Public Image Ltd. - Metal Box - Review
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critics' view

The definition of a ‘classic’ album exists only in the mind of the individual. But what can’t be doubted is the incredible influence of a select few LPs from the not-so-distant past, and Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box is among the most important. To today’s boundary-challenging purveyors of prefix-led rock, pop and punk it is Sgt. Pepper’s, Let It Be, Beggars Banquet, Sticky Fingers, Rumours and Dark Side of the Moon rolled into one.

Remastered to mark its 30th anniversary, Metal Box – PiL’s second album following 1978’s First Issue, which took the punk template established by vocalist John Lydon’s Sex Pistols and began to expand it with explorations into dub and krautrock territories – is a bona-fide essential album for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of rock music. Listening to the landmark release today, in its twisted, wiry guitar lines, deep and wide bass and insistent percussion one can hear roots, of differing thicknesses, of Sonic Youth, Liars, Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers, Shellac, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Elastica… basically next to every act that’s mattered since punk’s phenomenal rise in the mid-70s.

The shrillness of Keith Levene’s guitar (he played an aluminium Veleno model), the irrepressible energy – always tethered but never comfortably so – and the sheer ferocity of Lydon’s abstract lyricism tempered by the reassuringly warm bass tones of Jah Wobble: every ingredient in this alluring, exciting and otherworldly mix was both ahead of its time and completely out of step with the dictations of fashion and the gravity of pop culture. Metal Box inspired through invention, not part of any progress but the seed of it. From the opening discomfort of Albatross to the sweeping splendour of Radio 4, via Graveyard’s elastic dub and the clangourous howling of Poptones, it’s an adventure that few albums since have successfully emulated. Simply, it remains singularly special.

Re-released simultaneously is 1999’s Plastic Box, a four-disc collection of rare tracks, remixes and session recordings. It’s a completist’s dream, but newcomers be warned: you’ll likely be suffocated by the weight of this material. Then again, if you’re really intent on unearthing the foundations of your favourite bands of today, the hours spent in Plastic Box’s company are certain to be enlightening. Absolute beginners, though: straight to Metal Box with you.

Mike Diver
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading.
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