Second Edition (originally issued as Metal Box in 1979; reissued 1980) ****
The packaging of PiL's sophomore release became as famous (if not more) than its little-heard music: the original idea was to release three 12-inch records in a metal canister. That proving a mite too expensive for the average record buyer, the concept didn't fly and it was re-released as a normal double-LP with standard packaging. All of this is moot to the record buyer today, who would presumably purchase this as the single-CD it retails as in the 21st century. Or download it, but I wouldn't recommend that, as unless your computer speakers have a great soundsystem, the tinny screech of MP3s doesn't do this music justice. For this is not a song album, but a groove album, and has to be felt. PiL achieve a mutant, Europeanized art funk groove that utilizes effectively the spaces between sounds as much as the instrumental work, a lesson they learned from dub reggae. The spacey, expansive songs center around Jah Wobble's melodically throbbing bass lines, as shards of Keith Levene's guitar coat the surface, synth lines moodily fade in and out, the various drummers from track to track lightly brush the beat, and John Lydon's caterwauling vocals howl from a disconcertingly distant void deep behind the mix. It's a brilliant, dazzlingly innovative sound, owing equal parts to the kraut-rock motorik rhythms of Can, disco, dub reggae, and punk. So much so that the band seems to lazily coast on that sound a bit too much, as several of these dozen songs seem underwritten, grooves or even merely groove ideas as opposed to fully fleshed-out songs ("Poptones," "Bad Baby").
Though Wobble is clearly the star here, Levene's guitar sound was even more influential. Playing the rare Veleno guitar, which is all-aluminum and rarely used by guitarists, Levene coaxed out of it a thin, metallic, sharply screeching sound that was later widely imitated but ultimately unique to his tenure in PiL: nobody before or since quite sounds like Levene does on this album. The tribalistic "Chant," is perhaps the best track to sample Levene's scratchy, choppy riffing, as is the opener, "Albatross," which at over ten minutes allows him plenty of room to improvise, with his seagull-honking tinny cleek-cleek-cleek anchoring as the song's abrasive hook. Perversely, "Albatross," the longest and most plodding track, opens the album, or perhaps not so perversely given PiL's mission to weed out casual listeners not ready to commit to their sonic vision. The twelve tracks all stick roughly to the same style as I've described in the first paragraph, with individual tracks less important than the overall gestalt. Lydon was dealing with his mother's dying at the time, so the prevailing mood is dark, brooding, and ultimately pessimistically resigned; Lydon's howls sound more anguished than angered on most of the songs: the title of the pre-LP single, "Death Disco," puts his lyrically preoccupations nice and bluntly (retitled "Swan Lake," on the LP in deference to Levene's accidental plagiarism of that tune). That doesn't preclude the band from delivering a peppy bleep'n'bloop instrumental, "Socialist," or Lydon engaging in some customary sneering finger-pointing in "The Suit." For such a highly influential dance album, the downbeat mood and cerebral devotion to sonic textures make it an album unsuitable for the dancefloors. The dub spaciness and psychedelic devotion to sonic textures suggest that this is an album much more suitable for smoking a joint in the bedroom and zoning out to, unsurprising as this album was recorded by a group of reggae-obsessed potheads. Not very punk, Mr. Lydon, but much more interesting than complaints about the British economy over yob-metal guitars.