Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14: Joy Division, "Unknown Pleasures"

Artist: Joy Division
Album: Unknown Pleasures
Year: 1979
Label: Qwest

Following the punk rock explosion of 1977, music branched off into dozens of directions as bands combined the new form with other styles. Bands took the simple, no frills ethos and blended it with their own musical ideas and influences. Taking a much more bleak and gloomy approach, Joy Division's sound and style paved the way for genres we now call "goth," "emo," "industrial," and many others. Though only together for three years, both of their albums are amazing. However, their 1979 release, Unknown Pleasures is both a flawless record, as well as a musical landmark.

Everything about Unknown Pleasures reinforces the overall feel of dark desolation combined with powerful music and lyrics. The album cover itself is a transcription of a star going super-nova, and in many ways, this is a perfect analogy to the album inside. The sound throughout the album furthers this juxtaposition as there is a large amount of "empty space" on each track, and in many ways, the production is such that it almost feels as if the music itself is sneaking into this empty space for a moment, then disappearing again. This was purposefully done, and can be attributed to the genius of legendary producer, Martin Hannett, who would further his legacy with bands like the Buzzcocks, Dead Kennedys, and Psychadelic Furs. The odd, random sound effects, from smashing glass to sounds of chaotic movement that bookend many of the songs further reinforce the overall contrast between silence and pandemonium that is clearly the spirit behind Unknown Pleasures.

The music of Joy Division is all about creating stark contrasts in style and mood. A classic quartet, the band takes a set of instruments that have been used millions of times, and create a sound that is entirely new. One of the most significant aspects that sets Joy Division apart is guitar player Bernard Sumner's dual role playing synthesizer. Though it has been used by other bands before, on Unknown Pleasures, it finds a more prominent role, and contributes greatly to the albums' haunting, sometimes creepy mood. Sumner's dark, sludgy guitar tone and feedback often borders with a sound that can only be described as "metal," and combined with the thumping, sometimes threatening basswork of Peter Hook creates a tone that is often as chilling as it is welcoming. Stephen Morris' drumming sounds as if it is a bit misplaced in the mix of instruments (it's far more forward that most drum tracks), but once you get into the crux of Unknown Pleasures, it is clear that not only was the placement of the drums purposeful, but it works brilliantly.

Throughout Unknown Pleasures, the vocals of Ian Curtis are nothing short of breathtaking. Combining the dryness and rhythm of Mark E. Smith (The Fall), with the dark, somewhat eerie mood of Ozzy (Black Sabbath) or Glenn Danzig (The Misfits), Curtis' voice fits perfectly with the music being created. Even when delivering a more mellow, slower vocal, there is an unsettling sense of urgency in each song Curtis sings. Most of the vocal tracks have a disturbing echo or "openness" to them, and it often gives the songs a threatening, ominous disposition. With lyrics ranging from clear Biblical references to songs that speak of emptiness and vastness that parallels the music, Curtis' delivery can be seen as one of the first examples of a dismal, somber, yet somehow romantic mood. It is in the lyrics and vocals throughout Unknown Pleasures that one can clearly hear the foundations of what we now call "goth" as well as the building blocks for the "industrial" sound that appeared nearly a decade later with bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

From the music to the vocals to the production, Unknown Pleasures is a shining example of a band that is perfectly in sync throughout each and every song. No member attempts to steal the spotlight, and their ability to move through each song as a complete unit takes the record from "good" to "astounding." Taking the stripped down, angst-ridden principles of the punk movement and fusing them with desolate, melancholy sounds and vocals, Joy Division birthed a new genre and sound that still has great influence today. Lasting only two albums and three years, the band has had as much, if not more impact as bands with ten times the longevity. Their impeccable debut record, Unknown Pleasures, is a true musical masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it is beyond a "must own" album for every music fan.

Standout tracks: "Disorder," "New Dawn Fades," and "Shadowplay."

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