on 6 July 2005
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.
on 20 December 2007
Originally released in 1979,this,even today,sounds like a trip into the future.It wass famously released originally as 3 12-inch singles,so breaking down the begining-middle-end of conventional albums.The contents pretty special too.
Jah Wobble's bass thunders out as the backing,with Levene's guitar and Lydon's vocals swirling over the drum/bass mix.It is the reason for the original 3 12 inchers(the bass tracks could be cut into the vinyl that much deeper).
Hard to pick out highlights as it works as a totality,rather than a collection of tracks,but "Poptones" and "Careering".Any fans of dub reggae,Holger Czukay/Can, and/or Captain Beefheart will find something to delight in here.
It isn't easy listening,and if your knowledge of PIL starts with "Album" or later releases,you'll probably be scratching your head in puzzlement as you listen to this.Listen to it with an open mind,and enjoy.
on 4 September 2010
You don't think -do you- that punk was only about reductionist riffs and complex trousers? If you do then doctors -none of them reputable, all of them struck off- recommend an immediate course of `Metal Box'
Jah Wobble's bass on the anti-hit that is `Pop Tones' owes nothing to anyone while Lydon-formerly-Rotten's stream-of-consciousness is of course put over in THAT VOICE (strip away the rest of his band before PiL and THAT VOICE still sounds downright unruly)
And of course there was an interface between punk and reggae that went way beyond The Clash covering `Police And Thieves' Look no further than `Albatross' to realise this, and also to catch the sound of perhaps angst-ridden young men making music as a means of getting rid of something, and indeed of `getting rid of the albatross' as Lydon / Rotten mentions a few times. As if that wasn't enough the gulf between Wobble's bass and Keith Levine's wired guitar is unbridgeable, so the drummer -Dave Crowe?- makes no attempt to do it.
When it comes down to it I'm one of those reviewers who's going to tell you that `Metal Box' is seminal. It's also essential for anyone who believes that `music' is a term which covers all known bases and those yet to be labelled. My advice to anyone who can't go for that is to avoid this set like the plague, but then dividing opinions is a good thing when it's an alternative to consensus, bland or otherwise.
The last few years have seen John Lydon's other project PIL getting a deserved bit of posthumous acclaim- bands like The Rapture, Radio 4, & Primal Scream have all been compared/contrasted to this lot (& other post-punk acts of the era, such as The Slits, Gang of Four, Pop Group & Wire). Tributes are obvious, from Radio 4's name to Alan McGee naming his post-Creation indie label after Poptones (pity he decided only to sign Byrds-impersonators, a bit at odds with Memories anti-nostalgic line "I think you're slightly late"). PIL even got on the front of Mojo this month- for an article that was all too brief (this would have once been done by Uncut, a magazine that seems to have swapped places with Mojo & only focuses on Beatles-Dylan-Stones-yawn....) So, it's nice to see Metal Box back- though people on a budget should just buy the twin-set of Public Image-First Edition & Second Edition- as all the same tracks are present. A pity that this reissue of Metal Box couldn't take in the alternate single versions of tracks like Memories & Death Disco- memorably waxed lyrical over by Lester Bangs in Psychotic Reactions & Carburettor Dung- as they picked up on the idea of alternate single mixes (though this was an idea really found on Miles Davis' On the Corner...) A squandared chance to make the ultimate Metal Box...
This was the last album proper from the great PIL line-up, generally centred around Lydon, Keith Levene & Jah Wobble; though Wobble's Betryal, PIL's follow-ups Flowers of Romance/This is What You Want... & Levene's Commercial Zone are all worth picking up. Lydon since those has been very patchy- apart from the great Baambaata & Leftfield collaborations & the odd track like This Is Not a Love Song, Fishing & The Body...
The era of post-punk was one that produced some of the most interesting music of all time, easily the most fertile period in British music. Taking the ethos of punk, the influences of dub & burgeoning electronics, often with an anti-establishment persepective, many UK bands began to push the envelope. PIL were at the forefront of this shift- shunning conventional live performances, wearing suits (pre-empting Blur & Dexys) & being antithetical to the uniformity of punk sold out. Metal Box is contender for the greatest album produced in this era, from the late 70s to early 80s- though albums such as Entertainment!, 154, Cut, Y, Secondhand Daylight, Closer, Dub Housing, Reproduction, This Heat!, Sandinista!, Remain in Light etc should be acknowledged...
