It’s a tricky task to pay homage to an artist that is so well loved without crossing the imaginary line marked out by obsessive (and possessive) fans. Musicians look to honour their influences and often their will be cries of ‘sacrilege’ from those that feel it’s something their cult fandom hero would not approve of.
So what makes ‘Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked’ so excellent but peculiar is that it does take a body of work that many would consider to be sacrosanct and blows it wide open, rebuilding it as something completely different whilst still keeping the essence of the things that you love.
Edinburgh’s Usher Hall seems a suitably Gothic venue for an exploration of the sounds of Joy Division and the dark green hue of the screen behind the orchestra dressed in black was the start of a show that was perfectly judged. A familiar high pitch synth rang out and slowly built to those opening notes of ‘Transmission’ as lights projected around the old theatre and instead of the plectrum hammering down on Hooky’s bass guitar there were string flourishes and deep brass notes. This was clearly ‘Transmission’ but it was a hint of what was to come, an introduction that basically told you ‘we know these things as well as you do, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to not going to make it our own’.
After that opening nod to the audience, the next hour became one melodic structure which evolved and moved in and out of tracks from the Joy Division back-catalogue, the unmistakable bass notes of ‘Digital’ plodded away but they took on a life of their own when it was anchoring the incredible sounds of the orchestra and the whirrs from the electronics under the fingertips of Scanner. No track was instantly recognisable and the show was all the better for it, these were essentially cover versions but not in that kooky wink-to-the audience-I-think-you-know-this-one way, they were taking a basic melody or just an essence and completely reworking it into this post-rock style breakdown. The orchestra felt like a singular organism, with their rakish conductor leading with his animated jerks and movements that made him a passionate front man.
As impressive as the sound was itself, it was the visuals that made this awe-inspiring. The orchestra sat between two screens with images being projected around them that had the audience captivated. White blood cells floated in front of you as the musicians moved through deep red arteries, organisms broke apart and multiplied, iconoclastic steeples appeared in mid-air, black and white sound waves and dark cityscapes were stretched and skewed as a silhouette danced in a hypnotic rhythm that was unmistakably Ian Curtis without ever having to make it obvious.
The highlight of the show arrived halfway through as cold synths chirped and drums kept a steady beat through strange time signatures when suddenly words were scrawled across the front screen ‘In fear every day, every evening’ and it dawned that you were listening to ‘Isolation’ being beautifully re-created and possibly Curtis’ finest lyrics were left to play centre stage.
The show ended on a mournful and minimal version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ which was recognisable enough to let the audience know they had come full circle and as the orchestra stood and the lights cames up after the hour-long show, you could tell that the crowd were still hungry for more. Surely a good sign.
What was so striking about ‘Live_Transmission’ was that it managed to take away the elements of Joy Division that many fans feel are necessary and still had you enthralled. The minimal bass lines were fleshed out, the punk edge and aggression were smoothed out and the baritones vocals were occasional but not at the forefront. Perhaps a show like this tells you that the pull of Joy Division is not in its basic elements but something in it’s very core and that the source of these pleasures are still unknown.