I’ve seen New Order perform several times before, but when I read that they were headlining Sydney’s Vivid Festival and performing at the Sydney Opera House with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), I knew this was something I had to experience. Kraftwerk similarly headlined Vivid at the Opera House in 2013, which I blogged about, and this still stands as one of my favourite music events. Read Kraftwerk Review »
Whilst Bernard Zuel’s review for the Sydney Morning Herald starts off declaring his general fear of orchestras with rock bands, for me it was the opposite – I was excited by the prospect. As Space March fans will know, I’m no stranger to mixing 80s synthpop with orchestral instruments in my own music, so I do declare a soft spot for such things. The way synthpop and orchestral music works together is typically harmonious. Consider how successfully it works in the music of Goldfrapp and Pet Shop Boys, and I recall there was even some Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) arranged strings on the song Getting Away With It from Bernard Sumner’s Electronic side project. Recently, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark have performed with orchestras in the UK which was well reviewed.
Of course, I knew I would like this pairing of New Order and an orchestra, but the question still remained – how would they combine the two entities? Since Vivid is a one-off event (they weren’t touring with an orchestra), and there hasn’t really been a precedent for such a show, I was wondering if the orchestra would replace the synth parts or be in unison with the synths?
I’m glad to say, the synths were mostly all there! They had obviously created updated live mixes for the setlist (as most bands with a long history do), and had left space for the orchestra to fill. But on the whole, what I heard were the electronic instruments laying the song’s foundation and generating its energy, the rock instruments providing the meat and expression, and the orchestra adding extra texture, dimension, depth, drama and tension to the songs. In fact, I think Bernard Sumner was quite impressed by how good the ACO sounded with their songs too. I’ve never seen Sumner get too complimentary about anything, but when he complemented the ACO mid-set, he seemed genuine. He even made a quip, telling the somewhat enthusiastic female violinists to calm down as they were showing-up the band! Coming from a quiet shoe-gazing northern-Brit, that’s quite a high ranking compliment!
New Order + ACO – Sydney Opera House, 4 June 2016
I was lucky enough to obtain seats in the third row from the stage, so I had a great view of the stage and was able to take some semi-decent photos on my iPhone, which you can see on this post.
Now, I should point out that New Order performed two shows with ACO and two shows on their own. The setlists were different between the rock and orchestral shows. I saw the June 4th Saturday night show, and the setlist is below with my comments.
This was nicely reworked into an orchestral piece which served as a beautiful moody opener and intro to the ACO. Originally, the atmospheric mid-album chill zone on the Low Life album, marking the beginning of the “b-side”, as was often done in the 80s.
Reminding us that the synths and band are still all there, Singularity from Music Complete provided plenty of energy to get things going.
A classic New Order bittersweet song from the early 90s Republic album. Bernard comments that they have misspelled “regret” as “regreet” on his setlist and so cheekily sings “regreet” in the chorus.
My second favourite song from the Music Complete album. I really relate to the sentiment of the lyrics.
5. Lonesome Tonight
The b-side to Theives Like Us, an obscure and odd choice, which motivated a young hipster chap sitting in front of me, to shout out in a simultaneously pretentious and obnoxious way – “play your hits!!”
6. Thieves Like Us
Of course, the previous song made perfect sense when followed by the a-side. I love this song and felt privileged to hear it as Bernard said they don’t play it often. Although, I note on the previous ACO performance they played 1963 instead (being the only difference in the setlist) which is possibly my favourite New Order song, alas!
7. The Game
An odd choice from their last album and one I hadn’t given much attention. The vocal melody is a little bland, but hearing it live opened-up a new perspective to me. The live production had a really interesting sense of anticipation that seemed to connect quite well with the orchestra.
8. Your Silent Face
What a pleasure to hear this track live! The synth pads and orchestral strings left me quite emotional. The performance of this song has etched its way into my memory more than any other song from the night. In many ways, it reminds me of what the Space March sound is all about, so perhaps that’s the reason?
9. Tutti Frutti
This is my favourite song from Music Complete – such an instant poptastic classic! It’s incredible that a band who’s been active for more than 30 years can still write such a catchy pop song, which is often the domain of young songwriters. Impressive!
10. Bizarre Love Triangle
This song was huge in Australia in the 80s and consequently received a hugely excited response from the audience. It was also the song that won me over too!
11. Waiting for the Sirens’ Call
The live version was a radical reinvention and for the better too – it was a “new order” of magnitude better than the album version!
12. The Perfect Kiss
Another great song from Low Life and wonderful to hear with the orchestra.
13. True Faith
Always a crowd favourite and for good reason – it’s a pop masterpiece! This is the song that changed my view of what pop music should be! It was good to see the live video projections paying homage to the Oskar Schlemmer (Bauhaus artist from the 1920s) inspired video clip, being my favourite music video from the 80s.
14. Blue Monday
Of course, the crowd go nuts. It’s such a cold and mechanical sounding song, I was wondering if the orchestra would just get in the way – but no, surprisingly, the orchestra opens up a new dimension to the song.
A beautiful song and good choice to end the New Order set and segue way into the Joy Division set.
16. Atmosphere – Joy Division
My favourite Joy Division song – I love its haunting and hypnotic quality. So simple but powerful.
17. Decades – Joy Division
Not a song I was familiar with being more of a New Order than Joy Division fan. However, I loved the live performance – really interesting! Decades is the closing track from their second album Closer.
18. Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
For many, this is the greatest alt-pop song ever recorded. Even our dear opinionated friend Neil Tennant (who publicly denounces all rock music) said it was his favourite pop song of all time. I agree it’s a powerful song, but I wouldn’t quite go that far. Of course, it sounded wonderful with an orchestra too!
So you’re probably wondering about Bernard’s vocals – how did they sound? Well for me, I’ve always loved the sound of his non-singer vocals – how can someone sing so out of tune and sound so cool at the same time? I really can’t imagine New Order without Bernard’s vocals and they perfectly compliment their songs.
Live, Bernard’s vocals are usually even more out of tune – although on this performance, they sound better than I’ve ever heard them in the past – either way, it doesn’t really matter to me. He has that punk ethos of not caring, because it’s not that important to the overall effect of the music. In this era of TV singing contests where contestants are criticised if their pitch is even slightly off, and pitch correction software in the studio allowing producers to keep perfect pitch, collectively, our ears have become arguably too sensitive to pitch-perfect vocals. It’s somewhat analogous to plastic surgery – at what point does removing imperfection become counter productive? At what point do you end up looking/sounding like a freak?
The producer in me knows that pitch variations are an important part of what gives an instrument its character. One of the reasons analogue synths have more personality and than digital synths is that their pitch is far less stable. I’ve also noticed when tuning vocals with pitch correction software, how different vocalists have very different tuning profiles and vibrato patterns. Some vocalists slide up to the note where as some hit the note with the attack and then drift off with varying amounts of vibrato. I’ve realised over the years, that it’s better to selectively tune – correct only what you need to and let the rest go natural. At the end of the session, it’s more important for something to be distinctive than perfect.
On a personal level, as someone who is a non-singer singer too, I always feel encouraged when I hear New Order live that maybe my own vocals are not so terrible!
SPACE MARCH + NEW ORDER
For my 17th birthday, my first girlfriend gave me two things – Glandular Fever and New Order’s album Substance on vinyl. Both were life changing, but only one I was grateful for!
Listening to some of New Order’s earlier work was my first exposure to “alternative” music having only heard chart music to this point. Second, because Substance was a collection of 12 inch vinyl mixes, for the first time I heard the collision of catchy pop with experimental music and electronica. It was a fascinating combination of pop music deconstructed and rebuilt into something modern and futuristic. At this point, I knew the sort of music I wanted to make – and today, nothing has really changed.
Because of Substance, I started buying the 12 inch mixes of New Order, Duran Duran and my other favourite synthpop bands. It was through this that I discovered the importance of remixers and producers and started becoming a fan of people like Shep Pettibone and Mark Saunders – who I later worked with on the Space March album, Monumental.
The other life changing thing New Order did for me was introduce me to the graphic design of Peter Saville. I was already thinking about Graphic Design as a career when I was at high school, but when I discovered the album artwork to New Order, it was the most exciting design I had ever seen. I remember pulling out the inner sleeves to Substance and discovering those red and blue blobs – and I thought “how fantastic is this?”. I grew-up loving modernist art and architecture, and here was the equivalent in pop music! This led to me studying design and an 18 year career working for Sony Music starting as a Graphic Designer and finishing as their Online & Creative Director.
NEW ORDER SONGS I’VE COVERED
Although it’s generally not advisable to cover songs from artists who influence you – it’s too close – I have done this twice. I deliberately chose songs I liked but weren’t songs I grew up with or part of the Space March DNA.
The first song I covered was Age of Consent from the 1983 album Power, Corruption & Lies. I didn’t acquire this album till the late 90s but I was instantly drawn to this track. From a songwriting perspective, it’s incredibly simplistic, but with this, comes the ability to build a groove, experiment with sounds and come-up with different melodies on the same chords. I was fascinated by Age of Consent‘s bassline and the lyric “I saw you this morning, I thought that you might like to know / I received your message in full a few days ago / I understood every word that it said / And now that I’ve actually heard it, you’re going to regret”. My cover of Age of Consent appears on the Space March EP You Are Electric – More »
The second New Order song I’ve covered is Crystal from the 2001 Get Ready album. Once again a simple groove orientated song with the same chords throughout but still manages a big “tension-release” type chorus. It’s one of New Order’s rockier tracks, so I thought it would be a good challenge to attempt it purely with synths. I like the sentiment of the lyrics and the verse has this weird timing to when the vocals start. Crystal appears on my covers album It Must Be Obvious – More »
NEW ORDER FAVOURITES
Top Albums: Substance, Technique, Low Life
Top Songs: 1963, True Faith, Bizarre Love Triangle, Touched by the Hand of God, Blue Monday, Love Vigilantes, Age of Consent, Your Silent Face, Temptation, Confusion, Thieves Like Us, Subculture, Shellshock, Round & Round, Mr. Disco, Vanishing Point, Crystal, Tutti Frutti
Honourable Mentions: I think their latest album Music Complete is their strongest album since Technique and shares a similar vibe. I also need to mention the debut self-titled Electronic album – Sumner’s side project with Johnny Marr and Pet Shop Boys which is one of my all-time favourite records.
I heard Bernard being interviewed on TV before the Vivid performances where they described New Order as the perfect blend of melancholy and euphoria. Bernard made the point that he required three things from music. It has to draw him in emotionally, it has to appeal to the intellect and it got’s to make him want to move – if it doesn’t do all three, he’s not interested. I think this equally holds true for me.