Monday, April 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Metal Box" by Public Image Ltd.

Well, the nuts and bolts: Metal Box was the second album by Public Image, Ltd., so it was the second effort by John Lydon to distance himself from the Sex Pistols, the band of which he, as Johnny Rotten, was the lead singer. Looking at the sneering and posturing of that band, it's tough to imagine that this rather more cerebral exercise was fronted by the same person. But given how the co-option of punk into the mainstream has been so complete that Never Mind the Bollocks... now fits rather unremarkably onto 'classic rock' playlists, you could say that this is the more radical/revolutionary statement. And, to my ears, it`s very much like Never Mind the Bollocks... in that it's easier to admire than to enjoy. At least, from start to finish. In small doses, both are stunning.

Technically, of course, Metal Box isn't a double album: it's three 12" 45rpm records stuck together in a metal canister. The fact that its novel packaging is one of the first things that gets mentioned whenever this album is discussed would, in normal circumstances, suggest that the content was so lacking that critics felt compelled to discuss the packaging. Not so in this case, though - just an example of how critics often focus on what's superficial. Metal canister... yay. It's what's inside that counts, right?

What's inside, on those three 45 rpm discs, is the sound of a band finding, and then driving into the ground, a completely unique voice. Famously, that voice consists of Jah Wobble playing reggae-influenced, super-deep 'lead bass', Keith Levene playing noisy, abstract guitar lines often described as 'metallic', enough drummers to shame Spinal Tap, and John Lydon caterwauling lyrics that are either gibberish or nearly gibberish in a variety of abrasive voices, with no interest in things as banal as choruses or song structure. One template, twelve songs. Call it a 'triple album' if you want, but the whole thing clocks in at slightly more than 60 minutes, which is chintzy even for a double. But it's still more than a single, and it's still (don't tell the reviewers who give it five stars) bloated. It's an ideal candidate for some trimming. Here's the reality that critics will never confess to: Metal Box creates a sonic template that is rich, evocative and radical. And then proceeds to follow the exact same template over and over again to the point that, by side six, you haven't been able to tell one song from another for 30 minutes or so. It's that very thing that makes Metal Box so worthy of a good trim. It's a great album, but only in moderation.

Metal Box

Side one
  1. Albatross (10:34)
  2. Memories (5:05)
  3. Graveyard (3:07)
Side two
  1. Poptones (7:46)
  2. The Suit (3:29)
  3. Swan Lake (4:11)
  4. Radio 4 (4:24)

Albatross: keep (side one, track one)

Ten and a half minutes is a bold statement from an ex-punk... normally I hate songs this long merely on principle, but 'Albatross' fascinates from start to finish. All of the key functions of the album are present: Jah Wobble's amazing bone-rattling basslines (which hog the limelight from the very beginning of this song through to its conclusion), Keith Levene's circular spirals of dissonant guitar, John Lydon in a spacey baritone voice floating above it - parts that don't seem to cohere at all but somehow work. This is strictly midtempo slow-burn stuff. Keith Levene claims it was a first-take improvisation. Given how lax the band was, this might well be true. But if so, it's remarkably inspired, because it's a compelling listen. And it's a great statement of purpose, as well (more so than anything offered on the debut, which is laughably described as 'conventional' by people who have obviously never heard it). And it must have annoyed punks to no end.

I think this albatross is ideally suited to start an album. Well, to start this album, which is obsessed with defying convention. Starting with your longest track is risky, but I think this song is suited to that role. Plus, I can't think of any place on the album where it would fit better.

Memories: keep (side one, track two)

This was a single, though it's hardly any more 'commercial' than any other track on the album. It is, however, a lot more kinetic, with an amazingly propulsive rhythm section sounding like it might be soundtracking some early eighties video game. On top of that, however, it's business as usual. Certainly nothing approaching a verse-chorus-verse structure shows up to give radio programmers some sense of what they're hearing. The mix is bizarre, though, with the bass every now and then getting pumped up so high it drowns out everything else. This mixing-board activity is the main thing that makes this track, well, memorable. Pun intended.

While this is track two on the real CD, remember that it doesn't 'follow' 'Albatross', since it's on another vinyl side. For me, it is the follow-up, though - a step up tempo-wise puts the 'single' after the lengthy introduction. I made sure both singles were kept on opposite sides of my single-length disc. Here, as track two, 'Memories' is kind of the 'heart' of side one.

Swan Lake: keep (side two, track three)

This track is properly called 'Death Disco', and the retitling on the album serves no purpose I can think of except to underline the oft-stated fact that Keith Levene nicked the guitar line from Tschaikovsky's ballet. This is a truly amazing track - 'harrowing' is what they'd call the lyrics and John Lydon's performance of them (in a rare outing on this album for the screechy 'Rotten' voice) - supposedly written for his dying mother. They're, of course, largely incomprehensible (mostly all I can pick out is 'seeing in your eyes'), but the emotion still comes across. It's no lament, though, as the guitar, bass and especially drums combine to give an amazingly propulsive effect, one that has way less to do with disco than reviewers, influenced by the old song title, claim. Jah Wobble's bass provides an amazing running commentary on the vocals. The whole thing is dissonant, but of course it is. Doesn't it make sense that it would be? It does nothing to undermine the playability of this song. Just don't, you know, play it in public.

