on 4 July 2014
Metal Box, first released in 1979, would prove to be one of the defining albums of that era, influencing a lengthy list of bands, creating a vast, expansive new musical genre known as ‘post-punk’ in the process. Public Image Limited have a sound which is entirely their own, although many bands have tried (unsuccessfully) to copy the trademark PiL sound, which was originally characterised Jah Wobble’s heavy, prominent basslines and Keith Levene’s completely distinctive style of playing guitar.
On ‘Metal Box’, PiL do not convey the message “we are a band, in a studio, recording an album, going through the motions”, but rather, create something far more organic, and with far more spontaneity, energy, intensity and authenticity than most bands can hope to achieve in a lifetime. This was achieved primarily by an obvious openness to both experimentation and exploration of a variety of different types of music.
This is evident from the moment that ‘Albatross’ kicks in, an intimidating, post-punk colossus which brilliantly showcase the distinctive prominent basslines and piercing guitars which Jah Wobble and Keith Levene respectively were known for. Oddly, the three staple members of the band at this time chose to use a variety of drummers for Metal Box, including Levene himself, but this certainly didn’t affect the overall cohesion of the album.
‘Memories’ takes up a much faster pace, an expertly blended fusion of a disco beat, and the trademark Levene guitar sound, whilst ‘Swan Lake’ (a.k.a. ‘Death Disco’) is easily one of the album highlights, a lament to Lydon’s recently deceased Mother. It is the same disco/post-punk fusion that came to characterise PiL’s early sound, a sound which is immediately identifiable as being PiL.
‘Poptones’, for this reviewer, is the highlight of the album, sublimely melancholic, genius, from the understated poetic lyrics to the dub-reggae, prominent bassline. ‘Poptones’ is poignant, weirdly affecting and easily one of PiL’s most memorable songs, and the almost eight minute length adds to the sense of it being a spontaneous, organic creation.
‘Careering’ manages to evoke a sense of threat and menace, being both moody and strangely hypnotic. The band’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ performance of this song was electrifying and memorable, whilst ‘No Birds’ could, alongside the back catalogue of Throbbing Gristle, be where Industrial music began.
‘Graveyard’ is a short, sharp burst of post-punk, unpretentious, with an unceremonious ending, whilst ‘The Suit’ sees Lydon in scathing form, vocally menacing, his lyrics high in the mix, the music understated. ‘Bad Baby’, heavy with synths, evokes the same sense of threat which is so central to this album.
‘Socialist’ is much more fast-paced, but is repetitive, claustrophobic and yet still distinctively, utterly PiL. The same oppressive feel is also evident on ‘Chant’, which sees Lydon in the same ominous vocal form, backed by clattering drums and foreboding Hammond organs.
‘Radio 4’ manages to be a spectacular closer for the album, synth-laden, with a cold beauty evocative of PiL. It is a memorable masterpiece, charismatic, even in it’s lack of vocals and drums, intermittently bass-heavy. This track takes on a life of it’s own, like a character on it’s own terms, being all at once majestic, futuristic, atmospheric and dramatic.
Taking into consideration all of the above, it goes without saying that PiL, in their original incarnation at least, were an epochal band, capable of very, very great things. Perhaps they didn’t realise this at the time, perhaps they did, it doesn’t actually matter. What does matter is that this, and several other of their albums, spawned an authentic sound, mood and genre. They had a love of experimentation and an open-minded approach to making music which is scarcely seen, which is why they were one of the defining bands of their age. ‘Metal Box’ is their ‘Ulysses’, a vast, seemingly impenetrable landscape, but one which changes the enlightened listener.