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Music Review: Lou Reed – Thirty-Five Years Of Metal Machine Music

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In his book, Miami And The Siege Of Chicago, about the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions that selected Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey as their respective party's candidates for President, Norman Mailer started a chapter in the section about Chicago with a quote from the Village Voice about electric guitars. To be honest, I can't remember the context — how it fit in with his reporting on the riots in the streets and the pall cast over the convention by the murder of Bobby Kennedy — but it was about how when you plugged into the wall your guitar became a channel for the electrical energy that flowed not only from the individual outlet, but the entire electrical grid. With this type of power at your disposal your potential should be limitless.

Well, it was a nice thought Norman, but aside from a few people like Hendrix who experimented with feedback, hardly anybody pushed the envelope of how a guitar could channel power. Even in those heady days of "rebellion" where that quote originated, not many were willing to look beyond variations on conventional rock guitar in an attempt to discover more of its potential. Then, in 1975, RCA records released an album that set records for the number of returns it generated as stores couldn't give it away and the majority of those who did buy it demanded their money back. While cynics say he only did it because he owed the label one more record under the terms of his contract and made the least commercially viable thing as possible in revenge, listening to the 35th anniversary edition of Metal Machine Music that Lou Reed is releasing, you realize how unlikely that is.

While there is no denying it could never have been a commercial success in 1975 considering what was popular at the time and how conservative the industry had become by then, Metal Machine Music was a serious piece of music by someone looking to explore the boundaries of what was accessible with his art. It's important to remember that Reed had been part of Andy Warhol's factory and would have had plenty of exposure to many different types of new music and an atmosphere that encouraged experimentation far more than most popular musicians of the day. It's not as if even his so-called popular music was what you would call readily accessible to the masses; I've often thought that commercial success wasn't something he strove for, it was just something that happened periodically by accident.

While the original Metal Machine Music had been recorded for playback on quadraphonic stereo systems, this new edition has been re-mastered for playback on modern theatre systems and includes both a discrete four-channel and a stereo version of the piece. It's being offered in three different formats: audio DVD, 180 gram vinyl record, and Blu-ray, which can either be purchased individually or as a package containing Blu-ray and vinyl or DVD and vinyl directly from the Metal Machine Music page at Reed's site. The copy I received was the DVD, and as befits the music, the packaging is quite austere; a few pictures of Reed circa 1975, and what I take to be the original liner notes which freely admit most aren't going to like what they hear and give fair warning that it's not like anything they've ever heard before.

Not having stereo equipment sophisticated enough to differentiate between the two formats on offer, I can't comment on how one might be better than the other or how well it has recreated the original sound. As far as the music itself goes, what surprised me the most was how accessible it was. The myths around Metal Machine Music are such that you're probably expecting some sort of aural assault from the second you begin listening to the moment you rip the disc out of your system screaming "enough already." In fact it was almost a bit of a letdown when it turned out to be a carefully constructed orchestral piece for electric guitar, feedback, and effects. Oh, I'm sure there are still plenty out there who won't be able to listen to it, these types of compositions aren't for everyone after all, but it was fascinating to hear how with only a guitar and the limited effects Reed had at his disposal at the time he was able to create such a multi-layered and textured piece of music.

Over the years since its release Metal Machine Music has been gradually gaining the recognition it deserves. In 2007 a CD/DVD set was released of its performance by the Zeitkratzer Ensemble and Lou at the Berlin Opera House in 2002. Saxophonist Ulrich Krieger transposed the piece for chamber ensemble and electric guitar and in the process gave proof there was more to it than just noise. Perhaps it was the success of this project that encouraged Reed to continue to experiment with different styles of music and in 2007 he released Hudson River Wind Meditations, a collection of music designed to work in adjunct with tai chi to relax the body, mind, and spirit.

In 2008 Reed reunited with Krieger and they have been joined by Sarth Calhoun, a self-proclaimed electronic alchemist who uses audio equipment on stage to create live loops and on the spot processing, resulting in the formation of Metal Machine Trio (MM3). Their first recording, The Creation Of The Universe, was of two nights of live shows, of what Reed is now calling deep noise, from the Red Cat Theatre in Los Angeles. It doesn't take long to hear that although the name has been passed along the music has changed significantly.

First of all its now more than just Reed, his guitar, a couple of amps, power, and some analog effects. The processed guitar that Reed plays on its own probably can accomplish more than what he did back in 1975, and now he's joined by Krieger on saxophone playing through all sorts of toys, and Calhoun, who captures all the sounds they make and plays back bits and pieces for them to play against. Of course it's doubtful that you'll actually hear a recognizable saxophone or a guitar note over the course of the two-disc set. What you do have is two distinct compositions, one per disc, as each time they perform a new piece is created, of sound that is both compelling and surprising in its gentleness. Aside from its increased sophistication, the music is also far more complex than the original as both the technology and the increase in players has allowed for more layers of sound and texture to be developed.

Of course it's still no more commercially accessible than its predecessor was 35 years ago. Yet instead of being almost universally reviled, Creation Of The Universe and MMM3 are not only critically acclaimed, but judging by the sounds of the audience on the disc, meeting with popular approval as well. For while the mainstream of popular music really hasn't changed that much philosophically, there are now audiences for experimental works of new music on a far wider scale then ever before. The original recording by Reed might have been binned in record numbers, but MMM3 are setting out on a short tour of the United Kingdom and Europe. Starting April 17 in Cambridge they continue on to Oxford on the 18th, London the 19th, Paris, France the 21st, Brussels, Belgium the 22nd, and wrap up in Copenhagen, Denmark on the 24th. While the tour coincides with the release of the re-mastered version of Metal Machine Music audiences shouldn't be anticipating a greatest hits of Metal Machine type experience, and be prepared to hear something different each night.

Electric guitars and the equipment available to produce sound are far more sophisticated today than they were when Norman Mailer quoted that anonymous guitar player back in the late 1960s. However you still plug it into the wall, and no matter how many things you use to distort, modify, and change the sound, it all has to pass through human hands at some point and be shaped and modulated. Thirty-five years ago Lou Reed released his first attempts at exploring what the intersection of man, guitar, and electrical power could create. Today, he continues to pursue the same objective, and while the results may still not be to everybody's taste, there's now no denying the thought and creativity behind the work, nor dismissing it as only noise. Currently both the re-mastered versions of Metal Machine Music and The Creation Of The Universe can only be purchased directly from Lou Reed's web site.

Live photos of MMM3 © Amy-Beth McNeely

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.