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Unknown Pleasures was a landmark album in every aspect. Almost everything about it is unforgettable ... the artwork is as minimal as can be, yet instantly recognisable anywhere: '100 consecutive pulses from the pulsar CP 1919' - readings from the first radio pulsar ever found. Does that mean anything? Good question.

It's one thing to look at the cover and ponder its possible meanings, and something else is play the album. The music deserves some detailed explanation I think ...

Joy Division and their producer Martin Harnett developed a quite unique sound for the band, and that sound defines the album ... take a drumkit that sounds rather 'thin', but add a shivery tail of reverb to it; take a bass that doesn't always sound like a bass, because the notes it plays are too high; add a guitar that almost always sounds like an unclear, distorted haze, and spice it up with various small synth seasonings. And lastly, lay the unhappy lyrics and low-pitched vocals on top.

Whilst that's the formula for the entire album, it doesn't mean the tracks are all copies of each other - only the production is the same, and in this case, it gives the album a lot of unity and cohesion, which makes the material three times as powerful.

The best showcase for that 'sound' is the opening track, "Disorder", one of the fastest songs here. It opens with the drums, and then there comes the bass, that just keeps repeating a line of three notes, but they're so distant from each other that the bass doesn't provide any kind of foundation to the song, and because it's not grounded in something, it just levitates ... the guitar produces a hazy mess of two or three notes, and when the synthesizer starts playing whooshing sounds like a cold wind blowing right through you, the snowstorm is complete. Not only is the track an ideal opener, it's also the song that gets constantly stuck in my head, making it arguably my favourite.

The other 'fast' song is a complete oddity though ... "Interzone" is pretty much a punk number, and it's the only moment on the album where both the bass and the guitar sound the way they 'should', and where Curtis uses a higher register to sing. There's even an actual punky riff in there!

The rest of the material is mid-tempo to slow. Among the eight remaining tracks, the only one that's reminiscent of an actual 'rock song' is "Shadowplay" - it's intense, noisy, and heavy. It even has something of a guitar solo at the end, and the cruel guitar sound is a boost there.

Another blast is "Insight", though it's more subtle - the bass plays high notes again, almost like a mantra, and Curtis's vocal lines are quite catchy. And when he stops, there's a freaky intermezzo with stomping drums and wild laser-beam effects on the synthesizers, while the bass plays a solo thing - most unexpected! And "She's Lost Control" is another memorable track, a true signature song - instead of hitting a snare drum, Morris uses what sounds like a steel pipe, and both Curtis' s lyrics and vocals are striking.

Then there are the slow songs, but they're far from 'ballads' ... "Day of the Lords" crawls by like a dying person, with heavy guitar groans everywhere, and Curtis sounding truly convincing on the microphone - the where will it end? chorus is one of the most memorable aspects of the album. And "New Dawn Fades" has a kind of dark miserable beauty.

"Candidate" is scarily void - not much more than sparse drumming and grim bass notes accompanying the vocals. Then, to close things, there's the longest cut - "I Remember Nothing" - a real zombie of a song, a form of Goth/rock, with hardly any rhythm apart from stomping drums and the occasional clicking guitar. The bass just keeps booming a single note, and the synthesizer hums dominate.

Unknown Pleasures has to be absorbed slowly over several plays to realise the extent to which its tone is really just one of misery and hopelessness.

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Posted: Friday 1st Mar 2019 10:19 AM

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album review
Listeners have mixed feelings about the songs on this album. Most people agree that the tracks bookending it are classics, but inbetween those there's such a hodgepodge of 'stuff', that I think no two people have the same opinion about which tracks are good and which tracks aren't.

But yes, this album is a good one. I wouldn't proclaim it to be a classic because ... well, it ain't a classic in the way Tommy or Quadrophenia were, but it's a nice, mixed little album, that's for sure, and absolutely mandatory for people who like The Who: firstly because there are a couple of Who classics here; secondly, because it finally features Daltrey as the awesome singer that everyone knows and loves; and thirdly because this is a new Who.

This is one of the first albums to use synthesizers so heavily, and Townshend was very clever in their use. They aren't just there to give a 'touch' to the band's overall sound. No, the synths are used as an independent unit, and they are responsible for some absolutely unforgettable sounds here.

The best example is of course the opening "Baba O'Riley", that kicks off the album with an awesome shiver-inducing synth loop. And the song as a whole is an indisputable classic - the deadly simple riff bangs on your head, the vocal lines, the song development, and the great fiddle-driven finale are moments that have to be heard to be believed.

Likewise, album closer "Won't Get Fooled Again" features synth loops, but this time the song is a fast, 8-minute guitar-laden rocker, and I wouldn't omit a single second of it. It sounds anthemic at parts, downright rocking at others, and jaw-droppingly awesome at others, like when Daltrey screams the immortal yeeeaah! at the end.

Beyond that, choosing favourite songs comes down to personal taste. I like all the songs - some more, some less - there ain't any song I'd consider below-average. The lightweight, silly fun of "Going Mobile" annoys some people, but not me. And there are details in the songs that turn some people off too - not the songs themselves - the anthemic nature of "Song Is Over" for example gets on some people's nerves - me, I'm impressed by its beautiful verses, and the cool crescendos.

Some people think "Getting In Tune" goes absolutely nowhere - that's true, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Many people complain that "Love Ain't for Keeping" is way too short., whereas I actually like it the way it is, as a tasteful and cute musical link. If it went on for longer, it would ramble on too much. Heck, how many Beatles songs don't even run for two minutes, yet people don't complain they're too short.

But then, there are two songs on here that most people tend to agree over ... "Bargain" is a truly gorgeous rocker, with awesome vocals by Daltrey, along with cool drum rolls and crescendos. And "Behind Blue Eyes" is a wonderful scary ballad with a great rocking interlude. But it's the acoustic guitars and harmonies that do the trick for me.

So yeah, this is a record worth checking out.

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Posted: Monday 15th Apr 2019 9:11 AM

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