New Order: Music Complete (2015)

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What does it mean to create a New Order album without Peter Hook? That’s the question raised by Music Complete, the band’s first album of original material since 2013’s Lost Sirens, and their first proper studio release since 2005’s Waiting For The Sirens’ Call. Given that New Order’s innovation lay first and foremost in the seamlessness with which they blended synth and guitar textures, there’s something odd about contemplating them without Hook’s plaintive bass, but it’s no less odd than their movement away from the synthesizer over the last fifteen years as well. While most 80s groups have found some new way to redefine their signature in the new millennium, New Order made one of the most drastic about-turns, effectively rebranding themselves as a rock band on 2001’s Get Ready, and continuing that trend even more emphatically with Waiting For The Sirens’ Call. At one level, that was presumably a bid for credibility, especially in the context of the resurgence of indie rock in the UK music scene in the early 00s, since even the post-punk revival wasn’t prepared to indulge in the full-scale synthscapes that would become fashionable yet again once the second decade of the new millennium came around. As Mark Fisher has pointed out in an excellent blog post comparing the reception of the Arctic Monkey and the Junior Boys, mid-00s Britain was very much entralled by the notion of rock as somehow more “eternalising” than electronica, privy to an unmediated immediacy and sincerity that supposedly allowed it to speak on behalf of more timeless truths. It’s no coincidence, then, that New Order also kickstarted their new-and-improved career with a renewed commitment to live performances, moving away from the cool detachment of their 80s and 90s concerts to something more like a stadium rock experience.

At the same time, there’s also something to be said for the way in which this return to rock allowed New Order to remain true to their analog roots as well, since the wonder and magic of hearing a New Order track lies precisely in recognising that the guitar and synthesizer both belong to the same analog universe, the same analog family of instruments. Although the contrast between guitar and synthesizer tones is what superficially drives the New Order aesthetic, it’s actually the emergence of a profound continuum between these apparently disparate registers that made their music so revelatory at the time, and continues to make it so revelatory today. On the one hand, that continuity imbues the synthesizer with a warm, humanistic, embodied quality – in New Order’s music, the synth becomes something you play, manipulate and caress. Among other things, that’s always made me a bit sceptical of comparisons with Kraftwerk, since the logic of motorische is not merely that the synthesizer plays you but that the synthesizer is not even a discrete instrument so much as a node in a vast studio computer that seamlessly and economically subsumes the individual musician. Perhaps that’s why I never found “Krafty” – the first New Order single released off Waiting For The Sirens’ Call – particularly convincing, since it claimed a krautrock lineage that was in some ways inimical to the spirit of the band, just as the single itself was quite unconvincing in its repetitive synth line, more like a Kraftwerk parody than anything else, and light years away from the warm, mellifluous, radically embodied synth refrains that characterised New Order at its very peak.

If this radical continuity between guitar and synthesizer managed to make the latter feel more homely, then it also worked to make the former feel more futuristic as well. Just as the synth moved closer to the guitar, so the guitar moved closer to the synth, with the result that it is – somewhat paradoxically – Hook’s guitar playing that often feels like the futuristic, visionary cusp of the band’s greatest songs. While New Order were fairly minimal when it came to feedback, distortion and other forms of synthesized guitar technologies, that was only because they had developed such a seamless synergy between guitar and synthesizer that those more overt augmentations were no longer necessary. In that sense, I see Hook’s beautiful guitar riffs and the elegance with which he integrated them into Gillian Gilbert’s synth substrate as equally innovative as the noise experiments that were taking place in rock, by ways of bands like Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr., as well as the synclavier experiments that were taking place in jazz fusion, by way of artists like Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and Bill Frisell. The main difference is whereas these rock and jazz fusion artists were interested in arriving at some radical singularity of guitar and electronic technologies – a singularity that in many ways corresponded to the rise of digital recording technologies – New Order were more interested in the convergence process itself, with the result that their music doesn’t ultimately feel exclusively analog or digital in sensibility so much as poised – and determined to remain poised – on the breathless threshold at which analog was about to become digital, the moment at which the digital wasn’t a concrete future so much as a kind of image for the wonder of futurity itself.

