Thursday, April 03, 2008

chaos and beauty

Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, one of the more remarkable albums of the seventies, has always had a special place in my heart. It's, in essence, an hour of feedback, and is often voted somewhere near the top of lists of the worst albums ever made. When I was a sullen pretentious teenager this clearly made it a cause to be championed in my own contrary way. Hell, Ian Curtis had once said it was his favourite album, and it was, y'know, really loud.

Actually, there was always more to it than that, but my appreciation of it has only grown over the years as I've gotten old enough to drop the posturing nonsense, and heard enough of the right sort of music to begin to appreciate the place it occupies in the scheme of things. It's stating the obvious that it's in part the extreme logical conclusion to what Reed did with John Cale in the Velvet Underground, but there are deeper roots in there, in Cale and original Velvets drummer Angus MacLise's earlier work with LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music.

What got me thinking about it again was the remarkable CD by the German ensemble Zeitkratzer, who perform a painstakingly transcribed arrangement for acoustic instruments (joined in the latter stages by Reed himself on guitar). So what better way to follow this up by digging out the original for a comparison? And what better time to do this than a Thursday lunchtime?

The thing that strikes you coming back to it, is how un-atonal it is, in direct contradiction to its reputation. Reed knew this, of course - the deadpan sleeve note he specifies "avoidance of any type of atonality". The thing about feedback is, that it originates from the overtones in the source vibration, and so when you use specific open tunings, as Reed does to the guitars he used to record the album, you actually end up with something that has the sort of oblique tonal/modal feel that a lot of contemporary classical music references.

The other thing, quite unexpected if you're coming to it through its reputation, is that if you turn the volume down it's not harsh at all, simply a glittering web of melodies and harmonies, an energetic tumble of waves of notes dancing on the surface of a vast, deep ocean of drones.

It's always portrayed as a vicious, harsh, masculine "fuck you" record, but what keeps me coming back to it, and what should bring you to it, is the increasing realisation that it's a sensuous, beautiful piece of music. Try it with your sandwiches on a sunny day.

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