Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Public Image Limited—
Metal Box


Released 1979 on Virgin
The Seth Man, August 2000ce
This sprawling and austere album is worth noting in its original release as it is probably one of the most sonically soaring albums of the seventies. All titles are brevity itself as the numbers are free-form musical expressions pushed through an extreme dub production. Released as a three 12 inch single set in a metal film can completely anonymous save an embossed PIL logo, the cutting of the grooves themselves were so widely separated from each other that they’re visible to the naked eye. This encourages the tracks to boom out in analogue warmth and fullness; deemed necessary by bassist Jah Wobble’s domineering and lush contributions in the low end department (For further evidence of 12” sonic booming, check out The Cramps’ “The Crusher” or Joy Division’s “Novelty.”) It’s a pity this version of the later released “Second Edition” can get pretty cost prohibitive. But for most, the quickest admission into this huge, avant rock structure is “Second Edition.”

“Metal Box” is hard, abrasive, rhythm-dominated and sonically all-there. The opening cut “Albatross” sees Lydon more quietly venomous than before. The oblique lyrics leave no clues, but he’s obviously cut all ties with his past and has moved on, if a bit wearily. “Slow motion…” are the first sung lines, and “Albatross” is just that: a sedate dub groove that sets the tone, hanging every splintery Keith Levene riff, drum and cymbal crash on Jah Wobble’s lumbering and relaxed bass lines are powerful enough to shoulder the whole track for its ten minute duration. “Memories” is all Leslie-f(r)ied guitar, magnetic pull dub bass and tinny hi-hat compressed into a metallic Joe Meek-out. Volume and tempo shift abruptly when a purposefully nasty editing job cues into Lydon’s sung “I could be wrong/It could be hate/As far as I can see/Clinging desperately” lines, The Sex Pistols an already an ever-distancing bad dream. “Swanlake” is about as unflinchingly terrifying a track as P.I.L. ever recorded: a tribute from a son to his recently departed mother. The tempo builds into a bonfire of scrap metal guitar, hi-hatted rhythms with a coursing, zooming bass line and insanely catchy Wobble bass hook to hang the whole thing on. Levene’s glacial synthesizer appear on the horizon, and by the ending everything else is starting to fade like the wilted flowers by the hospital bedside while the synth lines jut further and further out, getting louder and louder until you realise it’s a locked groove (On “Second Edition” it cuts off brutally, but here on the massively cut 12”) repeating forever after.

The lurching sound of a “play” button being pressed and the tape is already into “Pop Tones.” Slow cymbal rides and gentle descending Levene guitar fall down like a mist on the green English countryside illustrated by Lydon’s sung epigrams grouped together and bracketed by Wobble’s gathering bass melody in a dancing, insistent penetration through the vocals’ falling away to the back of the mix. The track unfolds a grisly scenario as the repetition constantly unfolds as the bashed out mannequin drums and Levene’s guitar are ever-sombre with the construct from Beefheart’s “Kandy Korn” line about rebirth here horribly inverted into a sinister roadside misadventure. “Careering” sees Levene forsake guitar for creeped-out synthesizer as Wobble’s bass submerges below the track to the inkiest depths of the album as it drives the track forward effortlessly. The only drums are hi-hats and synthesized drum pads, smacked out at intervals about as random as the bass line is straight ahead while Levene manipulates the synth into a knob-twiddling twistedness reminiscent of Dikmik’s noise generator freak out role in early seventies Hawkwind. “No Birds” sees Keith Levene’s jagged edge of a guitar whip the whole piece into a gathering momentum, slipping into trebly discords that rub up against Wobble’s HUGE and melodic bass and the drum kit with its over-recorded hi-hat tightness. A skeletal and wildly-trebled guitar crashes out of “Graveyard,” the first of the album’s three instrumentals. Levene is needle-pointing his hacking buzzsaw guitar all over the place, and further staccato guitar bursts explode over the treated rhythm track in harsh expressionist flurries until it all cuts off right on a hurried, abstractoid riff. “The Suit” is all foreground bass and background drumming; Lydon’s flatly intoned epigrams laid bare right in the center point of the mix. “Bad Baby” is yet another deep groove where the rhythm section dominates and blast out over Lydon and yet another Levene-manned unorthodox synthesizer. No guitar at all.

The last side of the last disc is “Chant”, book ended by two instrumentals: “Socialist” and “Radio 4.” “Socialist” is a furious blender of synth burbling an alien transmission over Wobble’s class bass and phased, over-compressed drums and cymbals. The tape cuts right into the stomping drums of “Chant” with more abrasive Levene scab-pick riffage, and the backing track consists of Lydon’s chant of “Love/War/Kill/Hate.” It would be effective enough if it was merely looped, but the slight variations in the delivery signal it was sung in real time. Lydon begins to chant the word “Chant” over this through the other end of a telephone, at one point screaming it insensibly from a muddy ditch in a severe state of infirmary. This nightmarish rant piece gets interrupted by the dial switching to “Radio 4.” All the impossibly hopeless themes of the album are now left far behind as a multi-part and swelling synthesizer piece is accompanied by the sympathetic Wobble on bass. Although the melodies are minor chords the feel is one of hopefulness, and for once P.I.L. are at peace.

“Metal Box” is a beautiful and barbed album whose power is still a formidable one, even now. And will be for a very long time.