It's a good month for Joy Division fans to maybe think about trying to smile. Sure, the confusing multiple release dates for Control, Anton Corbijn's biopic about singer Ian Curtis, make it unclear if the movie will ever reach the big screen in South Florida. But fans can thank the reissue gods at Rhino Records, who have re-released the delightfully dour Manchester postpunk band's oeuvre in a series of discs enlightening for both newcomers and completists alike.
Forming 30 years ago, Joy Division has a short official discography — the band was over by 1980 with Curtis's suicide at age 23. (The rest of the band, led by Bernard Sumner, would go on to become the monstrously successful synth-rock act New Order.) For full-length studio albums, there was just 1979's Unknown Pleasures and, posthumously, 1980's Closer — both released on Manchester's legendary Factory records. Later, various compilations would gather loose tracks, most notably 1981's Still, a collection of rarities bundled with a recording of the band's last show; and Substance, a 1988 singles collection.
Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and Still have been given the Rhino treatment. Each has been remastered, fashioned with extensive historical liner notes, and bundled with a second disc of previously unheard live recordings. For Unknown Pleasures, it's a gig at the Factory (label head Tony Wilson's first, pre-Hacienda club) from July 13, 1979. For Closer, it's one at the University of London Union from February 8, 1980. While Still originally featured a recording of the band's final performance — at Town Hall in High Wycombe on February 20, 1980 — the new version adds six tunes recorded at the show's sound check.
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Among the most striking features of the re-releases: First, the remastering has, thankfully, not messed with the original production values. Under the mercurial, crazed aegis of producer Martin Hannett, Joy Division's recorded sound became famously sparse but vibrating, like ice-cold blood being pumped from a tired, blackened heart. Echoes were stripped out and artificially added back in, drum tracks famously recorded on the studio roof. It's all still intact here (although if he were alive, the notoriously unpredictable Hannett would doubtlessly disagree), but made slightly clearer and less tinny than previous CD versions.
Second, there's the almost-shocking dichotomy between the band's studio and live sounds. On albums, the band could be minimalist almost to the point of anemia, but live, the group raged with punk energy. Compare, for instance, the different versions of "Shadowplay" on the Unknown Pleasures reissue. On the studio album, there's the controlled, ragged intro and the needling, haunting riff, bursting forth in volume only at the most emphatic moments. But the live version, from the crashing opening cymbals, explodes with a raging beast of pulsing, vibrating punk rock. Even the tempo of the song is given an amphetamine kick. It's a fascinating insight into the Janus face of one of British rock's most elusive, mythical bands.