Before New Order + Liam Gillick this evening – or rather, the wonderfully and pretentiously titled ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif), for which the formula will be unpacked shortly – there was time to drop in to the Manchester Art Gallery for True Faith, an exhibition compiled by Matthew Higgs and Jon Savage. The exhibition showcases the artwork encompassing Joy Division and New Order: the album sleeves, the videos, the posters – you name it. All very decent, it will, no doubt, be lapped up by many visiting Manchester over the next few weeks for this year’s Manchester International Festival.
Two pieces of artwork, placed side-by-side, caught the eye. They’re both gig posters – nothing unusual – for two concerts in Belgium and France back in 2011. One poster was for a concert at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. The other was for Le Bataclan in Paris. Both posters are modelled on the memorialesque cover art for Substance 1987: arguably the greatest compilation ever released – never mind New Order compilation, of which there are many.
It then hits you what else links these cities – and, in the case of Le Bataclan, places – together and now lurks, menacingly, in the background. The stark iconography of the posters brings it home, showing the power of current events and how they alter perceptions of art and culture and, with it, meaning. It’s much like the Manchester Bee and the added significance that now has in the city, with it tattooed on many an arm.
This notion of meaning is at the heart of the gig this evening. ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif) is supposed to change your perception and understanding of New Order’s vast back catalogue. You have New Order (No), an ‘orchestra’ of twelve synthesisers played by students from the Royal Northern College of Music (12k), all visually put together by Gallick (Lg) for this year’s festival (17Mif). The set will, apparently, not be a greatest hits – quite the contrary. It promises to be something of a New Order connoisseur’s treat, with songs deconstructed and rebuilt through the orchestra. It’s also being held at the epicentre of what once was – no, still is – Granadaland. The Old Granada Studios. Stage one to be exact. The Old Granada Studios have, in themselves, been reinvented: it’s now fast becoming the city’s cultural hub.
Each member of the orchestra is housed in a pod, arranged in two rows of six, one on top of the other. Blinds cover the pods and occasionally reveal the person in there, like Celebrity Squares with a hint of seedy Amsterdam and Kraftwerk. There’s also the conductor, Joe Duddell, who’s collaborated with New Order in the past, on stage, putting the orchestra through its paces. A digital Hallé.
Opening with Elegia, the orchestra should make their impact known. Yet they struggle here. They don’t seem to offer much. First-night hiccups? It still all seems to be led by the band themselves. The same can be said when it comes to Dream Attack, too. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Dream Attack – the first time it’s been played since 1993 – offers a hint of what’s to come. Right after, with a pre-emptive warning from Bernard Sumner that this may be a bit raw, the precise opening beats and roaring bass of Disorder follow. Shrieks of surprise. This is the first time this has been played since Joy Division ceased to be. It’s a bit ramshackle, perhaps, but absolutely wonderful all the same. Gillick’s stage setup and lighting add to the tension and mood.
Ultraviolence, from Power, Corruption and Lies, follows – played live for the first time since 1984. The synthesisers now bring something: you can feel the intricacies in the beat coming from each of the 12 pods. It certainly beats just pressing play on a Macbook. More surprises follow. All Day Long, from Brotherhood, and not played since 1989. Shellshock, 30 years asleep, is absolutely magnificent. Again, Gillick’s set brings it to life, layers built up by each synth coming together. The promise of tracks being deconstructed and then put back together, right in front of you, is being absolutely delivered.
Subculture – not played since 1989 – exceeds Shellshock. It’s outstanding. One of the synth players, bottom-left, is dancing away behind the blinds while playing. You don’t care that Bernard’s voice is wavering a bit. Bizarre Love Triangle is the only stock New Order live tune played tonight, and it’s a total joy.
And then there’s Vanishing Point from Technique, again not played since 1989. The joy of hearing this live and seeing it being put together, beat-by-beat, right before you, is quite emotional. The sense of building – or, in the case, rebuilding – it’s something Manchester has done a number of times during its history, particularly over recent weeks. From the shaky opening comes, by the end, an occasion to remember for years to come.
It’s events like this that justify the Manchester International Festival. On leaving, your heart is swelled and you realise, once again, why Manchester is such a wonderful city and why New Order is probably the best band to ever come out of it. Always inventive, always original and daring, quite prone to mistakes but true and genuine to their respective cores. Manchester and New Order will always mean those things, no matter how perceptions can be challenged.