Dusting Off a Classic
Lou Reed and Metal Machine Music are a man and an album that need no introduction. Lou Reed was born in 1942 and rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as chief songwriter for the Velvet Underground. Throughout those decades, Reed and the Velvet Underground achieved considerable critical and commercial success.
Contrary to the critical consensus around the Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, however, Metal Machine Music is Reed’s shining moment and his magnum opus. Recorded and released in 1975, Metal Machine Music has been the subject of much debate and undue criticism.
The fact that Metal Machine Music was the last album Reed was contractually obligated to release for RCA, with whom he had a contentious relationship, along with the fact that the album is an hour of guitar feedback, has led many critics to speculate that the album is Reed sticking it to his soon-to-be-former label.
These critics have further used the fact that Reed never played any of the compositions from Metal Machine Music live until 2002, and the fact that he allegedly commented on the album by saying “No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive,” as evidence for their case.
However, these critics simply refuse to see the facts and realize that Metal Machine Music is one of the greatest albums of the ‘70s, the 20th century, and all time. It doesn’t take more than a cursory listen to hear that Metal Machine Music is a masterpiece of avant-garde proto-noise minimalist composition.
Metal Machine Music was crafted with two guitars. Reed tuned each into different, unorthodox tunings and different reverb levels.
Reed then placed each guitar in front of an amp and turned the amps up as loud as he could. The feedback from the amps would cause the guitar strings to vibrate, so they were, in effect, being played by the feedback, which they then helped create.
This is magnificently emblematic of the (post-) modern condition. Metal Machine Music invites us to see ourselves as the two lone guitars, being buffeted on all sides by forces out of our control that cause us to move in ways we cannot choose. When we do try to move ourselves, our movement is immediately subsumed by the outside forces and thrown right back at us in an infinite feedback loop.
While so perfectly capturing the unpredictability and contingency of our everyday lives, Metal Machine Music also symbolizes the complete predictability and drudgery of the everyday. Reed mastered every song so that it lasts exactly 16 minutes and one second.
The fourth and final composition, “Metal Machine Music, Part 4” ends with a fixed groove on the vinyl pressing, causing the final two seconds to endlessly repeat. Metal Machine Music traps us in an infinite loop of complete contingency and, simultaneously, complete drudgery.
The crowning touch of Metal Machine Music is how Reed chose to mix it. The two guitars are completely separated, with one in the left channel and one in the right channel. In order to clearly tell them apart and be able to hear what each is doing, the record must be played at 16 RPM with the balance either completely left or completely right. Once again, Reed astutely comments on our world and offers his solution: in order to deal with the complete inundation of information and sensory overload of the modern world, we need to slow down and be able to calmly listen to each other, one at a time.
Metal Machine Music finds Lou Reed making music without music. Instead of delivering themes or messages through the traditional elements of classical music or the lyrical techniques of pop music, Reed uses the recording process itself to comment on and critique the state of the world. Metal Machine Music is not music: it is life.
Rating: 6 / 5