State of the art
'Brotherhood' by New Order | New Order
Sound On Sound's record review with a difference! Mark Prendergast begins the first of a regular feature that talks about and to the people responsible for one of the more interesting vinyl releases around. This month: 'Brotherhood' by New Order.
The record review with a difference: Sound On Sound's appraisal of the music, the artists, and the recording procedures that combine to produce one of the more outstanding new vinyl releases.
If one had to choose a modern music group whose sound and recorded output approximated closest to a 'state of the art' ideal, it would have to be New Order.
Back in the heady days of the New Wave, which followed the Punk explosion of the late 70s, Joy Division was the most revered band in Britain. A Mancunian remoteness coupled with a harsh doom-laden music made the members of Joy Division chief candidates for post-industrial existentialists of the 1980s. The tragic suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis only helped fuel the public's interest and the rest of the group had to move forward.
Huddersfield youngster Gillian Gilbert joined in November 1981 on guitar and keyboards, lead guitarist Bernard Albrecht took over on lead vocals, while Peter Hook and Steve Morris stayed in their respective bass and drum roles. Joy Division was scrapped in favour of a new name: "We could have been called Slaves Of Venus," recalls drummer Steve Morris, "but as a quirk of fate we decided on New Order." Initially, their music sounded identical to that of Joy Division, but as the group matured and spread its wings, New Order's output became softer, denser, more complex and simultaneously more simplistic.
So we come to 1987 and the band's recently released fourth album, Brotherhood. Packaged by Peter Saville Associates (who also handled So for Peter Gabriel) in a traditionally enigmatic sleeve - a sea blue tinted photograph of what seems to be a merchandise crate - the record is their most accomplished to date. Within its nine tracks Brotherhood breathes with the delight of discovery; music played with emotional passion driven by lyrics which come from real experience; electronics used to texture and enunciate the deep feelings of both listeners and players.
Side One could logically be titled the 'acoustic' side, while Side Two is more 'electronic' in nature. The songs, for the most part, refer to the difficult aspects of human relationships. 'All Day Long' is a stand-out cut, lyrically, in that it draws our attention to the ugliness of child molesting - '...abused and used by what adults do, so don't tell me about politics or all the problems of economics when you can't look after what you can't own.' Musical high-points to look out for are the multitracked vocals on Side One, the ricocheting guitar intro to 'Weirdo', the acoustic Pink Floyd character of 'As It Is, When It Was', the feedback fuzz guitar on 'Broken Promise', Peter Hook's bass solo on 'Way Of Life', the electronic precision of 'Bizarre Love Triangle', the Wagnerian synth solo on 'All Day Long' and the epic synth build-up on the last track, 'Every Little Counts'.
The album was engineered by New Order's favourite technician, Michael Johnson, who was also responsible for the nuts and bolts side of their last two albums Power Corruption And Lies and Low Life.
Johnson: "We worked on backing tracks and a couple of vocals at Jam Studios, London, over a period of six weeks. Then we booked two weeks in Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, to do vocals and overdubs but we had to extend it to three weeks in the end. We finished off mixing the album in Amazon Studios, Liverpool."
As usual, the group utilised 24-track mixing coupled with their own equipment.
"The way we work is that the band produce themselves but allow me quite a lot of say in choosing what is put down on tape and how. They record all their stuff, initially, on a 4-track Teac 3340 in their rehearsal studio in Manchester, where they jam for hours. Then, in the studio, this is listened to for good ideas. With Brotherhood four songs were totally finished by the time they came into the studio - 'Bizarre Love Triangle', 'Weirdo', 'All Day Long' and 'As It Is, When It Was'."
It's a fallacy to think that Bernard Albrecht (now known as Barny Sumner) writes all the lyrics he sings: "Barny does the basic ideas and the others do the rest. 'Bizarre Love Triangle' and 'All Day Long' are basically Barny Sumner solo compositions, while the other songs are very much a committee decision. The rest of the album was written in the studio."
