Digging through the “P” section of a record file and finding a metal canister these days isn’t too uncommon. And if you are just getting into PiL, then it will probably be exciting, since the contents inside this “Metal Box” are some of the strangest, most vehement studio works to ever surface on vinyl.
While their self-titled debut willfully trailed off from the typical punk rock template of the day to show off experiments in dirges, spoken word excerpts and even some studio flirtations on it’s closer “Fodderstompf,” the three plates inside “Metal Box” show just what some open-minded troublemakers could do when they were allowed to goof off with corporate money backing them. The general idea behind PiL’s strange packaging was instead of releasing a bloated double album, they would be producing a bundle of “singles.” And we aren’t talking 7” singles. Which really meant that these “punks” were actually more into contemporary moments of the day that were released on dub-plates and extended disco edits.
Not only was the release a brave idea (or at least an opportune idea agreeably pushed along by Virgin, due to Ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon’s celebrity), but their approach in the studio was also informed by the production of those styles. It’s all just done about… atypically. Lydon, bassist Jah Wobble and former Clash guitarist Keith Levene were joined by a number of drummers to produce exciting, monotonous rock (“Albatross,” “Poptones”) derelict disco (“Memories,” “Socialist,” “Swan Lake”) and some simple sketches made to stretch across your speakers (“The Suit,” “Radio 4”). Taking these records out of their protective tin can be a chore, and the constant shifting of styles slapped together across each track can make make this parcel a bit of a challenge.
But approached one disc at a time, over time, “Metal Box” can be one of those truly rewarding albums that surprises you with every few listens. Luckily, this very strange slab of experimental pop has been reissued by the label 4 Men With Beards, and in it’s proper protective casing at that. -Wade