Music: Something sinister this way comes

A chamber orchestra covering Joy Division songs? It sounds like a bad joke. But forget notions of Symphonic Queen, the Nau Ensemble's album is as darkly gothic as the music that inspired it. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
The classics do rock and pop is not the most inspired of genres: symphonic versions of the music of Queen, complete with cannons and fireworks; "A Whiter Shade of Pale" done up as a baroque flute concerto; "Yesterday" as a string quartet. On the merit side, there is the marvellously deranged album of Apocalyptica Plays Metallica (Mercury, 1996), where four Finnish cellists saw away on the repertoire of the pleasingly beyond-the-pale heavy metal group. True, you can't actually listen to it very often, but at least airports and shopping malls won't be able use the record as an aural tranquilliser, as they do with "A Whiter Shade of Pale".

When you hear about a contemporary music version of Joy Division songs recorded by a Swedish chamber orchestra, it sounds at first like a bad joke (well, quite a good one actually). The album arrives and you rush to put it on. At first there's only a beguiling silence, followed by a weird kind of electronic storm. Then the string glissandi begin, like nails scratching down a blackboard, leading into an early-music vocal chorus that sounds as if it's been recorded in a cave. The heartbeat pulse of a piano note repeats ominously, as if it's a film and the psycho killer is about to appear at any moment. Deep in the gothic woodshed, something dark and rather nasty is beginning to stir.

The Eternal, by the Nau Ensemble Chamber Orchestra with the voices of the Cori di Bellini, is formidably strange and beautiful. Comprising a continuous suite of arrangements by the ensemble's leader, Hans Ek, of material drawn from Joy Division's 1980 Closer album, plus two versions of the single "Atmosphere", the music is more faithful to the spirit of the famous Mancunian gloom-mongers than it is to their actual themes. Indeed, you could quite easily fail to realise that it had anything to do with Joy Division at all, especially if you miss the gorgeous countertenor voice intoning Ian Curtis's sombre words as if they were a medieval liturgy.

That The Eternal is a Swedish production, released on the excellent Atrium label, seems fitting, in a macabre way. In a nation reputedly predisposed by both climate and temperament to the contemplation of the gloomy and sepulchral, Joy Division evidently found a home from home. There's also the question of suicide. Ian Curtis, as everyone knows, took his own life, and by doing so ended Joy Division's too. And, as Swedes take a perverse pride in telling you, when it comes to the world suicide league tables, they are right up there at the top, battling it out for the title with Japan. One of The Eternal's contributors - Fred Saboochi, who is credited with "ambient sonics" - turns out to be a specialist in the study of suicide at Stockholm University.

In Stockholm last week I met Hans Ek of the Nau Ensemble, who composed, arranged and conducted the music, and Manne Von Ahn Oberg, the producer, who also initiated the project together with Lars Nylin. We talked in the Atrium studio where The Eternal was recorded, and which, in an earlier incarnation, also provided the setting for that great naff Euro-rock hit, "The Final Countdown" by Europe.

Ek at first turned down the project because he didn't want to be involved in an orchestral arrangement of pop songs, and he also felt ambivalent about recomposing the work of such a hallowed group, whose music he knew from when he played in punk groups as a student. "At the beginning I thought: `What can I do? What can I add to this music?' But then Manne said to have the tempo very slow and no action, retaining the same feeling for a very long time, and I like this idea of arranging things that are continuously changing but in a very slow manner."

"I said let's make a record that's church meeting drugs," says Manne, and the pair of them laugh, darkly.

In all, the project took two years to complete, although they worked on other things in between. "The feelings I had from before with Joy Division were that the music was like a modern mass, a ritual music," says Ek. "I didn't experience this on a purely pessimistic level, but it does reflect the dark side of life. I don't feel the sense-world of our album is very dark either, but rather that it travels through a dark landscape. The thing that really makes the record have this dark atmosphere is not that it's pessimistic, but that it's very slow. We agreed that it should sound archaic and futuristic at the same time."

Both men have a touching concern for what the group's fans will make of the album. You even get the feeling that they're rather haunted by the spectre of black-clad figures taking the record back to the shop because there's not enough Joy Division in it. One of main areas of contention could well be the vocals - or, more accurately, the lack of them. "There's 55 minutes of music, but only 10 minutes of vocals," says Manne. "It was very important to have the text there, but we didn't want the vocals to be in the forefront. They were the only thing we had a fight about. I wanted to get rid of the females in the chorus and leave only the counter- tenor, because otherwise it didn't seem close enough to Joy Division."

The album was recorded in short takes, sometimes of only a few seconds' duration, with no more than five people in the studio at any one time to preserve a sense of intimacy. The Nau Ensemble itself is only five strong, although double-tracking and the addition of electronics can make them sound like a full orchestra.

Ek, who is also a well known conductor in Sweden, feels the experience has helped free him as a composer from the constraints of the orchestra and the concert platform. "I think the studio brings back the initiative and the power to the composer, because he is in charge. I discovered new ways of writing, using the tempo as a means of expressing things. We use a click track, and varying the tempo, which is very difficult to do live, becomes much easier."

The Nau Ensemble's latest project, which I listened to in the studio while a pianist added overdubs, is a further step on from The Eternal, and mind-blowingly good. Based on a series of songs by Fred Saboochi - the suicide man again - it's a suite linked by electronic segments recorded with old-school Stockhausen-type ring modulators, and features an angst- ridden female singer who sounds rather like Marianne Faithfull. As she intones the English lyrics, Ek's trademark string glissandi rise and fall over a slowed-down techno drum-beat. It should be ready in another two years. The memory of the new tune stays with me all the way back to the airport, where the taxi driver proudly announces last winter's spectacular rise in the suicide figures following an unusually bad summer. The classics do pop were beginning to seem a very good thing indeed. Then the airport sound-system started playing "A Whiter Shade of Pale', baroque-style.

`The Eternal' by the Nau Ensemble is out now on Atrium, distributed by Warners

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