“HINDSIGHT does me no good” wails John Lydon amongst the arresting soundscapes of this, Public Image Ltd’s second album. But in 2016 – a time when the angular sounds of the late 70’s UK post-punk scene once again reverberate through the hippest guitar groups of the moment – it is as good a time as any to look back on the monolithic masterwork that is Metal Box, PiL’s most challenging and definitive release.
Originally released in November 1979 as three 45rpm LPs encased in an enigmatic 16mm film canister that gave the album its name, the album – much like its packaging – registers like an exercise in cryptic, awkward and undoubtedly high-art idealism. Abandoning the fast paced, situationist sloganeering of the Sex Pistols in 1978, Lydon recruited curious outsiders Keith Levine and Jah Wobble on guitar and bass respectively, incorporating a diverse array of new influences including world music, reggae and the German avant-garde. After a striking but imperfect debut, it was Metal Box where PiL reached their boundary-breaking zenith.
Right from its hypnotic, ten-minute opener Albatross, Metal Box is a truly arresting listen. Dominated by Wobble’s visceral basslines, pushed high in the mix in reference to the atmospheric sounds of dub reggae, traditional song structures are left behind in favour of more trance-like, oblique approach to songwriting. Taking their cues from the likes of Can, the tracks are built on strong, unfaltering grooves which act as platforms for Lydon’s vitriolic and often cryptic lyrics and Levine’s cacophonous, untamed guitar lines. It’s not necessarily pleasant, and it may not be what you want, but it is what you need.
Elsewhere, we have Swan Lake – later released as a single under the title Death Disco, leading to undoubtedly the most baffling Top Of The Pops appearance in history – which sees ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture crash together as Levine’s shattered interpretation of one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous composition leads Lydon’s unflinching, howling depiction of his mother’s death; Careering is a caustic attack on ordinary society which sees Lydon asking “Is this living?”, and the centrepiece, Poptones, is a bleak, satirical look at idyllic British values over a queasily beautiful descending guitar line.
Along with the remastered album, the reissue comes with three additional discs that includes a previously unreleased recording of a 1979 show at Manchester’s Russell Club – home of Tony Wilson’s Factory nights, along with the usual crop of radio sessions, B-sides and outtakes which, in this case, are arguably as essential as the album itself. The John Peel session offers a dream-like take on Poptones, a version of Careering that’s dominated by scathing, industrial synths, and turns Chant into a storming Krautrock juggernaut.
Hindsight, then, can do you some good, if only when it comes to revisiting masterpieces such as this. Riddled with vitriolic social commentary and permeated with an uncompromising attitude to experimentalism, hurtling together with an era-defining, claustrophobic sound, Metal Box embodies all that was righteous and good about post-punk attitudes to music as art. Though challenging, occasionally ramshackle and frequently terrifying, Metal Box – as this reissue reminds us – is truly essential.
Metal Box will be reissued in deluxe CD format on 9th December, with the deluxe vinyl following on 16th December. Visit the band’s official website for details.