If Johnny Rotten had gotten his way, the Sex Pistols would never have made the thuggish but populist hard rock that make them such a world-historical force. Instead of mod, glam and proto-punk ( the Stooges, New York Dolls), the Pistols would have been informed by his favored listening: Captain Beefheart's fractured avant-boogie, Peter Hammill's art-rock exorcism, the space and stealth of Can and dub reggae. Of course, if Johnny had prevailed, the Pistols wouldn't have revolutionized rock, merely exempted themselves from it. Which is precisely what Rotten did with Public Image Ltd., the studio-based experimental unit he formed after turning his back on punk rock godhood in 1978.
Initially released as three 12-inches in a tin canister (an attempt to deconstruct the "album" that actually succeeded in making you approach records in a new way), subsequently repackaged as the double-LP, single CD,  Second Edition, Metal Box is where PiL's anti-rock-ism ceases to be a pipe dream and starts looking like the future, your future. From the soul-flaying savagery of "Chant" to the appalling grace of "Poptones," Levene's guitar work makes him post-punk's very own Hendrix; he's equally stunning with synths on the apocalyptic "Careering" and Satiesque "Radio 4." Lydon's scalpel-sharp words -- dissecting suburbia's "layered mass of subtle props" on "No Birds," anatomizing the abject horror of his mum's death on "Swan Lake"-- are matched by his most untethered singing. But it's Wobble who is PiL's heart and soul: his deep-strata bass is what drags you through the terror-ride, but it's also the handrail that keeps you hanging in there.


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