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Rock's dark forces unleash the beast

Think of an image that might convey immense and unmeasurable pressure: a tectonic shift as subterranean geological layers scrape against each other in the bowels of the earth.

Whatever springs to mind will in no way approximate the claustrophobic sonic armageddon of this unrelenting assault by the combined forces of speed-metal mutants Metallica and Lou "bag of sewer rats screeching for blood" Reed.

Family entertainment? Day-time radio? You must be joking. The twin forces of rock'n'roll darkness have reinvented pop music as autopsy. Pass that drill-saw and we'll hack open a skull. Let's have a peek inside -- and turn up the volume while you're at it.

So how did Velvet Underground art-folk visionary Reed wind up collaborating with rock's heaviest monsters on a set of musical pieces that take their lead from the controversial work of German dramatist (he served time in jail for his art) Frank Wedekind?



spell

The Lulu plays (Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box) have long cast a spell over Reed. The story of a young woman who, in Germany, decades before the Weimar Republic, embraces a lifestyle that involves breaking every sexual taboo before being murdered by Jack the Ripper, scratches the bleakest existentialism of Reed's purgatorial nightmares.

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame invited Metallica to host an evening two years ago, they asked Reed to jam with them on a couple of his tunes. The old dog enjoyed the experience and demanded more. Poor innocent Metallica reckoned they'd jam out on a few old Reed cast-offs.

But back in New York city, Reed was scheming. He'd a bunch of stuff written for an arty stage presentation of the Lulu plays. It was just a short hop to re-imagine these pieces with the massed metal mayhem of the quartet behind him.



bedevilled

On board, at least ideologically, the writing and recording procedures directed by Reed short-circuited the cumbersome creative processes that had bedevilled Metallica best efforts since 1986's Master of Puppets.

So whaddaya get for your buck? By my calculation more than 85 minutes of music that rips through more rock'n'roll dynamics, staccato drum breaks, expansive riffing, funereal atmospherics and sour-taste lyricism since Hubert Selby Junior first picked up a pencil stub.

I'm not saying it's pleasant. How could be it be? Depressed tales of sado-machosim, spiritual neglect, manic excess and bitter epiphany are not an ideal soundtrack for an aroma-therapy session. But this is undeniably powerful and affecting -- like first exposure to Theatre of Cruelty.

"I would cut my legs and tits off . . ." begins the opening track, Brandenburg Gate, with Reed banging out an acoustic guitar, giving expression to Lulu's voice, before Metallica unleash sonic hell. "I'm just a small time girl, giving life a whirl . . ." It's droll. It's poignant. It's challenging. And, on the deliciously swirling, almost 20-minute song Junior Dad, it's unsettlingly real and tear-inducing pertinent.

As a record, this is a slab of basalt. No bad thing. HHHHI