April 17, 2003

Ed's Underground

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Though the essential message of the first wave of punk rock was liberating — anyone could pick up a guitar and play — the actual effect of the punk movement was often constraining for the bands involved. Many of the original punk bands found themselves pigeonholed by their initial sound, and subsequent imitators stayed very close to the amateurish formula. For many of punk’s earliest innovators, however, this sound quickly lost its appeal: the Clash moved on to reggae and pop, the Buzzcocks’s Howard Devoto moved on to the prog-influenced Magazine, and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols moved on to Public Image Ltd.

PiL — the name a comment on the overly image-conscious personae cultivated by punks — expanded Lydon’s musical palette with a mix of dub and dance music, distancing him quite a long way from his roots in the Pistols. The outfit’s second album (originally released as Metal Box) found them delving even deeper into dub forms, with amazing results. The heavy, rubbery bass of Jah Wobble dominates this record, and the production creates thick, sinister surroundings for Lydon’s cackles and howls. There’s hardly a trace of traditional punk to be found here; the music throughout is accomplished, and the production nuanced.

On the dark, atmospheric 10-minute “Albatross,” the singer moans and screams like a drowning Ancient Mariner, and his howls on “Careering” add to the haunted house mood of the quasi-industrial music. On the other end of the spectrum, the bright guitars of “Poptones” and the sci-funk of the three instrumental songs hint at more accessible ambitions. For much of the album, Lydon is fearlessly exploring his limits, veering into experimental terrain and dabbling with pop music. In both cases, he comes up with a very different result than most fans would have expected of the former Sex Pistol. Innovative, confrontational, and exciting, Second Edition was the complete shattering of punk’s self-imposed borders.

Archived article by Ed Howard