It’s not hard to see, then, why New Order have become such a touchstone over the last decade. With the arrival of SmartPhones and the culture of mobile social media, the process of becoming-digital has seemed to accrue more urgency, anxiety and inescapability, which often leads artists and musicians to look back to that moment in the late 70s and early 80s when this process was in its infancy, and so presumably – or mythologically – more available to consciousness than it is today. More specifically, the sheer dexterity of New Order’s fusion of synth and guitar textures also speaks to a time when the process of becoming-digital was more open to individual, conscious, auteurist manipulation, as well a time when the interface between analog life and digital dreams was more malleable than it is today. It’s hard to know, then, whether to describe this attachment to bands like New Order as nostalgic, since while it is clearly yearning for an earlier time, it is only as a way of trying to map and come to terms with our own time in the process. What is a bit more certain is that New Order themselves have been somewhat displaced from this process, releasing their two main albums of the century just before this wave of renewed fandom peaked in early 2010s, and now releasing Music Complete on what increasingly feels like the tail-end of that moment, which dates roughly from the emergence of chillwave ushered in by Washed Out, Active Child, Neon Indian and Ariel Pink, to the renewal of the analog synthesizer that culminated, in various ways, with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and the two studio albums by John Carpenter and Giorgio Moroder released this year.

In that sense, the New Order album that most tapped into this moment was probably 2013’s Lost Sirens, which wasn’t exactly a studio album but a collection of tracks that didn’t make it onto Waiting For The Sirens’ Call. While I think that Music Complete is New Order’s most solid album since 1989’s Technique, two of my very favourite New Order songs from the last two decades – “I’ll Stay With You” and “Sugarcane” – were on Lost Sirens, which to all intents and purposes feels like a studio album, even it is only a collection of highly polished outtakes. In part, that’s because these two tracks – and Lost Sirens as a whole – are much closer to the fusion of synth and guitar textures that characterised New Order at their peak, which is presumably why they were left off Waiting For The Sirens’ Call in the first place. Moreover, Peter Hook’s beautiful guitar work on both these songs clarifies that New Order’s return to rock paradoxically diminished the distinctive role that the guitar had once played in the band, relegating it to a more traditional rock identity, and a more straightforward bridge between studio and live performance, rather than the futuristically augmented presence that it once commanded. For all that this latter-day album is more guitar-driven, it actually makes Hook feel more and more sidestepped from the band’s vision, to the point where it’s not hard to see why he felt more and more disenfranchised. Nor is it hard to see why Hook’s replacement band – Peter Hook and the Light – made a point of playing Joy Division and early New Order albums in their entirety, a gesture that was frequently frowned upon by New Order and their fans, but that, in retrospect, simply feels like Hook trying to reestablish and reiterate the place of his trademark guitar in the broader genealogy of a band that suddenly seemed to have no need or interest in it any more.

Of course, that’s not to say that Hook’s guitar didn’t play a role in millennial New Order – after all, “Crystal,” the lead single from Get Ready, and the track that effectively introduced this new iteration of the band, is amongst the most beautiful riffs he has ever recorded. It’s more that the mindset and outlook of the band seemed to leave less and less room for his vision, something that became particularly clear with Waiting For The Sirens’ Call, which was largely defined by the departure of another New Order stalwart, Gillian Gilbert, along with her signature synthesizer sound. In some ways, you’d think that this would free up more space for a guitar-centric sound – and that was certainly the way the band sold it – but the symbiotic, synergistic relationship between Hook’s bass and Gilbert’s keyboards meant that her departure left him with even less of a stable identity in the band. While the bass and keyboards were more dissociated than ever before in Get Ready, at least the keyboards were still there as a kind of futuristic aspiration, something for Hook’s guitar to commune with and aspire to emulate. Once Gilbert had left the picture, however, his bass lines were left to float in a miasma of synth textures that couldn’t hope to speak to them as eloquently as Gilbert, which, in many ways, did the greatest violence possible to his guitar sound – it made it sound emphatically, once and for all, like a guitar. In that sense, Waiting For The Sirens’ Call bore some resemblance to the way in which Johnny Marr plays around with his guitar signature in his latter-day work, sometimes channelling the Smiths so plaintively that you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a Queen is Dead outtake, and yet sometimes rendering his guitar so generic and anonymous that it’s amazing to think that this guitarist could ever have defined the sound of an entire decade. The difference, of course, is that Marr tends to command his own anonymity – often quite playfully – whereas there could be no doubt that the band were forcing Hook into a future he didn’t want to consider, perhaps explaining why he increasingly identified with Joy Division.

For all those reasons, then, Music Complete is an interesting release, and all the more interesting in that this is New Order’s most solid and sustained album since 1989’s Technique. From the very outset, it’s clear that there are two main strategies in place to compensate for Hook’s absence, although they are both intertwined. First and foremost, this is an emphatically electronic album, and a conscious return to New Order’s roots, if it makes sense to describe their ethereal atmospherics as rootsy in any kind of traditional way. Virtually all of the tracks have a propulsive dance beat, as if poised between their original and remixed incarnations, clarifying that one of New Order’s key innovations – or a byproduct of their innovative fusion of synth and guitar textures – lay in creating rock tracks that could be repurposed as dance tracks, as well as rock tracks that were already in the process of being repurposed as dance tracks, a process that the Pet Shop Boys would adapt and take to its logical conclusion in their groundbreaking 1988 album Introspective, which reversed the typical process by which pop groups released singles by offering up six dance-length tracks that were then cut down to radio-friendly remixes in the leadup to the album’s release. In that sense, the album that Music Complete most recalls in the New Order catalogue is 1987’s Substance, which claimed to release all the bands singles, 12” remixes and B-sides up to that point in time, but in fact tended to replace the original version of many of the singles with a more dance-friendly version. The result is an experience that totally defies any distinction between singles, album tracks and dance remixes, moving seamlessly between the earliest post-Joy Divison tracks and the most recent additions New Order’s catalogue, with “Ceremony” but also “True Faith” making their album debuts on this heady, intoxicating convergence of the band’s multifarious strengths.

