Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Metal Machine Music

Having delved into experimental music of all sorts lately, it was inevitable that I'd have to tackle Lou Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music. It's a complete departure from anything you might think of as "sounding like Lou Reed." Instead, it is four album sides of high-intensity electronic warbling, screeching, droning, and beeping over multiple layers of distorted droning. Each side of the double-record set has 16 minutes of sound, but the last side is designed to play the last few seconds over and over, so the track listing says the length is "infinity." Reed called the record the ultimate conclusion of the heavy metal genre, but I doubt many would agree with him today. He was savaged in the musical press for it. Many considered it a joke, or a cynical way for him to fulfill one last album in a contract. To his dying day, however, Reed asserted it was a legitimate experiment. He was influenced by the drone music of The Theater of Eternal Music (the subject of a later post, I'm sure), and it shows here. At the time, it was pretty much universally hated by everyone but Lester Bangs (surprise, surprise), and it was pulled after only three weeks in rotation.

I think the album is "listenable," and it's a great canvass for frantic imaginings. In fact I played it twice through - no small feat, because sometimes the sounds on the record are very annoying. Yet once you've acclimated to it, you can hear subtextual rhythms, snippets of melody, and so on - all of which are probably either accidental or exist only in my mind. Nevertheless, after a period of aurally choking on this record, you may find that you slip into Reed's electronic trance. And it's the fact that my own mind sort of "completes" this music in my own way is one of the reasons I like it.

He claimed to have recorded it on a four-track in his apartment by tuning guitars strangely and laying them up against amplifiers run through various effects. The subsequent feedback, recorded and played back at varying rates of speed and layered multiple times, creates the music. In essence, listeners have noted, it's as if the instruments are playing themselves. At at time when I'm becoming interested in Brian Eno's experiments with generative music, this sits well with me.

I'm reminded of my late friend Ian Thomas's album Pure Agitator, released under the Vulture Club monicker on his Invisible Generation label shortly before his death. Pure Agitator is a much more streamlined, simplified, and artistically pure version of what Reed tried to do, and I'll give it a detailed look in another post.

If you're even remotely open-minded when it comes to music, you might want to give Metal Machine Music a listen and see if you can handle it. The whole thing, is, in fact, right here.

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