This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Noise plugged and unplugged - Metal Machine Music

No one was ready for Metal Machine Music when Lou Reed released it in 1975 and, within three weeks, it was withdrawn from sale and had reportedly become the most returned album in recorded history. This from the artist who had already won over much of the world's musical underbelly, and even a good deal of its mainstream, with his work with The Velvet Underground as well as as a solo artist with albums like his 1972 hit Transformer. But you only have to listen a little more closely to the sometimes deceptive ease of much of his music of those years, with their unsettled tonalities, their shifting beats and rythms, to know that here was a rebellious, a restless, artist: the sort who would just have to keep branching into new territory, even if it meant taking himself to places where the record-buying public feared to tread.

And it was in the deepest, most inaccessible bit of that territory where Lou Reed rested one electric guitar against one amplifier, and another against another, and let the feedback loops mingle and transform one another, and scuplted them into a massive 64 minute monolith of electric rock called Metal Machine Music.

There has been a lot of myth about Metal Machine Music - some of it perpetuated by Lou Reed himself: that the music was never meant to be taken seriously, that Reed produced it only in defiance of his recording contract, that the complex list of specifications on the album's liner notes actually mean something.

There is, nonetheless, an undeniable sense of defiance in this music - music which even today, even after Merzbow and John Cage, sounds staggering in the sheer intensity of its distortion, its noise, its screeching, droning, wailing electronics, where melodies are buried deep in the mass of discord, where rhythms are beaten and smudged in a tsunami of vibration.

At first, it is hard to make any sense of it. But turn the volume up a notch or ten, allow the music to envelop you, and you will find yourself in its grip. It is, more than anything, physical music - uncompromising, unrelenting in its assault on you, built not in the four beats of a bar but in shapes bigger than Uluru. It is music that makes sense of Lou Reed's unabashedly arrogant claim on the liner notes: "My week beats your year".

If Metal Machine Music was a daring thing to do with some guitars and amplifiers in 1975, it was every bit as daring a thing to do with a violin, viola, cello, double bass, accordian, trumpet, sax and tuba - supported by prepared piano and percussion - in 2002. But that's exactly what the avant-garde German ensemble 'zeitkratzer' (time scraper) did: they played Metal Machine Music.

Creating an acoustic version of something as electronic as this makes the Kronos Quartet cover of Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze' seem positively lame. It's a stunning achievement and, thankfully, one that was recorded live both for CD and for DVD so you can see, as well as hear, the ferocious vigour with which these artists attack the music - almost, it seems, about to saw their strings to shreds, or blast the reeds out of their saxophones.

zeitkratzer's version of Metal Machine Music is not, despite what is sometimes reported, a note-for-note transcription although, for the most part, it sounds very much like it. There are the droning open fifths, the clashing tonalities of oddly tuned strings, replicating Lou Reed's own idiosyncratic guitar tunings; there's the pulsating rhythms of reverberating electricity, all created through acoustic instruments that could have been used half an hour ago for Mozart or Haydn.

But zeitkratzer explain that they played, rather than transcribed, Lou Reed's music. Here, as there, is the sense of improvisation: of music built out of the same bare bones, and around the same metal framework, but left to germinate, to grow its own skin, in just the same way that Lou Reed did almost thirty years earlier. The result is a near identical twin, but one which, even though it has come from the same egg, has had its own history and developed its own personality.

zeitkratzer at first intended their version to follow the same four parts as Lou Reed's original - but it was Reed himself who intervened here and insisted that four parts would be too much, and to reduce it to three. And so, about two thirds of the way into Part 3, zeitkratzer jump into Part 4, just before Reed himself strolls casually onto the stage, picks up his guitar and plays a phenomenal solo cadenza, with new feedback, new loops of sound until, at last, the ensemble crashes in again, playing over and over again the final locked groove with which the original vinyl version of Metal Machine Music would, if you let it and if your player could hold the distance, take you into eternity.

The fact that Metal Machine Music can be played on violins and tubas does not make it more "musical", but it does show us that the lines we sometimes draw between different syles of music, and between music and noise, are not quite as clear, nor as meaningful, as we sometimes make them out to be.

Plugged or unplugged, Metal Machine Music is a staggering piece of amplified intensity - rock at its most pure, its most dense, monolithic, the black-white noise of a million different colours merging and exploding, somewhere at the beginning of time.

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