Like so many others of my generation, I first got into New Order through Substance, which turned up as a double CD in the secondhand bookstore where I worked and was recommended to me by a colleague. On the one hand, it offered the kind of total, categorical, instantaneous immersion in every facet of a band’s sound and sensibility that only the greatest compilations can afford, as well as forming part of what I think of as the first great wave of CD compilations – Pet Shop Boys’ Discography would also be in that category – as bands and record producers took advantage of the longer playing capacities of the compact disc to craft summative statements that were every bit as magisterial as the studio albums that they collated and curated. In that sense, I would argue that Substance is one of the first great double albums that was made specifically for double compact disc, transforming the notion of what a compilation could be into something considerably more fluid, provisional and even experimental to fill out the expanded horizons of this new musical medium. Of course, that very experimentalism meant that it took me a long time – years, really – to “fit” Substance within the rest of New Order’s discography, since it’s neither a collection of singles, a collection of dance remixes, a compilation, nor a studio album, and while it now sits a bit “apart” from the singles and studio albums in my mind, it’s also inextricably defined the band for me as one that somehow transcends the typical dichotomy betweensingles and studio albums – not because they weren’t capable of perfecting either, but precisely because the very perfection of their singles as singles and their albums as albums seemed to gesture towards a world in which all these achievements might converge upon some more inclusive, immersive musical experience of the kind so beautifully elaborated across Substance’s two sides.

If New Order perfected the sound of becoming-digital, then this is their digital horizon: the prospect of a musical landscape in which the synth and guitar would converge on a way of distributing, processing and accessing music that was no longer beholden to the separation between studio album and single that both these musical technologies had, in their various ways, fostered. Given that we now live in that musical landscape, there’s something timely about an album like Substance, and yet New Order have been displaced from the fruition of their innovations once again by the fact that they simply haven’t been much of a single band over the last decade. Sure, they’ve had singles, and some of them have even charted, especially in the wake of Get Ready, but for the most part they haven’t been identified with their later singles in the same way that they have been identified with their earlier singles. Of course, there’s nothing surprising about that – it would be a superhuman feat for even a band of the stature of New Order to continue topping the charts three decades after their heyday – but it has tended to move them away from the vision of Substance and more towards traditional studio albums, since you can’t seamlessly converge your single and studio sensibilities if you haven’t got much of a singles presence to begin with. In that sense, Get Ready and Waiting For The Sirens’ Call are probably the two most traditional studio releases of New Order’s career, since they don’t seem concerned to augment themselves onto the dance floor in the same way as the band’s earlier work, instead opting for a more linear and less transformative translation into live performance.

Music Complete, on the other hand is very different, and seems to have benefited from the provisional status of Lost Sirens, which by virtue of its very definition as a collection of polished outtakes from Waiting For The Sirens’ Call was poised between this more restrictive notion of a self-contained studio album and something more expansive, provisional and somehow “outside” the studio. It’s no surprise, then, that the two strongest tracks on Lost Sirens – “I’ll Stay With You” and “Sugarcane” – feel like the prototype for Music Complete, which is so suffused with electronic textures and extended riffs and refrains – there isn’t a single track under five minutes, with several stretching beyond the seven-minute mark – that it feels as if New Order have crafted an album that is deliberately designed to collapse itself into the singles and dance remixes that it might spawn, or contain them as part of its overall aesthetic and approach. On the one hand that results in pure dance-floor gold, such as “Tutti Frutti” – my favourite track from the band n the last two decades – but it also produces electronic numbers that morph into their extended remixes over the course of the track itself, such as “Plastic,” as well as extended rock numbers that morph and shimmer in and out of their electronic reincarnations, such as “Nothing But A Fool.” Filling out the texture are classic five-to-six minute pop songs, such as “Restless,” “Academic” and “Superheated,” but also dance remixes that seem to have entirely discarded the original pop songs that spawned them, such as “Stray Dog,” a spoken word rumination by Iggy Pop over a propulsive baseline that feels as if it might once have formed the substrate to a classic New Order track that has been evacuated in this remixed version that the band have chosen to provide in lieu of the song itself. Combined with a greater selection of vocalists than the band have featured in years – along with Iggy Pop, La Roux and Brandon Flowers also get a look-in – the result comes close to the heady wonder of Substance, and especially the way in which it evoked the movement between compact disc and dancefloor that made it the perfect album for listening to before a big night out, or when driving to a nightclub, even or especially if you were likely to hear some iteration of it on the dancefloor as well.

