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Zeitkratzer - Metal Machine Music

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Artist: Zeitkratzer

Album: Metal Machine Music

Label: Asphodel

Review date: Oct. 1, 2007

To get at the music of Metal Machine Music, one must first get past the persona of Lou Reed. It’s Reed’s image that is the source of both MMM’s notoriety and its infamy. It’s reasonable to suggest that the album is still widely known today, if little listened to, because it was Lou Reed – ex-Velvets frontman, writer of “Walk on the Wild Side,” the rock’n’roll animal – who made it. Upon its release, Reed’s name on the cover was its main draw, and the generator of all the controversy.

Reed, in many ways, has been an embodiment of rock’n’roll in the album era: the emphasis is on image and its acting out as gesture combined with flashes of songwriting brilliance. For Reed, MMM was many things: his nod to rock’s primal roots, a political gesture, a debased showman’s grandest stunt, a dive into the deep-end of the 20th century musical avant-garde. If Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed was about the gesture of noise-making, Metal Machine Music by Zeitkratzer is about the noise, a celebration and investigation of the scorched palette of vibrant scars the electric guitar has left on modern music

With Zeitkratzer, the historical context of MMM is stripped away so there’s only music to go on, as it should be. Zeitkratzer’s challenge was three-fold: 1) translate the luminous, near-nauseating choral wail of electricity into an acoustic setting; 2) bring to life on stage a piece that seems to deny a human presence; and 3) retain the piece’s status, its rebellious thrill, as ultimate rock provocation.

Accomplishing the first required a mighty feat of transcription. Saxophonist Ulrich Krieger provided it, and there’s probably no other ensemble that could have come close to pulling it off. The all-acoustic, 10-member ensemble breaks down more or less into three sections: strings (violin, viola, cello, and contrabass), winds (saxophone, trumpet, tuba and accordion) and percussion plus piano. This division means the layers achieve a slight separation, a near-clarity, and the orgy of tones starts to emerge, ever so slightly, as a dialogue, albeit a divisive and highly argumentative one. Details emerge, such as Adam Weisman’s bits of melody on xylophone, Franz Hautzinger’s piercing trumpet blasts or Reinhold Friedl’s inside-piano work. In his transcription, Krieger hasn’t tried to replicate the harsh, ear-splitting frequencies. He translates their motion and basic thrust into kinetic, visceral instrumental moves, and the orchestra ends up providing a virtuoso display of extended techniques and extreme dynamics. The strings consistently tackle the high frequencies, and thus the piece’s most strident textures. The brass, reeds and accordion summon the ghosts of melody that give the work its ethereal glow, while Weisman and Friedl roam the edges, suggesting yet another obscure layer of chaos.

As for the piece’s automaton nature, Zeitkratzer doesn’t try to deny the human presence at all, instead reveling in it. This celebration of the body, and its limits, is something that Friedl, Zeitkratzer’s director, says the ensemble is all about, and that the group emphasizes the visual (lights, the movements of musicians, the spaces they perform in). MMM is, above all, about extremes of duration as well as texture, so the thrill comes in watching live musicians bring the piece to life, hence the accompanying DVD of the 2002 performance in Germany is most welcome – and very necessary. Watch the exertion on the faces of the string players at around the 45-minute mark and it becomes clear they are involved in a test of endurance as much as they are in a musical performance.

Zeitkratzer’s orchestration captures the spirit, and to some degree, the sound of its source material. Fittingly enough, the sound and morphing micro-structures most closely resemble one of Reed’s supposed influences: Iannis Xenakis. MMM is all flow and no arc, an endless procession of sub-structures in place of one all-encompassing super-structure. Moments emerge, but are then erased in nervous flashes. Early on in part two, the squall of fragmented string parts scrapes up against a bright drone from the brass and reeds. Remove the strings and the drone becomes rich and beautiful. Likewise, remove the drone and the accordion melody flits to the surface. The parts don’t lock together so much as they swirl about each other, colliding, setting off sparks, and ever so often, merging into one gorgeous din.

So, is Zeitkratzer’s record a tribute to the music, or to the man? Ostensibly to the music, but when Reed shows up for the climax, the tribute’s focus switches to the man, and unfortunately, the music suffers. It’s too neat, too easy – too superficially rock – for Reed to show up, strap on his guitar and take a solo, which is what he does for a five-minute stretch, sans ensemble, until the rest join him for a rather weak-kneed conclusion, one in which the fine orchestral balance achieved up to that point is rudely upended by the presence of an actual guitar. In the end, Reed couldn’t resist being Reed, couldn’t turn down the opportunity to put on yet another provocative show. He couldn’t, unfortunately, let the music’s machine heart beat out its own life.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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