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New Order Buries Punk With Muffled Chants, Fuzzy Guitar

New Order
Members of the U.K. band New Order, Stephen Morris (keyboards), Phil Cunningham (guitar), Bernard Sumner (vocals), Tom Chapman (bass) and Gillian Gilbert (keyboards). They have reformed, apart from bassist Peter Hook, for a series of shows in North America later this year. The band first plays at London's Olympics Closing ceremony on Aug. 12, 2012. Photographer: Kevin Cummings/ New Order via Bloomberg

We should be rejoicing this summer with the return of some great British bands who are playing festivals worldwide and events for the London Olympics.

The excellent Blur will be barnstorming in Hyde Park after releasing some new songs and a box set of complete recordings. Manchester groups re-forming include the Stone Roses, with long-awaited shows in Asia and Europe; the Happy Mondays; and New Order, which performs alongside Blur in a concert marking the end of the 2012 Olympics on Aug. 12.

New Order has also announced a U.S. tour. The act’s recent gigs suggest that disappointment awaits.

Its set doesn’t reflect the illustrious history of a band that started in the 1970s as Joy Division. Punk’s harsh sound was transfigured into something majestic and desolate. With the suicide of singer Ian Curtis in 1980, New Order added keyboards, drum machines and disco beats.

The biggest travesty is the new version of the 1983 single “Blue Monday,” which prefigured the electronic house-music explosion of the 1990s.

New Order’s bassist Peter Hook left in 2006 and has kept up a rant of cantankerous criticism against his former colleagues. His spikiness translated into his playing. Replacement Tom Chapman turns the pithy lines into noodly rock posturing, which is misplaced in the middle of ascetic motor-disco.

Everyman Limitations

In short, New Order now plays with the vigor of a turnip and makes a sound like over-boiled cabbage. This was always a band that made virtues of its limitations. A lack of compositional finesse meant stronger song ideas. Bernard Sumner’s modest technique gave his singing an everyman honesty. Onstage, wearing nondescript black, only the limitations remain.

Poor sound at some venues hasn’t helped, turning the spiky twang of guitars into mulch that swamps much of the vocals. Sumner strains like an asthmatic puppy. A few strangled whoops fail to convey real excitement. Mumbled chats to the audience are largely indecipherable.

The bright synths of “Bizarre Love Triangle” are clumsy and muffled. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has its devastated heart torn out with power-rock rousings and skippity hi-hats.

There are too few moments of glory. “Transmission” still sounds monumental, Sumner spitting bewildered punk bile over gray guitars. Only “True Faith” and “Temptation,” with their dance beats and elegant soccer-terrace choruses, have the drive and discipline to make the band worthy of its reputation.

Rating: *.

New Order’s dates include Lokerse Feesten, Belgium, on Aug. 10 and the Olympics Closing Ceremony on Aug 12. The band plays Summer Sonic in Japan; Bestival; Majorca Rocks; Ibiza Rocks and a North American tour starting on Oct. 5 in San Francisco.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Fantastic
****       Excellent
***        Very Good
**         Good
*          Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on restaurants and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

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