The Heart and Soul set rectified the errors of Still by including some far better live performances on its fourth and final disc, but Joy Division aficionados spoke of even better recordings still never formally released. This complaint was settled with Preston, the first of two archival concert recordings, both of which finally do justice to the band’s stage work. It’s an important point, since Joy Division were a band able to work on three different levels with equal brilliance — on singles, album, and in concert — and Preston is the first real document able to demonstrate the latter point beyond question. Though the performance was beset with technical woes, as the members audibly mention at points between songs, there was still definite magic in the air. If the recording levels aren’t as perfect as they could be, with Curtis himself sometimes a touch too muffled, they’re certainly a cut above simple bootleg sound, while the quartet itself generally exchange the subtler shadows for a more direct but no less gripping approach. Nearly half of Closer appears some months before its release. The arrangements were already well worked out, “Twenty Four Hours” shifting effortlessly between lower-key brooding and explosion; “The Eternal” given a quietly majestic, unsettling extended opening, Morris’ crisp, weirdly thin drums and Sumner’s wheezing, distanced keyboards leading the way. Curtis projects his expected air of desperation mixed with intense fire, but even when the levels reduce him to a slur he’s nothing less than commanding, his lyrics cutting through the music with intensity. In direct contrast to the Closer version, his singing on “Heart and Soul” is much more upfront, though heavily drenched with reverb. Sumner in particular kicks up a storm on guitar, familiar riffs from the studio takes bursting with energy, slashing across the songs (there’s no other way to describe the performances on “Wilderness,” “Shadowplay,” and “Transmission”).
If Preston finally provided a live Joy Division experience that was worth the purchase price, Les Bains Douches trumped it and then some. Actually compiled from two differing dates — the title performance itself, in Paris, and a further show in Amsterdam two months later that had been heavily bootlegged — Les Bains Douches, with the benefit of clearer sound than Preston, finally presents the experience of live Joy Division as the explosive event it was. There aren’t any noticeable technical problems with the performances either, unlike some of the problems noticed on Preston, and with everything running smoothly the foursome simply and totally let go. The band often complained that Martin Hannett’s groundbreaking production inevitably quashed the direct force of the group in a live setting, which Les Bains Douches demonstrates in spades, with the space in the songs toned down in favor of commanding an audience. The musicians in particular are who really stand out this time around — while Curtis’ singing is much more audible here than on Preston, it’s the direct smack of Morris’ drums, the fierce growl of Hook’s bass, and especially Sumner’s sheer volume mixed with almost-frightening control that dominates both shows. The performances on both “Shadowplay” and “Transmission” in particular are practically definitive, as enthralling as the studio takes are. Both “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “These Days” crop up as well, and if the keyboards by Sumner on the former sound a bit primitive to later ears, the beautiful flow of the song stays perfectly intact. The Amsterdam cuts are equally thrilling, ranging from an extended, fascinating take on “Atrocity Exhibition” to a haunting rendition of “Atmosphere.” Other performances worthy of note include strong takes on “New Dawn Fades” and “Dead Souls.”
-Ned Raggett, allmusic.com