Zeitkratzer and Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music

John Eyles By

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Zeitkratzer and Lou Reed
Metal Machine Music

The original Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) may be the most notorious and controversial album ever released by a major rock star. Possible competitors? Two Virgins (Apple, 1968)? Self Portrait (CBS, 1970)? Not even close. When first released, MMM was almost universally panned, returned by record numbers of purchasers and soon withdrawn from sale.

In contrast to preceding Lou Reed albums such as Transformer (RCA, 1972) and Berlin (RCA, 1973), MMM had no songs or vocals, just four sides (it was a double album) of sound generated by guitars feeding back. To ears used to songs and vocals, it was just a barrage of noise. Since 1975, record company contracts with major artists have contained an "MMM clause," which forbids an artist to submit such an atypical album as part of their required quota.

Following MMM, Reed was told that his career was over and he would never record again, but he was given another chance and returned to songs and vocals with his next album, Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976). He never attempted a follow-up to MMM, apart from the brief, and nowhere near as effective, track "Fire Music on The Raven (RCA, 2003). In truth, MMM was impossible to follow.

But those who took the time to listen to MMM closely discovered a new music that combined the energy and sound of rock with a form that had more in common with the sustained repetition of minimalism. Beyond the initial impression of noise, repeated listening revealed layer after layer of micro-detail.

The album acquired cult status, with aficionados debating the relative merits of the vinyl version, with its mantra-like infinite loop at the end of side 4 (the Beatles had got there first with the ending of "A Day In The Life ), versus the 8-track cartridge version which allowed the entire four sides to loop endlessly. A quad version was also released, but very few people had the equipment to play it. In 1975, "noise" and "industrial rock" were undreamt of musical categories. MMM spawned both, and more. The repercussions could fill a book. Which leads us to this release.

German avant-garde saxophonist Ulrich Krieger—a member of the ensemble Zeitkratzer (literally, "timescratcher )—transcribed the original MMM album to produce an acoustic score for the ensemble to play live. If you have ever heard any of MMM, you will know that a transcription of the full 64 minutes is a labour of Hercules, an unimaginably complex and convoluted task. Imagine listening to the sound of guitars feeding back, their feedback interacting to create complex patterns, and then trying accurately to recreate that sound using strings, saxophone, trumpet, tuba, piano and accordion. Yet that is what Krieger achieved.

When Zeitkratzer told Reed they could play MMM live, Reed said it couldn't be done. But when he heard a few minutes of the resulting music, he not only believed it, he agreed to play with the group live at the Berlin Opera House. The resulting 2002 concert is captured here on CD, and also on DVD, along with an onstage interview with Reed.

Initially, this release reminded me of that highly entertaining Honda Power Of Dreams advert (you can see it on You Tube) in which a large choir faithfully reproduces the sounds of a car being started, driving over gravel, accelerating, cruising, and so on. Close your eyes and you wouldn't know it was a choir rather than a car. Clever, but also a bit pointless—like a dog walking in its hind legs. Why use a choir to copy the sounds of a car? Why use ten musicians to faithfully reproduce the sound of two guitars feeding back?

But gradually, the new album has grown on me. As good a copy as it is, Zeitkratzer's version sounds less metallic than Reed's original, not surprising given the very different instrumentation. The way in which Krieger's own saxophones, overblown using circular breathing techniques, reproduce the scream of feedback is mightily impressive and could have been the impetus for him to start the transcription. The high pitched whines from the strings are equally effective in evoking feedback. Each of the players contributes to filling in the all-important details; the totality effectively reproduces MMM's tension between an unchanging overall sound texture and a constantly shifting sound field.

For once, the DVD is not an irrelevant extra included to bulk out the package and hike the price, but a vital part of the experience. To see the musicians all feverishly playing at full tilt in order to produce the music of MMM is a fascinating sight. The interview with Reed (despite a rather stilted interviewer) is no filler either. It throws light on Reed's current view of MMM and its history (which may or may not be historically accurate, but is certainly entertaining to hear).

So, is this version of MMM worth acquiring? Well, if you only want one version, get Reed's original, on vinyl, or 8-track or, failing that, the 25th anniversary CD (Buddha Records, 2000). But, as with alternative versions of such works as Terry Riley's "In C," John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" or the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star," hearing this version complements the original and enhances one's appreciation of it.

My guess is that MMM will be remembered far longer than Reed's "Perfect Day or "Walk On The Wild Side . This latest release continues the rehabilitation process.

Tracks: Track 1; Track 2; Track 3

Personnel: Reinhold Friedl: piano, artistic director; Burkhard Schlothauer: violin; Christian Messer: viola; Ulrich Maiss: cello; Alexander Frangenheim: contrabass; Ulrich Krieger: soprano and tenor saxophones; Franz Hautzinger: trumpet; Melvyn Poore: tuba; Luca Vnitucci: accordion; Adam Weisman: percussion; Lou Reed: solo guitar (3).

Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Asphodel | Style: Beyond Jazz


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