"Most of you won't like this, I won't blame you at all," Lou Reed cautions in the original liner notes to his 1975 double album, "Metal Machine Music," perhaps the most notorious rock release of all time.
Bound to bewilder any consumer who knew Mr. Reed best for his soft, shuffling, 1972 hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side," "Metal Machine Music" consisted of one long, dense, droning pastiche of guitar feedback, played back on different tape recorders at variable speeds. Packaged with a cover shot of Mr. Reed onstage, with little warning as to its contents other than "an electronic music composition" in small type under the title, the album provoked outrage from both the press and the public. Generating the largest number of album returns in history, and being pulled from the market entirely only three weeks after its release, "Metal Machine Music" nearly finished Mr. Reed's career (there is now a standard clause in record label contracts stipulating that artists must deliver recordings that reflect the work that the label is signing them for, informally known as the "Metal Machine Music clause").
In 2000, however, a 25th anniversary reissue was released by BMG, and two years later the German experimental music ensemble Zeitkratzer painstakingly transcribed the original recording, and performed it with Mr. Reed as a special guest. A CD/DVD package of the concert has just been issued by Asphodel.
It's a bold move, since the original piece is totally electronic and Zeitkratzer is all acoustic.
"Doing electronic music on acoustic instruments was always a favorite of mine and I used the idea in several of my own compositions as well as in my improvisations," the saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, who transcribed the piece for Zeitkratzer, said. "I actually call it ‘acoustic electronics' or ‘instrumental electronics.' I had had the idea of doing an arrangement a long time ago, but never followed up on it, because there was no group I knew of which could play it, nor was there an opportunity for it. So it was just one of theses ides — until Zeitkratzer did some pieces with [noise artists] Merzbow and Zbignew Karkowski, and I thought this could be the group to do it with."
The screeching, high-pitched, high-speed melodic figures from the original "Metal Machine Music" are consigned to violins on Zeitkratzer's version, while the horns (saxophone, trumpet, tuba) hold the drone tones (an accordion does a little of both). Tremelos generated with a Fender Tremelo unit on Mr. Reed's original are reproduced manually by a cellist and a contrabassist frantically bowing their instruments. A percussionist handles the low frequencies, as well as other scratchy sounds from the original electronics (the performance footage on the DVD makes this much clearer than the CD, where the sound is often unrecognizable as being acoustic).
The results successfully articulate the composition lurking beneath the shock and awe of the album's initial presentation in 1975, though to a certain extant, the rough edges of the original — such as the sounds of tape recorders being switched on and off, and abrupt changes in dynamics — have been smoothed over.
"For me, ["Metal Machine Music"] was always the perfect juxtaposition of rock and contemporary classical avant-garde music, my personal two points of reference and influence as a musician," Mr. Krieger said. "Some of the contemporary orchestral music is sonically not so far away, but performed too neatly. MMM has this incredible rawness to it in addition to its sonic depth. So to do this on instruments with performers who could hold up this energy just seemed to be a natural thing for me to do, emphasizing the things rock and classical orchestral music have in common."
Zeitkratzer's performance is certainly more satisfying than similar attempts by avant garde musicians to adapt more experimental rock repertoire to classical ensembles (such as Bang on a Can's rendition of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" and Philip Glass's symphonies based on David Bowie's "Low" and "Heroes" albums).
The DVD includes a pre-concert interview with Mr. Reed, in which he describes the original album's genesis — setting up several amplifiers with guitars leaning against them, then letting the resultant feedback loops play off one another. "If you follow those sounds long enough, you'll see a pattern," he says by way of explanation of how he made noises into a composition. In a way, this isn't so far off from one of Mr. Eno's ambient music pieces, which used delay units to produce unanticipated results within a controlled setting. As Mr. Krieger points out, this technique goes back to John Cage's use of indeterminacy: "In both cases, some rules or a system is established [in the case of "Metal Machine Music," the guitar tuning, position of the guitars on the amps, sound effects, tape post-production, melodies being played, etc.] which will provide a result which is not totally known, but which will be within the boundaries of the original set up."
"Metal Machine Music" is particularly relevant now because of the increasingly high profile of noise music in the last few years. Longtime genre practitioners such as Japan's Merzbow have often pointed to "MMM" as a distillation of rock's energy, and of the volume and electronic properties found in the pop world since the incorporation of distortion in the 1960s by the Who and Jimi Hendrix, as well as Mr. Reed himself in the Velvet Undergroud.
Mr. Reed acknowledges in the pre-concert interview that "it was what I like about rock, freed from a song. It wasn't meant to be a cacophony of noise." This has been an increasing trend in the last several years, with bands like Wolf Eyes and Prurient, alongside older groups like the New Blockaders, who go after rock's sound, image, and intensity without using idiomatic instrumentation or song structure — though these bands are closer to a cacophony of noise than Mr. Reed's early effort. The much-hyped duo Sunn O))) uses droning guitar feedback but frames it in decidedly heavy metal gestures (such as dry ice, waist-length hair, and druid-style robes).
Fans of Mr. Reed have often pointed to "Metal Machine Music" as a statement of ambivalence toward pop stardom and an assertion of a public image considerably more complex than a mid'70s top 40 listener might be expected to assimilate. The Zeitkratzer disc rightfully restores the focus to the music, which has proven to be in step with the 21st century's conflations of rock, noise, and the classical avant garde.