Public Image Ltd.
Metal Box



by The Jungler USER (183 Reviews)
September 11th, 2007 | 81 replies

Release Date: 1979 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Nevermind the Sex Pistols, here's John Rotten with a band far better.

“To me The [Sex] Pistols were the last Rock ‘n’ Roll band, whereas PiL really felt like the start of something new.” – Keith Levene

The scar that The Sex Pistols left on the face of music was still fresh when Public Image Limited formed in 1978. No doubt Nevermind The Bollocks hit like a ton of bricks when it was released (call it overrated, it certainly is, but it’s still a pretty shocking record) but anyone expecting the same beating with First Edition (PiL’s debut record) would have been thrown for a loop. It would have been fair to anticipate angry, after all, the singer was Johnny Rotten (though he had reverted back to his Christian name, John Lydon, at this point) and the band did include a founding member of The Clash. It also would be forgivable to predict the same kind of simplistic chord progressions punk tended to employ, after all, Jah Wobble, the band’s bassist, was completely untrained in the field of music. But any pre-conceptions would have been shattered within the first few minutes, and no doubt many were. Metal Box was PiL’s second record, an even larger step into the bizarre from a group of people as ready as any to change the face of music yet again.

Metal Box might just be the most unwieldy album of all time, 3 records, one embossed 16mm film canister. Packaging an album, or vinyl, at least, in metal certainly wasn’t any sort of music industry standard, (though it would happen again with Big Black’s Bulldozer EP, packaged in sheet metal as an homage to PiL) but perhaps that was appropriate seeing as what came inside was almost radical as the packaging. Albatross kicks the album off solemnly, Wobble’s loud, though not necessarily heavy bass line remains stagnant through out, as does an almost disco-esque drum beat (the band were known to be fond of the genre, a huge no-no in punk) laid down by one David Humphrey (PiL had no permanent drummer at this stage in their career.) Keith Levene’s brittle guitar harmonies and Lydon’s tuneless howls seem only to emphasize the starkness of the composition; constant reminders of the empty space punk recordings (or at least Nevermind The Bollocks) seemed to lack. It’s a strange choice to open a record, clocking in at almost 11 minutes in length and lacking any dynamic changes whatsoever, but it seems to make sense in some obscure way.

Influenced heavily by the sounds of German “Krautrock” acts like Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, the band is, at the same time, both wildly ahead of its time and curiously behind it. They skim the fat from the Progressive sound almost too well, leaving it a curious mass of clanks and squawks. It could be called Industrial music, at least in an age where the word Industrial doesn’t bring to mind Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and the rest of that vain crowd. The loud, dub-influenced bass, the shattering-glass guitar, the dancey drums, these are the elements (all showcased within Albatross’ 11 minutes) that define PiL. But even with Wobble’s distinct bass melodies and Levene’s signature guitar sound, Public Image Limited would not be Public Image Limited without John Lydon’s mercilessly sardonic vocals. Throughout the opening number, and for over a minute into the second, we hear them, but gone is the sinister sneer many had fallen in love with. In fact, if one wasn’t in the know, he might suspect [late Joy Division frontman] Ian Curtis to be the group’s vocalist, what with all the baritone moans Lydon tosses around. But no, at 1:33 Lydon throws the mask aside and finally lets loose. Its hook is similar to what would become PiL’s biggest hit, Rise, but Memories’ brooding music and dingy production immediately set it apart from the alt-rock sheen of later career PiL.

Chant’s bizarre tribal chanting (for lack of a better verb) and mess of high frequency guitar is enough to drive a man mad, but oddly enough, it makes for one of the best tracks on the album. Richard Dudanski’s absolutely ferocious drumming and Lydon’s screeching vocals couldn’t be called much less than brilliant, and the actual chant does much to strengthen the tension created by the two. It’s certainly a more interesting track than Levene’s slightly limp solo instrumental, Radio 4, as strange a choice to close the CD as Albatross is to open it (though Keith’s more complex bass work is certainly refreshing to hear after an album’s worth of Wobble’s creative, though technically unsatisfying playing.)

