Friday, April 25, 2008

No. 469: Metal Box

Band: Public Image Ltd.
Album: Metal Box
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Released as three 45s in, well, a metal box in 1979 (and a year later in conventional vinyl as "Second Edition"), "Metal Box" is disco meets punk meets Captain Beefheart, all with a melody.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's challenging, certainly, but worth it. I'd probably pop it up a bit higher.
Best song: "Albatross," the album opener, is great. "Careering" is tons of fun, too.
Worst song: "Chant" isn't really great.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty excellent.

After the breakup of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon's next band is rooted in a totally different -- yet strikingly familiar -- style. Avant disco in a way that hasn't been approached since, "Metal Box" is often challenging and classically anti-social.

Maybe ironically, but Lydon's lyrics are actually the worst facet of "Metal Box." His misanthropic stream-of-consciousness gets tired, though it fits the post-apocalyptic songwriting. Throbbing, disco-style bass and drums propel parts of the album -- "Memories," the album highlight, features some of the best versions of this. The cadre of drummers -- PiL drummer Sam Ulano had quit after the band's debut album -- on the record dance between slow-burn cymbal-based rock beats ("Poptones") to dance-rock ("Careering," "Graveyard," "Memories," etc.) to straight rock ("No Birds," "Chant").

This being 1979, no album would be complete without a fierce lead guitar and synth combination and "Metal Box" has it in spade. Taking cues from Can, a song like "Socialist" has a computer-sounding synth that meanders around the disco rhytymn section and "Albatross" has a Modern Lovers-esque post-punk guitar.

Solidly challenging and danceable, "Metal Box" is a wonderful record.


As is always the case with PiL, comparisons abound about the band as compared to the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols, I'd suggest, are pretty overrated -- though, I'm not the world's biggest punk rock fan. Allmusic puts it as such:

"Metal Box" might not be recognized as a groundbreaking record with the same reverence as "Never Mind the Bollocks," and you certainly can't trace numerous waves of bands who wouldn't have existed without it like the Sex Pistols record.

That's probably true, but bands like the Faint, !!! and Hot Chip are the reminders that PiL had an impact on rock music.


bob_vinyl said...

When I first heard this in the mid-80s, I really liked it, but I would have been appalled by anyone who suggested disco had any good effect on rock music at all.

taotechuck said...

"...bands like the Faint, !!! and Hot Chip are the reminders that PiL had an impact on rock music."

That is the most compelling argument against PiL that I've ever heard.

The difference, of course, is that PiL actually had substance while the other three are watered-down hipster dreck.

padraig said...

bob - more like the influence of the two upon each other. which has been happening since Sly & the Family Stone, Hendrix, Funkadelic etc. fused black popular music w/white guitar rock. in a way a lot of post-punk is kind of like an inverse of that - white musicians doing their take on funk/disco/dub etc.

I have to disagree with ya, RJ, about Lydon's lyrics - PiL was a much purer distillation of the Pistols' supposed blend of nihilism/ideas ripped off from the Situationists. of course the mission statement was to destroy pop music - pretentious nonsense to be sure but also far more radical than McLaren-style opportunism.

I can't pretend I'm anything but an unabashed fanboy. PiL, in addition to being like a music critic's wet dream, was also one of the high points for avante/niche stuff infiltrating into guitar music - dub, krautrock etc. Jah Wobble went on to have an eclectic, mostly awesome career recording all kinds of music, a lot of it dub-influenced, w/people like Bill Laswell & Jaki Liebzeit.

Finally, anyone who likes PiL should definitely check out the work of Arthur Russell.