Metal Box is an album as impenetrable as the case in which it comes... a fifty-minute swirling bombardment of Kraut-rock rhythms, dissonant keyboards, jagged guitars and Lydon's bitter lyrics and screaming vocals. It follows on nicely from their first album, which took the sound of the Sex Pistols and fused it with disco, Kraut-rock and the kind of guitar music that would later become known as "post-punk". As a listening experience there is little else to rival it, with Metal Box offering up twelve tracks filled with a pain and anguish that can seemingly only find true catharsis through the screaming angular music found within. This is the sound of a band falling out of love with each other... and with the world around them.
The opening song, the near-legendary Albatross (which is almost eleven minutes of Beckett-like lyrical ruminations, over screaming guitars, a heavy and monotonous bass-line and some trance-like percussion) picks up where Theme (the opening track of their first album) left off, giving us more of Lydon's existential anguish and torment, as he screams about death and all manner of other related-horrors that infuse the album with a bleak, gothic and claustrophobic sound. Unlike the first album, the emphasis here is more on sound rather than song, so there's no real standout singles like Annalisa or Public Image, instead, we get longer tracks with much reliance on layered instrumentation. This is very much a precursor to those Radiohead classics, Kid A and Amnesiac, with PiL creating a landscape of cold synthesisers, an aching violin and that great integrated sound of Keith Lavene's scratchy, distorted guitar and the dub pounding bass of Jah Wobble.
This is dark music, as bleak as albums like Tilt, OK Computer, Regeneration, Blood on the Tracks and The Final Cut... although it has a sound that is unlike any of those albums, or indeed, anything else you've ever heard. The album progresses on from the epic Albatross onto the dark Memories, which sets Lydon's grating vocals and doom-laden lyrics against a backdrop of distorted, echoed guitars and a funky monotonous bass-line, which is further complemented by an Eastern-tinged and somewhat alien violin (or possibly keyboard) refrain wailing away in the background. It leads us perfectly into my favourite song on the album, the mesmerising Swan Lake.
The production here is fantastic, with the band retaining a minimalism, which builds towards that feeling of suffocating claustrophobia, with the actual distance of the instruments from one another becoming completely apparent through the use of different recording techniques. This creates an even more alienated sound, which works wonderfully with something like Swan Lake... which begins with that unmistakable Keith Lavene guitar sound and Wobble's bobbing bass. Like much of the album, the song becomes a testament to Lydon's despair following the death of his mother (and possibly some of the lingering pain left over from the death of Sid Vicious also), with lines like "I see it in your eyes" and that piercing closing refrain "words cannot express" really encapsulating (along with Lydon's vocals) the true pain and numbness of grief. The song is a definite band highlight, with Levene's guitar playing (sometime layering three of four different styled guitar parts over one another to create a sound that is beautiful, yet dissonant at the same time) at an absolute peak... whilst Jeannette Lee's violin is purposely piercing to match those swirling synths.
The next two songs (Poptones and Careering) move further away from the more rock-like sound of something like Albatross and Swan Lake and more towards absolute noise. The former is a particularly abrasive parable about a young girl being driven out into the middle of nowhere, presumably by an older man with the intention of rape... the music becoming as ugly as the subject matter as the song intensifies ("hindsight does me no good, standing naked in the back of the woods... the cassette played, poptones!!"). It's one of the most abrasive pieces of music ever composed... something that becomes even more disturbing when coupled with the bleak lyrics and Lydon's cold, emotionless delivery. Careering is even darker still, with Wobble's bass taking a greater precedence alongside that mechanical, almost industrial percussion. The lyrics are even more like Beckett, seemingly cut up and repositioned at random to create a brutal portrait, which never entirely becomes clear.
After the lengthy and agitated No Birds the album moves into the most Can-sounding track on the album, the three-minute instrumental piece, Graveyard. The rest of the album's second half continues seamlessly, furthering the bleak and mocking tone of the first half with scalding tracks like The Suit, the bombastic Chant and the surprisingly haunting and very beautiful closing track, Radio 4 (...a heavenly wash of beautiful synths and a hint of real bass). This is the perfect way to end the album, offering a sense of hope after eleven tracks of bleak beauty... and it's all the proof we need to see that this incarnation of PiL were one of the most exciting, important and extraordinary bands of all time.
After Metal Box, the band would undergo a change of personnel and produce the even more abrasive percussion based album The Flowers of Romance (...a record I still don't fully appreciate) before another change in line-up would turn the band into a vehicle for Lydon's personal take on 80's indie-pop. However, Metal Box remains a testament to the band when they were at their utmost creative peak... and, in my opinion, is one of the most original and remarkable albums ever produced.