But Poptones is almost definitely the album best song, though its frantically freaky predecessor, Swan Lake, puts up quite a fight. Jah’s lolloping bass work, the lazily-picked, but oh-so-brilliant guitar work and the skewed technicality of the drumming (put down by Levene himself, quite the multi-talent) are what sets the song off, but its Johnny’s snarling vocals, not to mention his bizarre, distinctly British delivery, that are going to leave an impression on you. At near 8 minutes it’s the only thing on the album that even comes close to matching Albatross in length, but the thing that is most impressive about ‘Tones is the fact that is never gets boring. The beat trips and skips, like a rag doll, or a small-framed woman with one too many glasses of wine in her system, but it never falters (unlike, say, a small-framed woman with three too many glasses on win in her system.) Stylistically, Poptones is everything I wish Metal Box could be, freaky, unique, a blur of influences from across the board, but most importantly, incredible. Unfortunately, the middle section of the album is near unbearable. Listen to the record if you have the stomach for it, because it definitely houses more than its far share of gems, I just wish all the songs were of that level of goodness.


Recent reviews by this author
The Max Levine Ensemble OK SmartypantsAIDS Wolf Cities of Glass
Bloc Party IntimacyThe Cool Kids The Bake Sale
Madvillain Madvillainy 2: The Madlib RemixYip-Yip Two Kings of the Same Kingdom
user ratings (294)

Comments:Add a Comment 
September 11th 2007


Very nice review. I've heard of this band and knew they were a little different but i've never been compelled to check them out. Think I will now though.

September 11th 2007


yea good work, I have some of First Issue, but never realy listened to it.

Digging: Big Hill - Management

September 11th 2007


It's an okay album.

September 12th 2007


Very nice review
I like Memories and Swan Lake best

September 12th 2007


I really need to get this. John Lydon is a dick, though.

September 12th 2007


Album Rating: 4.0

Its pretty easy to talk sh-t on Johnny-Boy, but this is a pretty monster album.

The Jungler
September 13th 2007


Album Rating: 3.5

If you got interested in this because of that stupid FUSE show haha.

I really didnt think this was any better than anything else Rotten has ever done, aka pretty much blah. Guys full of himself and always has been, too much so for my liking.
no, I've been reading the book Rip It Up and Start Again, and they talk about these guys alot.

That FUSE show is pretty bottom of the barrel. All the bands suck, and the judges, including Rotten, are even worse. This is way better than the Sex Pistols as well.

September 18th 2007


Album Rating: 4.0

The basic sound of this is fucking great, but it lacks variety IMHO.

And yes, I think this was better than the Sex Pistols. I mean, come on, the Pistols were all about insulting the queen and other "outrageous" stuff, whereas this is about music.

August 25th 2009


I really like this album, i'm a sucker for these kind of bass hooks and the repetition and lack of variety doesn't bother me one bit. I also just noticed Graveyard was used effectively in a club scene in an obscure short film called Random Positions, worth digging up if you can find it anywhere.

October 13th 2009


Album Rating: 4.0

Very nice review. This is an interesting album.

October 13th 2009


Album Rating: 4.0

public image limited is great shit

November 16th 2009


Album Rating: 3.5

i really like the music, but lydon sounds horrendous

Staff Reviewer
January 26th 2011


poptones is so good

Digging: Moon Kissed - I Met My Band At A New Years Party

December 16th 2011



August 12th 2012



September 18th 2012


Album Rating: 4.0

gonna give this another few spins since I can't remember what i rated this last time.

September 24th 2012


Album Rating: 4.0

still rules

September 25th 2012


Album Rating: 4.0


October 13th 2012


Album Rating: 4.5

needs moar ratings, cmon sputnik

October 13th 2012


wtf, the only PiL album i got aint on here, its the one with a furry tongue on the cover

You have to be logged in to post a comment. Login | Create a Profile


Bands: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Site Copyright 2005-2019
All Album Reviews Displayed With Permission of Authors | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy