Rhythm becomes ragged, serrated, a thing of danger rather than comfort.
Art should be confrontational. John Lydon proved that during his tenure with the Sex Pistols but for all the spit and wit flying around during punk’s early hours, post-punk and Lydon’s band of misery-makers, Public Image Ltd., took the notion of music-as-confrontation to a new extreme. A skeptic listening to PiL’s sophomore release, Metal Box, might legitimately wonder if what they’re hearing can be considered music at all. Melody becomes a mere notion, something that pokes its head into the room, then dashes off before one can register if what they’ve just experienced is real or an apparition. Rhythm becomes ragged, serrated, a thing of danger rather than comfort.
PiL wasn’t unprecedented. Lydon famously voiced his affinity for the ever-daring Van der Graaf Generator, a progressive rock unit that eschewed Yes’s hippie lyrical aesthetic and bald classical influences as well as the high-minded public school leanings of Genesis. What emerged was something bold, strident and, at times, exhausting. The latter serves as an apt descriptor for Metal Box.
Coming just one year after the harsh, chaotic realities of First Issue, the second effort refined some of that outing’s jagged edges, not so much smoothing them as sharpening them to a finer, more piercing point. “Albatross” opens the LP with 10 minutes of pure fright: Jah Wobble sets up a comforting bass groove, we hear a quick scrape from Keith Levene’s guitar and then David Humphrey enters, laying down a steady beat that in a different environment would serve as an anchor, a sense of direction.
Though the rhythm section stays the course, Levene’s prickly, stabbing guitar lines threaten to send the listener into a disorienting, hallucinatory state. He weaves in and out at strange times, frequently sounding as though he’s playing a song only he can hear. In the rare moments when he comes close to acknowledging rock’s blues roots, he quickly veers into some other realm, abandoning any adherence to melody and structure. Lydon, meanwhile, bellows like a man just on the other side of his tipping point. The music continues its march to nowhere, refusing progress and staying stuck in the familiar bass and drum pattern while the guitar squawks and howls, seeking an escape route that’s slow to arrive.
Its successor, “Memories,” is more approachable, with Wobble’s bass and Richard Dudanski’s drums offering something akin to a disco beat. Lydon sings in a voice closer to Johnny Rotten there, with some strange tape edits and mixing becoming a disorienting force. Yet, there’s something magical about the experience, catharsis lurking in the chaos, safety and sanity to be found amid the madness. By the time PiL starts playing like a regular rock ‘n’ roll act (or as close as they get) via “Swan Lake,” you find yourself pining for the earlier disquiet, a return to the tempest.
“Poptones” finds Lydon doing something like a Bowie impersonation before snarling and growling like his former self amid a crashing, banging backing track. There are moments here and throughout the rest of the record that PiL sounds like a basement metal band going through the paces of a song for the first time, exploring their sound and making tentative grabs at something like music. Occasionally, they hold it in their grip, other times it slips away from them, leaving them with little more than pitched chaos. Maybe that’s where the real thrill of PiL and Metal Box come into play, the sense that you’re gaining a cockroach’s-eye view to the creative process with all its missteps and confusion, all its victories and defeats, its clumsy fumbling and proud, assured struts.
There are some of the latter that emerge here, including the Goth-like “Careering” and positively commercial (by comparison) “Socialist,” which imagines a more nihilistic Police aiming their sights not at the charts but some new musical truth. With keyboard blips replacing the biting edges of Levene’s guitar, we’re given a reprieve during which we can enjoy the steady rocking vibe of the rhythm section (in this instance Wobble accompanying himself).
Though one may not expect it during the early moments, Metal Box eventually takes us into even darker corners. There’s something undeniably menacing about Lydon’s poetic fragment “The Suit,” cast over a simple bass track with occasional piano plinks issuing from the background. He gives a hair-raising performance in the decidedly off-kilter “Bad Baby” and the aptly-titled “Chant.” The closing, synth-drenched “Radio 4” is no less ominous for its sweet sounds. Why? Because it’s clear that the calm is just a prelude to more unsettling noise and the stripping away of the curtain that separates the kind man who lives on the corner from the savage who stalks the streets at night.