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Ether Festival

Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio



Lou Reed on processed and unprocessed guitars

Ulrich Krieger on tenor sax and live electronics

Sarth Calhoun on continuum and live processing


Royal Festival Hall


April 19, 2010








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Feedback city...That’s where I think I’ve landed when I enter the Royal Festival Hall for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio gig. White haired guys old enough to be Lou’s Dads to kids young enough to be his great-grandchildren are there. It is a black leather convention for all ages. A huge gong and drum, a couple of laptops and three guitars are already onstage. The reverberating loop sounds like an American ambulance siren on the wrong speed.

Reed’s inspiration for Machine Metal Music was, according to him, the mid-1960’s ‘drone’ music of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, in the mid-sixties, of which later Velvet Underground dronist John Cale was a member. As some of Young’s stocks in trade with Theatre...were ‘discordant sustained notes and loud amplications,’ which Cale carried over into the Velvets, adding feedback to the mix, it’s relatively easy to see where Reed’s major influences in relation to this what Brian Eno refers to as ‘ambient’ music, originated from. 

Reactions to Reed’s 1975 double LP, Metal Machine Music ranged from comically approving to flat out condemning, with the inimitable late rock critic Lester Bangs elaborating on it as follows: "as classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted. As rock 'n' roll it's interesting garage electronic rock 'n' roll. As a statement it's great, as a giant F*** YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless."  Conversely, (or not), Rolling Stone magazine saw it as sounding like "the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator" and as displeasing an experience as "a night in a bus terminal".

Be that as it may, Reed and company’s blatant rejection of all things popular in the ‘70’s music world served as a forerunner to industrial music, and has influenced countless bands and musicians over the years, among them Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Now widely regarded as a major influence on punk, post-Metal Music Reed is also seen as a direct influence on the heavy metal music scene as well.  

Reed draws the curious. He’s one of those artists who could probably sell tickets, even if all he was going to do was sit on a chair and scratch his head. But, as a wise man once said, ‘not to know is to know.’ While I’m waiting for Reed and company to appear, it occurs to me that this continuously looping feedback might be all there is to this show. Maybe Reed thinks we don’t need him for this. Cheers break out which could only be detected in conjunction with an undulating roar, like a sensitised subway.

No songs, just feedback as Reed and his fellow musicians, Ulrich Krieger and Sarth Calhoun get down to bare essentials, music wise, that is. Reed heads for the knobs of what looks like a small amp atop a large one, his back to the audience as a man with horn shaped hair a la Prodigy takes his seat in the front stalls, the shape of his hair silhouetted in the dark as he descends into Hades. What manner of music would Lucifer like tonight? Whatever it is, it couldn’t be far off from this. Reed’s comrade beats on the gong with twin mallets, moving up and down like a masseuse on either side of a spine.  A gaggle of photographers turns towards Reed, desperate to snap him if only in profile, as the long-haired keyboard and laptop manipulator leans into his task. Reed’s other associate arches his arms as he bangs the gong. A stage hand hooks Reed into one of the guitars centre-stage. His amp may be on eleven. But only the pulse of his playing is audible above the din.

The galloping loop continues its cycle as the gongist beats with a mighty mallet requiring two hands. These sounds are not meant to be liked or listened to in the traditional sense of the word. They are meant to be assimilated into one’s consciousness as part of the audio furniture. The gongist goes to his sax to the left of Reed, collecting an approving nod as he goes. The screech of his instrument is lost in the cacophony. This is performance art. Not for the tender eared. The sax gets a trashing as its player twists behind his instrument. He could be Sonny Rollins for all we know, or, inept. Each player seems oblivious to the other.

Though some of the avant-garde looking young men opposite seem enthralled, I can’t take it seriously. This is definitely not music to chill out to, but they wouldn’t want us to get bored, would they? The cacophony thins and we seem to be on a flight path with two nose diving planes, one driven by a sax, the other a keyboard, with Reed’s guitar filing in gaps. An eerie siren’s call melody line emerges as a steady procession to the bar begins in what was the audience. I’m getting the impression some people just wanted to be seen here. I’m wondering if that includes me.

Come on guys, 90 minutes with no interval...Young women with boutique bags clear the hall. Lots of scurrying in the front stalls as neo proto-punks run for cover. It’s too dark to tell if they’re wearing Camden Market Velvet Underground t-shirts. Now this is subversive, I think, with a knowing little smile. I thought this would be a happening and I was right!

Reed sits at what appears to be an electric zither, turning knobs, obviously getting into it as he looks round at his comrades. No ‘Perfect Day’ in sight, but plenty of ‘Satellite’ sounds. The drum gets a beating as Reed works out on his instrument and the laptop/keyboard guy immerses himself. Collective audio oblivion, that’s what we’re watching and, hearing. Must be my post WWII late night movie sensibilities, but I’m thinking of King Kong – the Kong of 1930. Godzilla lighters were all the rage in NYC in the late ‘70’s.

Young people are leaving in droves, designer clothing bags in hand. They’re not used to D.I.Y. The wannabe faithful return with more beers. Survival of the hippest doesn’t apply here. Music to walk out of a concert hall to, especially if you were born after the days of the Iron Lady, who as history has shown, created the most dissonance of all.

From where I’m sitting, going on a tangent looks like fun. Maybe we like watching artists who can write their own tickets doing their own thing because we can vicariously do ours too. The sax player shouts with his horn as the walkouts become matter of fact.

A roadie dashes around the stage, adjusting, plugging, listening... Gong and drums together – garage live, squared, with high tech instruments. The instruments talk to each other in a language only their players could understand, if they wanted to. It’s all ambivalent, proto-nihilism.

Reed encourages mayhem from his saxophonist, then keyboardist. The gong seems super amplified when he bangs it. It makes my ears ache, and I’m in the rear stalls. I could primal scream along. The faithful lined up at the rim of the stage shake Reed’s hand and give him high fives. Someone thrusts an album at him to sign. He seems to ‘X’ it. 

Rockers of yore like Reed are ‘I don’t kiss anybody’s ass’ diehards.


Ether Festival

continues until April 24, 2010

Southbank Centre










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