Classic Albums: Metal Box (AU Magazine, Issue 61)
November 16, 2009, 1:22 am
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,


Words_John Calvert

Post-Punk looked to the black music trajectory for a clue to the future, with many bands fetishizing of the power of the bass guitar. Few would extract its visceral energy quite as sadistically as those titans of art-rock fusion, Public Image Limited. On their tour de force of a second L.P there contains a terror-ride, an eternal bad trip and the most unforgiving deconstruction of Rock’s pat creative routines ever consigned by a guitar band.

What could only be the product of radical thinking, Metal Box was the total realization of John Lydon’s vision of an “anti-music”; something so very inconsumable, psychologically repellent and downright radical in comparison to anything heard before, not least on Never Mind The Bollocks.

After losing Sid Vicious to heroin, his mother to Cancer and his soul to the global press, Lydon’s bleak disposition pervades, merging with an overwhelming sense of the decay and airless electrical throb of Seventies London. It offered no amnesty in the form of Punk’s cathartic fury and clearly defined apportioning of blame. For many it was the revolution that punk posited but could never fulfil -a sonic one. In 1979, in an end of year review, Paul Morley declared Metal Box to be “truly what Miles Davis had in mind when he said he could put together the greatest rock n roll group in the world”.

Metal Box encopasses Neu’s metronomic, monochromatic psychedelia, Dub-Reggae, Can’s spayed white Funk and Disco, which for Lydon was more efficient and honest in its functional inanity than the meaning we are supposed to take from Rock’s bullshit posturing. Alternating between Chic-worthy funk and Reggae’s low-frequency voodoo, Jah Wobble’s propulsive basslines stand sentry under guitarist Keith Levene’s free-form tablature. The finished product Lydon refashioned with the techniques employed throughout Jamaica’s sound-system culture to achieve the queer spatial realms concocted by pioneering producers like Lee Perry.

On opener ‘Albatross’, a ten minute colossus of bad feeling, Wobble’s subsonic pump contributes a sinister playfulness as Levene’s neo-classical scything runs riot with a perverse devotion to the wrong (but somehow right) notes. Levene’s performance is leviathan, a virtuoso incarnation of terrible beauty, sucking and drawing, alien, body-less and glowing with a plutonium energy; his ‘vicious graffiti’ as the NME described it perfectly at the time.


PiL perform 'Memories' on the Old Grey Whistle Test

‘Memories’, the closest thing the album offered by way of a single, sustains the quickest tempo of any track for a manic floor-filler. Lydon, forever the futurist, derides the rancid nostalgia implied by reviving Mod culture.

A disorienting, hellish threnody, ‘Death Disco’ is the record’s zenith. Truly a gruelling experience, Lydon sees his beloved mother dying over Levene’s prolapsed rendition of ‘Swan Lake’. True to form the former Johnny Rotten mocks indulgence; he’s repulsed by his own self-pity, simultaneously though he delivers a startling expression of insurmountable bereavement.

The track fades while Lydon repeats the line ‘Words cannot explain’. As became a standard in the post-punk era, vocals were reinvented and for years were distorted beyond recognition. Lydon’s were no different yet were uniquely blood-chilling, as evinced in ‘Poptones’ which recounts the story of a rape (and murder?) from the perspective of the victim. Her mind just can’t rid the memory of the banal pop songs he played in his Japanese car on the way to the woods. Wobble’s water-torture bassline is circled by Levene. The guitar’s flailing stream of consciousness calcifies into one perpetual onslaught as the victim begins ‘losing body heat’. Lydon’s lyrics are horrible, the vocals otherworldly and grotesquely twisted. With bizarre intonation and he drawls: ‘I can’t forget the impression you’ve made /you left a hole in the back of my head/ I don’t like hiding in this foliage and peat/ and the cassette plays Poptooooooones’.


This chiaroscuro juxtaposition of skanking bass and Levene’s immense noodling, neither compliant to the other on the mix, renders Metal Box both subterranean and something which arches over the listener like the gothic monuments comprising the skyline of the band’s hometown. It’s a musical compound rife with paradox: serated but sensous, inert and rampant, European and North American, White on Black. Primarily, its the way in which Levene’s guitar closes its cold fingers around Wobble’s repetitions that gives the record its unnatural sound, one trembling with intensity but suggestive of pin-pupiled trances.

Metal Box’s legacy has emerged in dribs and drabs ever since, usually when artists look to forge a working interface between black music and art rock, but also dwelling in the sounds of acts as disparate as Primal Scream, R.E.M and the Manic Street Preachers. Like many of the British Post-Punk bands, Pil informed much of what would develop throughout the Eighties in underground America and then by the Nineties, Trip Hop’s atmospherics were being directly lifted from the disquiet conjured on the Metal Box. Most recently you can hear its influence on Dubstep’s oppressive art-Garage, including that of Burial’s desolate evocation of nocturnal South London. Ultimately though, it was Metal Box’s guitar sound which travelled the farthest distance from its origins, pinched by U2 so they could anesthetize whole stadiums of happy folk. The irony being of course, that Levene had the most diabolical of intentions for his sound, planning horror for the minds of those very same contented people. A comforting thought to cling to the next time Bono’s telling you to be nicer person over a glacial guitar chime.

PiL have reformed for a string of seven arena dates throughout December beginning with Birmingham’s O2 academy on the 15th.

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