Thirty years after its (limited) release, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music still presents most of his fans with a conundrum. Originally a double album with four unremitting sides of squalling feedback and fizzing electronics, it was regarded at the time as a cheeky contractual-obligation filler dashed off as a f***you to RCA. Only a very few voices at the time disagreed, and they tended to be the Lester Bangs type - wilfully swimming against the critical tide. It wasn't helped by Lou's refusal to be drawn on the subject. It was deleted after two weeks.
Now everyone is more comfortable with the idea of noise - rock's ability to move into abstract expressionism has been validated a zillion times over, not least by Neil Young whose Arc album stitched together an album's worth of feedback. And Lou's opus seems to have now crept comfortably into critical favour. The Wire-reading generation now hail it as a proto-noise masterpiece. If any more proof were needed here comes Zeitkratzer's live rendition of the album using an 11-member orchestra and old Uncle Lou himself on axe.
Of course music this confrontational will never reside in the Kronos Quartet-end of classical reinterpretation, but it still adds a respectability that seems incongruous. Frankly the task of scoring a mess like this for strings and horns (done by saxophonist Ulrich Krieger) beggars belief. Its obsessiveness reminds one of the youthful Stevie Vai who gained entry to Frank Zappa's inner circle by transcribing the master's guitar solos. Even Lou Reed thought it impossible until he heard the results.
And the results ARE intriguing. What, on initial listening is impenetrable does begin to reveal subtle shifts in both texture and attack. Part 2 is quite shocking in its aggression while Lou's contribution to Part 3 adds a throbbing undertow that introduces a rhythmic element echoing the titular theme.
The accompanying DVD is probably the best way to really appreciate the work involved here. Watching the players so intently producing what seems like chaos is slightly less punishing than just subjecting yourself to the buzz saw of 50 minutes of industrial grade atonality.
In the end it's still hard to completely disregard previous accusations of avant-garde dilettantism. In orchestral form the piece lacks a certain post-classical purity that the original at least had in its electric genesis. But this is brave music that shouldn't be dismissed as merely a joke on the chin-stroking elite. --Chris Jones
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