Whilst both Peter Hook and New Order continue to try to recreate - with varying degrees of success - Joy Division songs, in between bickering with each other of course (seriously, life’s too short...them of all people should realise that), this evening isn’t so much a case of ‘dance to the radio’, more smash it up, melt it down and turn it into something completely different. Yes dear friends, The Heritage Orchestra and Scanner come not to bury Ian Curtis and co, but to reinterpret them (sometimes radically), swapping the often sparse and raw sound they captured back in late 70s Manchester for a frankly stunning audio visual spectacle that’s perfectly suited to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.
The visual element is perhaps as important as the musical one. With the entire orchestra sandwiched behind a see through curtain and in front of screen visual artist Matt Watkins (all the way from Brum!) has two distinct surfaces to play with, adding a three dimensional feel. It’s entirely appropriate as the music’s often a case of JD in 3D too. Whilst opening number Transmission begins gently enough it suddenly explodes dramatically into a cinematic epic worthy of John Barry at his most Bond-bastic. It’s a technique employed on several of the tracks this evening, find a simple musical motif from the original to focus on, hypnotise the audience into a trippy sense of reverie and then shock the bejesus out of them with an organ shaking explosion of brass, strings, drums and synths. Equally shocking are the occasional samples of Curtis’ voice itself. It happens the first time midway through Transmission and you half expect Ian to come twitching onto the stage at any moment in a blur of limbs and with that distinctive thousand yard stare that he'd perfected.
Watkins’ visuals (actually partially ‘mixed’ live during each show too I later discovered from the man himself) perfectly compliment each track, like the music itself it often takes a minute or two to work out what you’re watching/listening to which only makes that “aha!” moment even more striking.
Watch out for the pumping human heart, the cross section slices of an entire human being and the ghostly abstract dancing Curtis in particular. Perhaps most touching of all though are the visuals that accompany Isolation. Animating Curtis’ original handwritten lyrics it’s as if the piece is being created in front of your eyes, right down to the crossing outs and slightly wild scribbles.
Read them and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a pretty devastating cry for help “Mother I tried please believe me, I'm doing the best that I can. I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through, I'm ashamed of the person I am. Isolation, isolation, isolation.”
Of course now we all know how this sense of isolation ultimately sadly manifested itself. Appropriately enough the song released just after Ian’s suicide and the one Joy Division track that pretty much everyone on planet earth knows Love Will Tear Us Apart actually closes the show itself. If you’re going to blub this is the one that’ll do it. The original is transformed into a sweeping symphony with a beautiful lush opening section and then...and then...Ian’s voice comes in. It’s totally untampered with this time, unmixed and taken from the original vocal recording that he made in the studio back in '79. There’s a far softer, more human feel to all this than the version we’re used to, a warmth enhanced by the orchestra that movingly succeeds in relocating Curtis the man from Curtis the myth. Incredibly some 33 years on from his passing he’s still touching us from a distance.
Setlist: Transmission / Digital / Dead Souls / She’s Lost Control / Isolation / End Eternal / Heart & Soul / Atmosphere / Love Will Tear Us Apart