows all the more gripping. 7.0

Murder This one might as well have been on The Cure's "Pornography": the mood, the drums, the hypnotic, repetitive guitar riffs... And there is no Bernard singing to show that it's actually New Order. Instead we hear two scary samples out of motion pictures (I only recognized the second one from "2001-A Space Odyssey"). 7.0

Thieves Like Us Instrumental I could have done without this instrumental. I mean, the original was unspectacular enough, and this version does not add anything. May find its way to a karaoke bar. 4.0

Kiss of Death Completely different story here. This "Perfect Kiss" dub version has some really hard synthesizer and percussion sounds, brutal effects and, like the template, a chaos finale following a dreamy sequence. Without the average song part and obviously a lot of fun involved in the production, this version actually surpasses the original. Has to be played very loud. 8.5

Shame of the Nation This is not an instrumental, just an even longer version of the original with a few new parts that give it more complexity. The messing around that seems to simulate DJ scratching nearly lets you think your CD player is broken. It's still funky and smooth though. 7.0

1963 B-Side of "True Faith" and like that a conventional pop piece with a sentimental chorus. I just like this song. It is like with Pet Shop Boys' "Birthday Boy": I never really understood the cryptic lyrics, but the emphatic singing combined with what I understood just got under my skin. Great composition and almost too good to be just a B-side. There was actually a re-recorded version in the 90s that was released as a single, but I always thought it did not have the drive of the original. 8.5

[Artwork] The New Order artwork by Peter Saville always has been special. It is very minimalistic, with some album covers not even revealing band name or title. Well, you got this information on the front cover of "Substance", and you got ONLY that: A white background and black letters that say "New Order" and "Substance 1987". That's it. I mean, even a dishwasher manual would have something of an individual touch on it. It is a cover a major label would never let pass and therefore "Substance" will strike attention amidst the CD masses in your local or internet store. Other than that there are some general information about the songs inside, but don't expect too much. 8.5

Conclusion This is a typical New Order record: Inconsistent, with lots of ingenious ideas but also some flops. With a conglomeration of different styles that would influence both the indy rock and dance scenes of the later years. With intelligence and humor. With catchy tunes and awkward experiments. This mixture is certainly not for everyone, New Order play in a league of their own. But if you like electronic sounds, are open-minded and don't take music too seriously, "Substance" should be something for you. Overall Rating: 7.28

June 2007