The actual layout of the album crowds the first half with the most memorable songs. I think it's better to shake things up - plus, why let a song like this get buried after 'Albatross' and 'Memories'? I make it the second-to-last track, side two track three, and the climax of the disc. So on my record, it kind of 'sums up' what has come before, in a defiant manner, before the final track serves as an arbitrary and unexpected coda.

Poptones: keep (side two, track one)

This song manages to get an entirely different texture from the same component parts. More cymbals than Ringo Starr during Beatlemania. Jah Wobble plays 'lead bass', doing arbitrary semi-tonal semi-quaver runs, most likely improvised. And suddenly, Levene's guitar is all user-friendly and melodic, but it's tough to be sure it's playing in time with the drums, or even the same tempo as them. So almost commercial but then not at all. It's easy to get lost in Levene's queasy filigrees and the decent groove, but it goes on too long. You could chop off the last three minutes and lose nothing, really. Lydon emcees over top, telling... er, some kind of story. Something about, I think, being shot in the countryside to the tune of pop music on cassette. I don't know, but it's a compelling performance. It's a very alien track, like something that was created in a parallel universe where their understanding of music was all upside down.

Originally, I'd given this track the penultimate position I now give 'Swan Lake' and let that song open side two. But switching the two make more sense, I think, and not just because it opens both sides with overlong mood pieces.

Careering: lose

After four songs, all keepers, with different personalities despite their superficial similarities, we suddenly dive headlong into sameyness. For an album that pretended not to have conventionally ordered 'sides', it's remarkably top-heavy. 'Careering' is an array of percussion noises, sci-fi sounds and Lydon-rant. There's no guitar that I can hear, and Wobble's bass is strangely back in the mix and strangely run-of-the-mill. The song is completely take-it-or-leave-it. Not bad, not good, just there.

No Birds: lose

More of the same. This has all of the same musical ingredients as the best songs on 'Metal Box' but with none of the magic. This is painting-by-numbers, and the diminishing returns that characterise the second half of this album are what make it such slow-going. What I mean is that in isolation, there's nothing wrong with this song, but in the middle of an incredibly samey 60-minute album, it's just tedious. And would a chorus be too much to ask for?

Graveyard: keep (side one, track three)

The best of the album's three instrumentals, this is a showcase for Keith Levene, playing a twangy neo-surf guitar over a springy Jamaican syncopated rhythm. Too slow for ska and too fast for dub, it still evokes scratchy Trojan-era 'version' b-sides. It resists the urge to go 'jammy', and keeps its length short and purposeful. There apparently exists a version with Lydon lyrics on top, but based on this, it's tough to see how they'd be an improvement. The change of pace is appreciated, and all told, this is one successful track.

Two of the instrumentals make my final cut. It makes sense not to put them on the same side of vinyl, so I decided to end each side with an instrumental. This, then, ends my side one.

The Suit: keep (side two, track two)

Vaguely 'swinging' bass and drums for what was apparently initially conceived as a Jah Wobble solo track, with nothing else on top save John Lydon talk-singing a rather impenetrable tirade against some kind of character archetype. It's all rather silly and pointless, but it's different. And that provides a change of pace at this point on the set of discs.

'The Suit' is probably the least noteworthy of the songs I allowed to make the final cut. So side two track two is the perfect place for it. But beyond that, there's a certain parallel structure to the two sides here, with the first track being the epic, the second-to-last being the single and the last track being the instrumental. However, side two has four tracks to side one's three. The odd man out? This track.

Bad Baby: lose

A vaguely creepy synth line, business-as-usual bass and drums, and yet another example of John Lydon taking a short and simple melody line and repeating it over and over again, with a confused but blithe contempt for normal structure like 'verses', 'choruses' and 'countermelodies'. The track comes in, repeats itself again and again and then, when a suitable length of time has passed, comes to an end. Question for those who call Metal Box a five-star album: is the world really any better off for having 'Bad Baby' on it?

Socialist: lose

I had high hopes for this song, based on its title, but alas, it's an instrumental. It's only bass and drums, with some insignificant sci-fi synths in the background. No Levene guitar, no Lydon vocals. Ask yourself: Jah Wobble is undeniably a great bassist. But does he have enough personality to carry a song all by himself? The answer is undoubtedly yes, but not this song, which is just four different notes played in groups of three, over an over and over and over again. The second-shortest track on the album, and still overlong.

Chant: lose

Apparently what the background vocals here are saying over and over and over and over again are 'mob, war, kill, hate'. Somehow I'd convinced myself they were 'I'm what you hate', and I'd decided it was an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Repetition may be a key theme on this album, but repeating four syllables literally hundreds of times... well, it makes it a tiring and unsatisfying experience. As the penultimate track and the last track to sound like the rest of the album, it's effectively the 'climax' of the album, but it's a weak one. It's oppressively repetitive and unhelpfully noisy.

Radio 4: keep (side two, track four)

This track, a/k/a 'Keith Levene's Keyboard Lesson', is an easy shoo-in merely for the fact that, at long last, it sounds different from the other songs, and also for its sky-high WTF factor. I've heard this compared to Eric Satie, but I compare it to someone dicking about on a keyboard for a few minutes. There is a drumbeat, and then there isn't... there are fragments of melody, and then there aren't. A few minutes later, it stops. Ridiculous. Not especially listenable but, again, a shoo-in for inclusion.

This track is so atypical of the album that I think it serves the album best by being kept separate from it. So 'Death Disco' is the album's final statement, and then after it fades out, this song comes on. A kind of elegy for what has come before. Or, more realistically, one last moment of random confusion on an album filled with them.

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