New Order as part of Ultra Music Festival 2012 at Bayfront Park March 23
As the world's most comprehensive electronic party extravaganza, Ultra Music Festival is dominated by the sonic phenomenon known as the drop.
Next to dependably danceable rhythm, it is the foundation of most digital music. Simultaneously present in seemingly unrelated genres — such as the soulful vocal crescendos of house, the interlocking pulses of techno, or the bombastic bass-wobble breakdowns of dubstep — the drop is an aesthetic device (and songwriting default) that spans the entire electronic dance spectrum.
Moreover, it might be one of the truest signs of digital music-making's distinct break with the songwriting practices of traditionally analog styles such as rock 'n' roll. When it comes to drum, bass, and guitar, the basic model of song construction has always revolved around the hook — a catchy, recurring musical phrase designed to stick in your head. In many ways, the drop inverts this model directly: A rock band structures variance (verses) around repetition (choruses), whereas the electronic music artist specializes in aestheticized repetition that's punctuated by sudden eruptions of variance.
So it's no surprise that 90 percent of the lineup at Ultra, a massive debaucherous rave, caters to the drop. In fact, you'll probably hear every single kind of drop during this year's fest. But ironically enough, one of the weekend's headliners — New Order — is known precisely for its hooks.
Of course, this is the legendary British outfit wrought from the ruins of Joy Division, a gloomy postpunk crew whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide only two years into his band's existence. Following Curtis's tragic death, the remaining members — guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris — drafted keyboard player Gillian Gilbert and moved forward with moody dance-rock.
Over time, New Order's work went through an impressively consistent evolution from synth-tinged rock to full-blown e-music. The group's illustrious career and decorated song catalogue are far too expansive to summarize completely in these pages. But its story syncs closely with the overlapping histories of postpunk, New Wave, and synthpop.
Beginning with 1989's Technique, the band's synthesized sound blossomed into an unabashed embrace of New York house and the Balearic techno of the Ibiza era. And it is the material from this period and onward that most locates New Order within the Ultra continuum.
But prior to that shift, Sumner, Hook, and Morris had been chiseling away at the gray, melodramatic exterior of their previous project, trying to reach its undeniable pop core while also discovering their seemingly inexhaustible capacity to produce hooks. The result: some of the most ornately catchy music of the '80s.
New Order's first statement was one of the last Joy Division songs completed before Curtis's death, 1981's "Ceremony," originally released on that band's live album Still. The song's hook is its opening guitar riff, which repeats itself, expertly dancing through the rest of the track. Those undeniably catchy, delicately plucked notes have opened scores of movie trailers and even helped sell a little Absolut vodka. And believe it or not, there's not a keyboard within earshot.
That same year, as debut album Movement signaled a move out of the Joy Division misery cellar, the group's infatuation with American electronic pop and dance music was beginning to shape its sound in a big way. And that's why the bright, booming chorus to 1982's "Temptation" — the foursome's first big anthemic hook — seems as though it was written to be the soundtrack for a trampoline food fight on a sunny spring day.
The next landmark New Order hook was 1983's "Blue Monday." Released as a standalone single, it is the best-selling 12-inch EP of all time. The track's pop-industrial intensity suggests what might have been if Ian Curtis had lived to see the dawn of synthpop. Bouncing, icy arpeggios and a steadily knocking techno kick drum set the backdrop for deadpan vocals drolly crooning one of the finest brokenhearted vocal hooks of the '80s.
Three years later, New Order created its hookiest song ever. With infectious 1986 hit "Bizarre Love Triangle," the group reached the peak of its pop accessibility. And while the chorus is easily New Order at its most joyously singsong, the real key to that track is the tinny guitar loop that acts as a counterhook.
Yes, even New Order's hooks have hooks.
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