New Order are very keen on hi-tech equipment, which is nowadays used to complement the sheer force of their basic rock sound. Equipment used on Brotherhood comprised the following: Roland SBX-80 Sync Box, Roland MSQ-700 MIDI Sequencer, floppy disk-based Emulator II sampling keyboard, Voyetra digitally controlled analogue synth (made by Octave-Plateau in the States), a Yamaha QX1 Sequencer with dedicated software, Yamaha RX11 drum machine, Roland TR808 drum machine, Yamaha DX5 synth and an Oberheim DMX drum machine. This may seem a long way from the naked music of Joy Division, but this arsenal of equipment is utilised as a compositional aid so that scraps of ideas, bits of tunes and the like, can all be put together quickly in order to speed up the recording process and maintain freshness.
Brotherhood is a good album precisely because the heartfelt nature of Sumner's singing, the slow build-up to crescendo of multi-layered instrumentation, Peter Hook's distinctive lead bass, Gillian Gilbert's emotive keyboards and Steve Morris' artistic drumming style, are all to the forefront and bend your ears at every repeat listening. What struck me most about the album was the use of acoustic guitar which has never been a prominent feature of New Order's music in the past, but this time comes into its own.
According to engineer Michael Johnson, the only way that the album would work in the end was to put all the 'real' drum tracks on one side and all the 'electronic' drum tracks on the other. If we look closely at two tracks, one from each side, we should get closer to understanding the mechanics of recording involved in the Brotherhood album.
'As It Is, When It Was' introduces itself as an acoustic song reminiscent of the pastoral strains of Pink Floyd circa 1969. Barny's lyrics are suitably sad - 'I put my head against the wall, I've been this way for a long time now'. The tale of broken friendship builds up from its simple acoustic base, with cardboard drumming sound, to a grunge of guitars, bass and multitracked vocals. The lyrics re-appear out of this mesh and the song ends in blissful exclamations.
Michael Johnson: "That track was played in the studio straight off and recorded in two takes. No electronic trickery was used on it at all. They all played at once - Gillian, Peter and Barny in the control room, the drums outside. You see, Barny doesn't like recording in the normal way, ie. using headphones - he likes to do all his vocals in the control room. He used a very cheap Beyer handheld stage mic on Brotherhood which didn't sound brilliant, but he was relaxed while recording, which is more important. Peter Hook's bass on this was very hissy, originally. The phasers and pre-amplification he uses to make his bass sound create a lot of hiss on the tape, and if you rub it out you get rid of a lot of his sound as well. I just put a mic in front of his amp and recorded what came out."
'Every Little Counts' is the record's final clincher - an homage to Lou Reed and The Beatles, a pot-pourri of international amateurishness, humour and sophistication. The bass/cymbals intro is ripped off Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side'. The lyrics come in with - 'Every second counts when I am with you, you look like a pig, you should be in a zoo ' and Barny breaks down into laughter. Twee little synth parts decorate Barny's continued humming of the tune and then other instruments are introduced slowly. Acoustic guitar and synths harmonise in the background as the drums grate along into another verse - 'Even though you're stupid, I still follow you' - and then more laughter. The whole thing stops dead then starts again in a harmony of sweet humming synths. It all swells up to a crescendo of string sounds just like 'A Day In The Life' from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Then, like a flash, the track ends with the sound of a needle skipping into another track, over and over.
Engineer, Michael Johnson explains: "Steve Morris had an idea inspired by 'Walk On The Wild Side'. This was written in the studio using a sequencer synced to a drum machine pattern and bass. We then edited it to put the choruses in the right place. It was very long originally, so it had to be restructured, and the extra piece at the end was one of Gillian's ideas. It was very complex too because we had all these bits which were continually being put on the track and taken off again. The song had to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It was like sculpting a piece of rock without knowing what's there."
The brilliant sound quality of the New Order record can be put down to premium vinyl pressing and the use of a Tel-Com noise reduction system, which is supposed to be as hiss-free as digital but without the accompanying expense of that system.
'Angel Dust' on Side Two is the record's weakest track, a 'filler' cut which was produced over and over to such an extent that it lost its original character. The other eight songs are gems of modern music and display New Order as ever a group to take chances. The opening guitar ricochet effect on 'Weirdo' was achieved with two different guitars and three different chords that all end up sounding like one guitar. Little jokes pop up throughout the recording - like segments of Wagner's 'The Ring' on 'All Day Long', and the intro to 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' appearing at the end of 'Way Of Life'.
Most new albums these days only remind us of how empty pop music is, but New Order's Brotherhood is a testament to what can be achieved when sincerity is combined with technology. I eagerly await their fifth album.
Feature by Mark Prendergast
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