Democracy Dies in Darkness

Music | Review

Nearing 40 years together, New Order’s sound is still thrilling

August 29, 2018 at 1:15 PM

New Order. (Nick Wilson/Nick Wilson )

Melancholy punk duels with euphoric disco in New Order’s music, but that wasn’t the only source of tension when the British band played a sold-out concert at the Anthem Tuesday night. As the group nears its 40th anniversary, New Order still pits man versus machine, anarchy versus control and profound emotion versus limited expression. The show opened with “Singularity,” whose robotic beats were paired with footage (also used in the song’s video) of Berlin in all-too-human revolt at the end of Soviet domination.

“Singularity” comes from “Music Complete,” the 2015 album that introduced the group’s current lineup: three original members supplemented by new bassist Tom Chapman and multi-instrumentalist Phil Cunningham. The four songs from that newest album fit neatly into the two-hour set, but weren’t highlights. The show peaked instead with a closing run of irresistibly clattering tunes — “The Perfect Kiss,” “True Faith,” “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” — first recorded between 1980 and 1987.

While the band has kept current with dance-music trends, its essential strategy remains unchanged. Singer and sometime guitarist Bernard Sumner coolly intones the over-rhymed lyrics, delivering such emblematic lines as “the perfect kiss is the kiss of death” with clinical detachment. Metronomic drummer Stephen Morris emulates and embroiders the electronic percussion that propels the music. Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert also works in sync with programmed sounds, while adding fills that echo everything from rave-club anthems to church-organ requiems. Chapman played contrapuntal lines (many of them invented by former bassist Peter Hook) that were as melodic as anything provided by the guitars. The wild card was Cunningham, who added noisy accents on guitar, electronic drum pads and one-handed keyboards. He did more than Sumner to humanize the band’s inexorable mechanism.

Both guitarists were often overshadowed, as much by the lights and projected video as by the sequenced riffs and rhythms. The band was sometimes in darkness as spotlights raked the audience, and the video backdrop insistently offered found footage, abstract images or text (including, unfortunately, the banal lyrics of “Superheated”).

Both the stagecraft and the synth beats retreated for the encore, a three-song tribute to Joy Division, Sumner and Morris’s band before New Order. That group ended when singer Ian Curtis committed suicide, but its legacy remains vital. The mini-set concluded with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” an underground 1980 hit that presaged New Order’s infinitely bummed-out yet energetically surging sound.

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