Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music is an album greater than itself. A 1975 double LP (now available on a single CD, and even streamable on Spotify), it consists of four 16-minute passages of layered feedback from two guitars, sharply separated into the left and right stereo channels. At the time, it was one of the most extreme gestures ever made within the context of rock music, though in terms of pure sound it wasn’t that far away from the electronic music of Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roland Kayn and other European composers. The two guitars don’t sound unattended; the sound each produces is constantly shifting and modulating, and there are periodic bursts of noise that sound like objects striking the strings. It would be easy to believe that Reed was playing them, albeit in a non-traditional manner.
Although the original album was withdrawn within weeks of release, and reviews were overwhelmingly negative (it still regularly pops up on worst-of-all-time lists), as the decades have passed it’s slowly become respectable. It’s now more likely to be cited as a crucial early noise release, or an avant-garde masterpiece from an unexpected source, than ridiculed as Reed’s attempt to get out of his contract with RCA Records. Jazkamer named an album—2005’s Metal Music Machine—in tribute to it, though the music was a heavily percussive blend of death metal, grindcore and electronic noise, much more aggressive than Reed’s ultimately rather pastoral (in a shrieking sort of way) original work. Industrial act Die Krupps named a song “Metal Machine Music,” and there’s a band called Metal Music Machine, also in the industrial dance realm. And of course, a long string of artists on the noisier side of things have either cited it as an influence or praised it.
Easily the biggest tribute to Metal Machine Music, though, has come from the German ensemble Zeitkratzer, who in 2002 transcribed the album by ear and scored it for acoustic instruments. They performed the first three sections of the work with Reed at the Berlin Opera House, releasing the results on Asphodel in 2007, and have made it a regular part of their repertoire in the subsequent years. Their score has also been performed by the California E.A.R. Unit. And now, they have released a new version of the entire four-part piece, recorded at two Italian concerts in 2012, on their own label.
The current lineup of Zeitkratzer consists of pianist Reinhold Friedl, clarinetist Frank Gratkowski, trumpeter Matt Davis, trombonist Hilary Jeffery, guitarist Marc Weiser, percussionist Maurice de Martin, violinist Burkhard Schlothauer, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, and bassist Ulrich Phillipp. Together, they do an impressive job of translating the sounds of two guitars and two large amplifiers into 21st Century classical music. Oscillating feedback is interpreted via the sawing of violin, cello and guitar; the seismic booms that periodically erupt during the original are emulated by percussion and upright bass; the harmonics and overtones that shimmer and pulsate around each other are essayed here on trumpet, trombone, clarinet and hammering piano.
Each of the four segments is different from the others, though they obviously share an essential character. This is not drone music; there are an incredible number of “notes” here, and everyone is in constant motion, striving to replicate sounds once made by machines left unattended. It may remind some listeners of Elliott Carter‘s orchestral pieces, or of Alarm Will Sound‘s interpretations of the music of Aphex Twin. Friedl’s piano playing is particularly beautiful; midway through “Part 3,” he and Schlothauer duet, with some added commentary from the horns and winds, in a passage that’s almost Romantic. Of course, to a degree the piece also sounds like an orchestra tuning up for an hour, and it does have a static quality. But music that hovers like a cloud has been common in free jazz and other forms of improv for decades; there’s a pre-existing audience for it at this point. So let Metal Machine Music wash over you, and the startling moments of crystalline beauty will leap out—just like they do from the original.