In that sense, the title of the album is both ironic and apt, since it’s this very sense of a sprawling, incomplete interface between music and other electronic media that completes the band, which feels more lithe, limber and fluid than it has in years, even if Hook is no longer in the picture. And the second reason for that is the return of Gillian Gilbert on keyboards, which in the context of this wider shift in the band’s musical sound is no small thing, affording her a much greater solo presence than Hook had on Waiting For The Sirens’ Call. For my money, one of the greatest legacies of the sexism of the music industry – the fixation on male players and the guitar as male instrument par excellence – is the way that Gilbert tends to be somewhat sidelined in accounts of the band, despite the fact that her beautiful keyboards are just as integral, if not more integral, to the New Order experience than Sumner’s vocals and Hook’s guitar. When anyone thinks “New Order,” they immediately think “synths” and yet Gilbert hasn’t become a household name in the same way as her two other collaborators, which perhaps had something to do with her departure from the band in the early 00s, as well as her decision to form a side band, The Other Two, in the early 00s, which rivals anything that Sumner did with Johnny Marr and Neil Tennant as Electronic, and resulted in what I think has to be the most beautiful track that any New Order member recorded outside of the band – “Tasty Fish,” the opening track and lead single off The Other Two’s first and best album, The Other Two and You, recorded in 1991 but released in 1993 as one of the very final swansongs for Factory Records.

As a result, Music Complete very much feels like Gilbert’s comeback, which paradoxically means that Hook is more present on this release than on Waiting For The Sirens’ call, with his distinctive bass hooks conjured up as a kind of horizon to Gilbert’s plaintive synth refrains with much more conviction than he actually delivered them on the previous album. Of course, it helps that the band is once more oriented in terms of that guitar-synth synergy, but there’s also something about the way the two albums sit side by side that suggests it may have been Gilbert’s genius that underpinned it all, calling forth Hook’s guitar signature to such an extent that it effectively evaporated when she was no longer in the band. In that context, replacement guitarist Tom Chapman does just what he should do – namely, emulates Hook just enough to complement Gilbert’s synth textures, but not so much that you’re actually reminded of Hook’s absence of the band either. Given that Gilbert’s presence seems to invoke Hook as a nominal presence anyway, there’s something appropriate about Chapman’s nominal nod in his direction, and while some critics have argued that Chapman’s presence brings this much closer to an unofficial release by Bad Lieutenant, Chapman and Sumner’s alternative rock band, I think that’s to discount, once again, the vision and dexterity that Gilbert as the true auteur of the group brings to it all. Admittedly, at times, it doesn’t entirely gel, but nor does it seem as if it’s designed to, and even the moments where it does feel more like a collaboration of visionaries than a sustained band have something of the quality of Sumner’s collaboration with Marr and Tennant, a collection of adjacent but not always congruent musical styles and sensibilities, which is perhaps the most honest way to conceptualise New Order in this latter-day incarnation as well.

All of which begs the question: where to from here for New Order? If Music Complete is anything to go by, it’s clear that they’ve recovered the flexibility and muscularity that made their music so great, while their recommitment to the Hook “sound” might be enough to induce a reunion in the near future, although of course there are personal factors at play that might make that difficult as well. At the same time, when a band has pioneered a sound that is as distinctive and as original as this one, it can sometimes be enough of an achievement to maintain the freshness of that sound amidst the vicissitudes of changing fashions, tastes and technologies, which is something that Music Complete pulls off with aplomb. Similarly, there’s such a dynamism on display here that you have to wonder whether the time is ripe for Sumner and Gilbert to embark on side projects, as well as for Hook to finally dissociate his side project from its Joy Division and New Order pedigree, which is not to say that these artists should completely dissociate themselves from their signature sound – we don’t need another post-New Order alt rock band – but instead luxuriate in the kinds of collaboration with like-minded musicians that made groups like Electronic and The Other Two so great. As the presence of Brandon Flowers and La Roux on this album suggest, those affiliations are by no means generational, and it’s more than likely that some of the most open-minded, progressive and avant-garde electronic artists at the moment would jump at the prospect of a serious collaboration with any of the members of New Order, or the band itself. Daniel Lopatin working with Gillian Gilbert: let’s hope something like that happens in the near future.

About Billy Stevenson (695 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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