With a few exceptions, Lou Reed’s singular brand of avant-garde rock in the 1970s fell into two categories: the ferociously brilliant (Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, The Bells) or the fearlessly stupid (Rock & Roll Animal, Sally Can’t Dance, about half of Transformer). His mid-decade juggernaut of feedback loops and migraine distortion, Metal Machine Music, somehow managed to seamlessly blend both categories into its dense, arrhythmic hymnals of tape delay and Jackson Pollack noise patterns. It’s an album hailed by some as the Big Bang of noise rock, hated by others as the Big Crunch that signaled the artistic dead end of junkie music.
The eleven-member Zeitkratzer ensemble’s stunning, full-length cover of Metal Machine Music, recorded live at the Berlin Opera House in 2002, allows us to hear beyond the white-noise snowstorm of inner-ear atrocities that detractors swear are the original’s only contents. By transcribing the contentious album with traditional string instrumentation, Zeitkratzer adds layers of accessibility and sonic familiarity to the stratums of hidden melody and structure that Reed swears are woven into the noise. (I hear some, but not all — I’m not Lee Renaldo.) Tiny, battered melodies swirl out of the ocean of strings before getting sucked back into the undertow, and Metal Machine Music begins to seem less and less like a smack-sick joke. The sound is still atonal and cacophonic, and when Reed appears with a vicious guitar solo on the third and final track, the music reaches a frenzied peak of molten overflow, with the buzz-saw howls of his guitar just as alienating as they were in 1975 — and just as intriguing.
There is something to the songs here, either placed intentionally by Reed and heightened by Zeitkratzer, or simply Rorschached into place by the listener’s subconscious — a rhythmic sway loosely bound somewhere in between the dark undercurrents that slow-wave throughout early Sonic Youth albums and the steady lull of televised static. Whether that is equal to art — or even entertainment — depends on how you feel about musique concrète generated by a one-time songwriting genius locked within the brain-numb depths of a monolithic heroin addiction. Although it’s doubtful that Zeitkratzer’s version of Metal Machine Music will change many minds, it does provide Reed with an excuse to drag his most famous enfant terrible, kicking and screaming, into a new century. And it’s better than The Raven or “Tranquilize,” which, in the twilight of his career, is enough to set any fan reeling.