These 12-tracks were actually a double album, the ultimate PIL statement which I believe was not greeted with the same critical fervour it is recalled today (don't blame me, I'm too young!). It stands up there with the greatest inventive guitar music of the last few decades, from Captain Beefheart & Can to more recent acts like Mission of Burma, Slint, Butthole Surfers, Tortoise & Clinic. It's an album that has a sybaratic quality, the strange chemistry of dub, alien guitar & alienated vocals works perfectly. The dub-influences on punk are apparent throughout, especially on tracks like instrumental Socialist, Graveyard & the brilliant Careering. PIL's debut was brilliant, but this is their definitive statement & the best thing Lydon had ever been on...
Personally, I detected a Beckettian-vibe to earlier tracks like Theme & opener Albatross (over ten-minutes) certainly continues this, with a tedious cursed worldview. Lydon & PIL rejecting what went before- this was the year in which the remains of the Pistols fell apart & the other John known as Sid died in dire/exploitative circumstances. Lydon was elsewhere & also dealing with personal loss in his own family, which he addresses in Death Disco (aka Swan Lake)- a moving track with sublime keyboards. Though it doesn't go on long enough; quite simply this is Chic in Hell- Lydon noting that "words cannot express..."
Memories is like prime Pistols (Bodies, No Feelings), but honed & even more potent with the musical assault of Levene & Wobble (& whoever else). The concluding part of the album is even more immense, from No Birds- with its horrifying perception of the modern world ("I like the illusion...of privacy...A caviar of silent dignity...A layered mass of subtle props...this could be heaven")- which piddles over later attempts to make similar statements from bands like Blur & Primal Scream. Chant is the ultimate Krautrock-inflection on punk, as great as something extreme on Tago Mago- Lydon & co in a trance of repetition...Radio 4 is the final track, an instrumental that might have been intended as a joke, but with its keyboard refrain & Wobble's original bassplaying feels touching...
Metal Box is quite simply one of the greatest albums ever produced, more worthy of being in those endless Top 100 lists than retro stuff like The Stone Roses & Definitely Maybe. It's easy to see why Massive Attack referenced PIL on their debut album Blue Lines- though if this was a Massive album, it would be Mezzanine. I don't care if this line-up of PIL reform as the PIstols did (it's unlikely)- but this album remains in print, with the greatest cover/packaging an album has ever come with. & it's an album that no one should be without...forget the Pistols, get the real thing instead-
on 8 March 2007
Metal Box is the second PIL album and their masterpiece. One of these rare things that crosses the sky of rock from time to time. Formed by John lydon after the split of a well known band, PIL turns the back to the past : with cynicism. Exit the image shaped by Mc Laren, place to the music, a powerful funk carried by the hypnotic bass of Jah Wooble that sometimes evokes Holger Czukay of Can, striated by the minimalist riffs of Keith Levene (between James Blood Ulmer and Tom Hemran from Pere Ubu) and chanted by a muezzin voice who once used to call himself "Rotten".
In the late 70's, PIL is unique with this punk Funk : only the bands Siouxsie & the Banshees and Wire offer a music as original as theirs. Inspired, Lydon makes psalmodies on the breathtaking " Careering" which with " Poptones" is enough to justify the acquisition of this precursor recording.
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.
on 15 January 2010
I can only compare this to Second Edition - the only previous version of this seminal album I've ever owned. It sounds a fair bit brighter and edgier than Second Edition - definitely a big improvement. If you're hesitating because you are uncertain about the quality of the remastering there is no need to. This is a sonic step-up from what you've heard before.
on 6 January 2010
Well this was a wasted opportunity. Three cd's with a so called remastered Metal Box spread over them. It sounds worse than the previous cd release.
Why not one cd of the album, properly remastered, one for bonus tracks (there are definitely some options available there) and a third dvd of tv and live performances?
Now that would have been great.
on 30 April 2012
Originally bought this in its 3 x 12" single format when it was released but unfortunately it was stolen. The download obviously doesn't have the hands-on attraction of the original but the music still holds up well decades after it was recorded. Glad to have found it.
on 2 February 2005
In 1978 the Sex pistols with which Lydon had recreated music forever split up. Lydon, however, uncontent with recreating music just once formed Public Image Ltd. (PIL)with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Richard Dudanski. Their first album First Issue basically created post-punk rock music. With this album, however, music was re-created. The Music is basically at first glance the band jamming and then Lydon Yelling various obsenities over the top, but when you look deeper it is shown to be deep, emotional, intelligent music with Lydon speaking about real inner demons and the music becomes part of that going beyond the lyrics and music just complimenting each other but becoming a single force getting a single point across.
every song on this hour long masterpiece is an emotional journey that Lydon is taking, it was simply him getting over the horrors of what he had been through he just managed to make one of the greatest album ever in the process.