It opens with Lou’s patent gentle guitar strumming and cracked, vulnerable balladeer vocals (his sensitive side) then bursts into a roaring mess of loud and heavily overdriven guitars. This is pretty much the template for the whole album – screeching feedback, high volume, simple and repetitive song structures thrashed into wayward shapes. There are slow passages, atonal and freeform interludes here and there – not as out there as European Son or Sister Ray, for sure, but hellacious enough to bother anybody who doesn’t appreciate the finer points of going musically gonzoid for eleven minutes or so. And there’s even a dab of ratty acoustic picking to give your ears a well-earned break as well as moments where sustained guitar tones surprisingly evoke echoes of John Cale’s viola workouts.
Lou’s still recycling the same old half-a-dozen chords that have kept him in business since the Banana LP, still making a racket, still exploring the delights of decadence and the ennui of living nothing but, still trying to be raw and confrontational. OK, it’s just a shtick these days, I suppose, but it still entertains me. I’m just addicted to what Frank Zappa called ‘the foul stink of a distorted electric guitar’, so Lou’s old showbiz routine still keeps me awake.
Oh, this *is* a concept album, as you probably know, based on Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box, but you don’t need to worry about that – I didn’t. Just watch the great film version by PW Pabst, starring the darkly radiant Louise Brooks, if you care about the story. It’s only ‘inspired by’, as far as I can tell, but feel free to cue it up with the movie if you like. Remember all that stoned fun you had trying to match Dark Side of the Moon thematically to The Wizard of Oz (the musical counterpart to The Great Banana Skin Hoax)? But concept aside, it’s just dear old Uncle Lou getting down and dirty lyrics-wise, as ever. Anyway, it’s far better than The Raven.
The grateful listener is spared Kirk Hammett’s widdly metal soloing and assaulted with a more visceral approach to the layering and mashing up of amplified rock guitar. It’s not really an obviously Metallica-inflected album – none of the abrupt time-sig switches and over-emphasised greyish midrange timbres; indeed this mercifully doesn’t sound like them at all, more like a barroom heavy-metal Sonic Youth or something – and there’s not too much of James Hetfield’s macho vocal posturing, his role being restricted to that of angry back-up shouter. While this is certainly more experimental and more interesting than Metallica’s other work (it dances on the edge of Metal Machine Music territory with the final track) and a respectable stab at doing something unexpected, it’s definitely Lou’s album: he offers up a raucous collection of songs, all rage and violence and kinky fun and games, along with some enjoyably grinchy, growly, howly, unholy voice work. He’s a kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll Vincent Price here, a lovable master of camp voice-acting performing to a backdrop of some wildly noisy jams. Maybe Theatre of Blood would be a more apt cinematic reference point.
It’s hardly groundbreaking and it’s not one of Lou’s classic recordings by a long way (he’s stuck with the problem that Dylan has: when you’ve been a genuine innovator in a hugely important cultural movement but your influence has been resisted, adopted, adapted and then absorbed into the mainstream, where can you go? You’ve only got repetition, variations on your long-established practices and tropes, and the best you can hope for is that those artistic products comprising your post-peak output are at least better than the average if not on a par with your greatest work) but it’s still a lot of fun. He’ll probably never again do anything as great as his last truly classic record, New York (though Songs for Drella is a fine album of course, and the VU reformation was a valid move), but this is not a piece of work he should be ashamed of. On the contrary it riffs, it roars, it rocks pretty damned mightily.