Home > Music > Public Image Ltd – Metal Box (1979)

Public Image Ltd – Metal Box (1979)


Metal Box (aka Second Edition) makes Chaosphere sound complex.

It’s generally held up as a musically adventurous recording, and I don’t think I can dispute that. I’m going to get it out of the way – the big musical adventure here is drone in extremis (for the standards of a 1979 rock album). I can imagine that being polarizing, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from listening if you want a look into the “post-punk” movement and the post-Sex Pistols career of one John Lydon. Not to overemphasize his contributions, but yes, I would say Johnny Rotten’s involvement and star power (as well as that of Keith Levene of The Clash) turned this harsh, dissonant, and uninviting album into a decent commercial success.

If this album is anything resembling an accurate indicator, the post-punk people take a rather different approach to abrasive than the metal musicians I’ve written at length on recently. Even the most untrained ear can tell a sonar difference between this album’s 10-minute opener (“Albatross”) and, for example, Darkthrone’s 10 minute opener on A Blaze In The Northern Sky (“Kathaarian Life Code”); and they’d quickly become aware that even the latter’s sparseness is tempered by an elaborate song structure and great shifts in dynamics. “Albatross” does nothing of the sort and actually comes out more unhinged for it, between the unending moaned vocals, birdlike guitar calls, and three note bassline. Other songs here are more dynamic, if barely, and often rely on sound exploration to create slight variants in the drone to keep Metal Box users from snapping entirely.

Perhaps the greatest (non-tensile) strength of this album is that its members form a strong ensemble and at no point overwhelm each other, even with a constantly rotating array of session drummers and Keith Levene performing double duty on guitars and synthesizers. This unity of purpose helps the album drone on and on and strengthens it at least from an aesthetic stance. The lack of anything really resembling a coherent song structure becomes pretty apparent, though on tracks like the improvisatory frenzy of “Socialist” or the synthesizer maelstrom of “Careering”. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tracks here were, in fact, jammed into existence, although it does leave the question of how the vocals/lyrics were devised. Lydon seems more coherent and intelligent than his appearance and demeanor suggest (although he can barely sing and seemingly prefers not to), and the lyrics contain some sociopolitical commentary and satire that would probably be harder to come up with on the fly. They were… probably added later, and dwelling on them is only going to get you Metal Box‘ed.

Given that my experience with this album actually predates most of my ‘metal listening’ career, it’s especially hard for me to be objective about this, but I am sure that when I first came upon this album it was, in fact, very different from anything else I’ve explored. I can definitely say it’s one of the droningest albums I’ve ever liked, although I was certainly more passionate about it in early 2009 or so.

Highlights: “Memories”, “Swan Lake”, “Careering”

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