Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979): Review

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Produced by Martin Hannett
Label – Factory

The legacy left by the Manchester four piece is undoubtedly enhanced by the death at 23 of lead singer Ian Curtis on 18th May 1980. Before this infamous date, the band hadn’t had a chart single and “Unknown Pleasures” had stalled at number 71 in the U.K. album charts. In June 1980, a posthumous single (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”) would reach number 13 in the U.K. charts and the corresponding album (“Closer”) would climb to number 6. It would be glib to simply write off Joy Division’s popularity in the years since as directly attributed to the demise of Curtis, but one often wonders how the band would have fared had he survived. Bass player Peter Hook believes they would have still been as popular stating “I do think that if Ian was still with us not much would have changed in terms of how big the band are because the songs are the crucial component to any band and the songs were fantastic.” It is pure conjecture of course, but the unique surge of raw post punk the band developed over their short lifespan has merit in the fact that it still influences independent music over 30 years later.

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Recorded at Stockport’s Strawberry studios, the first revelation is Martin Hannett’s stark production effort; using space as a void to emphasise the haunting air of gloom, and utilizing the band’s individual innovations. For example, Stephen Morris’ combination of acoustic and electronic drums creates a machine beat that deliberately detaches from the animalistic, angry punk rhythms of the time. It’s the first time we hear Peter Hook’s melodious bass lines and Bernard Sumner’s sharpened guitar shards. Curtis sings with the detached chill of “The Passenger” from his sonic mentor, Iggy Pop. The isolationism is palpable; the looming darkness unnerving, the depth of intensity seems bottomless. Lyrically, unlike the follow up “Closer” which feels desperately personal, Curtis’ words seem eerily voyeuristic as he chillingly catalogues a girl’s seizures in the stand out “She’s Lost Control”. On “Disorder” he finds no solace from those around him with “I’m watching you, I’m watching her, I’ll take no pity from your friends, who is right, who can tell, and who gives a damn right now.” “Shadowplay” is the tortured combination of urban decay and tragic loneliness, whilst the nervous energy filled “Wilderness” and “Interzone” remind listeners of a band that could deliver threatening ferocity that would occasionally cut through the brooding atmospherics.

As Ian Curtis stands at the precipice of a cavernous well of irretrievable desolation, “Unknown Pleasures” enacts his descent with a sound that both haunts and intoxicates the listener in equal measure, resulting in a compelling collection of doleful songs.

8/10

Track Rating
1 – Disorder (9)
2 – Day Of The Lords (8)
3 – Candidate (7)
4 – Insight (7)
5 – New Dawn Fades (8)
6 – She’s Lost Control (10)
7 – Shadowplay (8)
8 – Wilderness (8)
9 – Interzone (7)
10 – I Remember Nothing (7)

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