154

154

Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.

three-half

Metal Box

Album: Metal Box

Artist: Public Image Ltd

Released: November 23rd, 1979

Highlights: Albatross, Memories, Swan Lake

When John Lydon, mostly known to the world by his stage name, Johnny Rotten, opted to leave the Sex Pistols behind to form a band over which he would have far more control, the singer often justified his reasons to do so in two ways. Firstly, he claimed he wished for musical freedom, an asset that was quite difficult to find in the restrictive punk rock scene, where any step away from speed, guitars, and anger was prone to generate mighty backlash. Secondly, he stated he longed for interested bandmates and creative partners, for much of the new ideas and concepts he proposed to his Sex Pistols entourage were met with total aloofness.

As it turns out, his desires were probably not just quite true, but also rather strong, for the break away from his destructive origins came very fast. Right on the debut of his new outfit, “Public Image: First Issue”, Lydon and his new collaborators were seen operating far from the realm of punk: the tunes were longer, the grooves over which they were built showed a thickness and a sway akin to African-American music, and the tracks carried a loose free-form nature that indicated much of the material was built under an improvisational setting. As different as it was, though, the tunes still showed links to punk, be it in their propelling power, in their wild pace, or in their noisy guitars.

Surely, the work was both experimental and pivotal in the formation of post-punk, but fans only got a true taste of how adventurous Lydon was willing to get in the group’s sophomore effort. Aptly titled “Metal Box”, the original pressing of the album came packed inside a metallic canister that aimed to emulate the containers in which movie reels were distributed. Within it, buyers would find three LPs that, reportedly, could be so difficult to remove from the can that the whole process could lead them to be either dented or scratched. The record’s oddity, however, extended far beyond presentation, as “Metal Box” unites so much strangeness into one package that it makes the infamous closer of the band’s debut album, the eight-minute sonic collage of “Fodderstompf”, seem more like a prelude and less like a throwaway joke.

Despite the fierce stylistic turn that “Metal Box” represents, one that was going to get much weirder in its successor, “The Flowers of Romance”, there are plenty of similarities between it and “Public Image: First Issue”. For starters, the songs tend to be long; in fact, only three of the twelve cuts fall below the four-minute mark, while opener “Albatross” extends beyond ten minutes. Furthermore, their general instrumental bed is so lax one can safely bet most of them came to be through jamming. Finally, Lydon sings over the music with so little care for melodic cohesion that both improvisation and recording whatever the group came up with on the spot seem to have been the norm.

Still, “Metal Box” is radically different from “Public Image: First Issue”. At times, the long-winded menacing grooves of the latter recalled “Fun House” by The Stooges, in the sense they captured a punk rock band blasting away out of control. In “Metal Box”, contrarily, there is no such aggression. Instead of being highlighted by the mix, the guitars actually take a considerable backseat to the drums and, especially, the bass. “Public Image: First Issue” had already given notable attention to those instruments, as it is often and rightfully claimed rookie bassist Jah Wobble shines throughout the proceedings. But “Metal Box” turns the spotlight even further in his direction, and – in the end – the grooves that he comes up with turn out to be the compositional compass of the work.

Thanks to its focus on rhythm, its steady beats, and its frequent ornamentation by an onslaught of odd sounds that seem to have been electronically manipulated, if “Metal Box” can be pinned down inside a genre, then it is dub, thereby showing The Clash were not the sole punk Englishmen interested in the Jamaican sound. With the exception of closer “Radio 4”, a strangely beautiful keyboard-centered piece of ambient music recorded by guitarist Keith Levene on his own, all tracks on the album follow a strict formula: with the drums and the bass in the center of the mix, always bouncing around in firm patterns, Levene and Lydon toil away like mad decorators. The first delivers grinding, noisy, unpredictable guitar lines that are simultaneously misty and metallic; meanwhile, the second spills out conceptual poetry in an equally errant fashion.

In what could be a nod to or an influence of “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division, yet another major piece in the construction of post-punk music, the record’s production creates an environment that is both cavernous and claustrophobic. As such, Public Image Ltd seem to be locked away somewhere in the bowels of a decommissioned English factory, with the sound they make appropriately recalling a cold industrial clang, one that is so distant and otherworldly it might be the product of ghosts from the foggy Victorian era. And while his bandmates stand for the machines themselves, Lydon comes off as the voice of a ghastly undertaker, for rather than emerging like angry rants that spit out acid, his vocals float and haunt the tracks of “Metal Box”.

In terms of style, this second showing by Public Image Ltd is unquestionably unparalleled, as it paints a very unique and significant image of England. Here, one can find the sad darkness of the country’s industrial past; the constant desire and talent its youth has shown in regards to breaking into significantly new musical ground; and the open-minded multicultural spirit that slowly leaked into part of its population. As far as quality goes, however, the matter is far foggier, for although artistically interesting, the lengthy, monochromatic, and steady nature of “Metal Box” can turn it into one tough record to get through. There are no pop hooks being served, only grooves, beats, guitar-scratching, and alien electronic noises. As such, even if clearly more daring than “Public Image: First Issue” and more aligned with Lydon’s desires, “Metal Box” is not quite as fun.