Words by Matthew Osborne / Pics by Katja Ogrin
There are some legacies that are just dangerous to mess with; and, especially amongst hardcore music enthusiasts, Joy Division’s is perhaps one of the deadliest.
In the brief time pre-New Order, their music, lyrics and imagery struck chords that continued to resonate for decades; with many bands making waves today (see Savages and Iceage) owing more than a debt of gratitude to the Mancunian four piece.
The collective members of Scanner and The Heritage Orchestra must have known this before they embarked on their latest project, Live Transmission: Joy Division Reworked, but they went ahead and did it anyway. Judging by this evening’s gathered audience, which includes such local celebs as Laura Mvula, their bravery has, at least, stirred up a healthy curiosity in Birmingham.
Inside the theatre the first remarkable thing is the light show. It takes me a few minutes to realise that the orchestra is sandwiched between two thin screens, one at stage front and one at the rear. Both screens are having different images projected onto them and the result frequently perplexes my brain.
The music, however, is less remarkable. Rather than taking the Joy Division canon and creating orchestral cover versions, Scanner and The Heritage Orchestra have chosen to ‘reimagine’ the songs, taking key riffs and melodies and exploring the directions which they can go with them.
Sometimes it is a few minutes before I realize that I’m listening to ‘She’s Lost Control’ or ‘Dead Souls’. Although there clues are in the projections – particularly when Ian Curtis’ lyrics are scrawled out in front of us, as though we’re watching his ghost communicate through some kind of Ouija board.
But as clever as all this is, I can’t help wanting them to slide into neat covers. Heritage and Scanner’s ‘reimagining’ finds Joy Division forced into a post rock band; unfortunately it’s a fairly standard post-rock band, who know they have to hit a big crescendo at some point but aren’t always that inventive in building up to an eventual release.
I know that if I were to ‘reimagine’ Joy Division in today’s world, I would predict an embrace of the electronic revolution (one only need look to New Order for confirmation of my suspicions). And the repetition of certain percussive melodies combined with the visuals (including a fantastic caricature that resembles a hooded character moving with the same jerky movement of Curtis, his arms spinning magic darts which look like they form words as they hurtle towards us) is the show’s most successful feature.
As a production, Live Transmission: Joy Division Reworked is both more interesting and successful when the orchestra is overlooked – placing the focus back on the guitars, drums and electronics.
Finally, after an uncomfortable pause – where we all stare in silence, trying to work out whether the show has finished or just paused, the audience bursts into applause.
Then, as an encore of sorts, the unmistakable voice of Ian Curtis delivers the crushing lyrics from ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ as the strings and horns rise and swell, delicately keeping the tonality in the right key but not interfering too much with Curtis’ powerful, deep voice.
It is a poignant close to a show that lacked such moments; despite a good stab at a sizable task, Live Transmission: Joy Division Reworked left me wanting. And judging by the amount of toilet stops many of the audience around me made during its relatively brief duration, I suspect many others felt the same.
For more on Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked, including tickets to its final production in Gateshead (Oct 2nd), visit http://www.joydivisionreworked.com/live-transmission
For more on Birmingham’s Town & Symphony Halls, including full event listings, visit http://www.thsh.co.uk