Speed-Metal Machine Music

Pat Metheny
Zero Tolerance for Silence
Geffen : 1994

PM, electric guitars.

“The most radical recording of this decade. A new milestone in electric guitar. A challenge to the challengers.”Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

The curious case of Pat Metheny, noise artist. Yeah, you read that right. Although best known for his glass-smooth popular jazz fusion with the Pat Metheny Group, he has another side that surfaces from time-to-time in collaborations with musicians like Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey. But this 1994 solo guitar joint is where Metheny really lets his experimental jones rip. It makes Song X sound like New Chautauqua.  

Upon release, pretty much everyone hated it. Downbeat called it “an unconscionably bad album.” At the other end of the spectrum, The Wire dubbed it “rubbish.” Metheny fans initially tore their hair out in disgust, then tried to pretend it didn’t exist. Many avant fans raised both eyebrows and considered it a clumsy attempt to score cool points. There were also widespread rumors that since this was Metheny’s last record under contract to Geffen that it was a joke and/or a huge “fuck you” to the label.

An aggrieved Amazon customer review sums it up: “If you’re a Pat Metheny fan, I would not recommend this CD.” True enough. But if you like Keiji Haino, Neil Young’s “Arc,” Black metal, or blissfully aggressive noise, have we got some tracks for you!

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Both Chilly and Drew love this album. We recently sat down with some loud sub-woofers and enough speed to keep up with the music and attempted to unravel its controversial mystique.

Chilly: My first reaction to “Part One” was to laugh at loud. It’s the most extreme thing I’ve heard in ages, but also joyful and  ecstatic – venturing into that same zone as the best Cecil Taylor and Karou Abe tracks.

Drew: It’s sculptural, monumental — slabular. It sounds carved. One of the more astounding things is its precision – the pacing, the way the different lines intersect is both so careful and so brutal. It’s hard to marry the two.

Chilly: There’s also this incredible momentum that pulls you along, doesn’t allow you to get mired in its intensity.

Drew: I was surprised how much it held my interest. It enters fairly quickly into an area of pure sound – not guitar, not ‘jazz,’ but just waves of motion, of varying amplitude – an abstract fantasia of obscured sky, of glacial scrape and scree, of cracked concrete and endless blankets of burlap.

Chilly: Yeah, it sounds like Metheny is trying to negate most of his better-known work in one fell swoop.

Drew: “Part Four” isn’t as extreme, it’s more recognizably metal, but it’s still a provocation.

Chilly: Or an audition tape for the Melvins. The way he stacks those buzzing riffs is pretty wicked.

Drew: So was this done in the spirit of WTF abandon, cutting loose as a one-off, or does it fit more seriously into his oeuvre? 

Chilly: I think the album is too thoughtful to be merely “cutting loose.” It’s too flat-out masterful. 

Drew: But it does raise a question: Who is the real Pat Metheny? The guy did this and Song X and collaborated with Derek Bailey – or the guy who makes the bland wallpaper fusion? 

Chilly: The problem is that it’s almost impossible to reconcile the two Pats. There seems to be almost no overlap! It’s tempting to write off one part of his work or the other, but I suspect both modes genuinely coexist within him.

Drew: Can someone really like both Zero Tolerance and the Metheny Group? Are there other examples of rock or jazz musicians with such split personalities?

Chilly: I’m having trouble coming up with any. It’s almost more of a serious lapse in taste than a split in styles.

Drew: It’s a shame Metheny ended up getting shot by both sides of the jazz continuum for this, but there was probably too much baggage for it to get a careful listen on its own merits. And many of its potential fans probably missed it altogether.

Chilly: I recall reading an interview where Metheny explained the title of this album came from being sick of listening to the radio. Instead of turning it off, he’d dial into the static between stations and blast that as loud as possible. He said he found it soothing.

Drew: Amen.

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POSTSCRIPT: Check out the Zero Tolerance for Silence Wikipedia page for more tidbits about fans pressuring Metheny to disown the album and his own defense of the work: “The record speaks for itself in its own musical terms….” 

Discussion12 Comments Category Pat Metheny Tags , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to Speed-Metal Machine Music

  1. Here is that infamous Down Beat review by John Corbett:


    This is an unconscionably bad record. Everything about it smacks of some kind of joke or prank, from the adolescent swagger of its title to its brevity to its slipshod use of overdubs. Maybe it’s Metheny flipping the bird at Geffen (a la Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music), fulfilling a contractual obligation with a big “fuck you.” Or perhaps he’s just testing out the limits of his fans’ fidelity (for many, the excellent encounter with Ornette Coleman, Song-X, already accomplished this). Or–most laughable joke of all–maybe this is really supposed to be the grand musical gesture its press-kit obligingly makes it out to be: A go-for-broke, burn-all-bridges statement of supreme artistic integrity.

    Every sucker punch needs a sucker to buy the premise. In this case, Sonic Youth’s guitarist Thurston Moore seems to have bought it all the way. Rumor has it that Moore intervened when Geffen threatened to reject Zero Tolerance. Fact is, the guitar playing here could actually be his–in its best parts it’s got some of the thud-like monomania of vintage-era Sonic Youth. But where Moore claims this as the “new milestone in electronic guitar music,” on the whole it sounds less like one step beyond Glenn Branca and more like the theme to Wayne’s World.

    The entire 18 minutes of “Part 1″ is filled with a two-electric-guitar overdub of rapid strumming interrupted by machismo power chords and remarkably clumsy lines that have none of the nuanced awkwardness of, say, Sonny Sharrock, Hound Dog Taylor, or Joseph Spence. As “Part 1″ clumps to a halt, you’d expect to be relieved of Metheny’s embarrassingly stupid dueling-banjos-in-hyperspace overdub technique. But no: “Part 2″ continues in the same manner, sounding like a kid tinkering with his new four-track (Wow, cool, I can play three guitar parts at the same time!), only in a more melodic vein.

    Aside from a little welcome textural variation, courtesy of acoustic guitars on the last track, nothing much changes. The mid-section of “Part 2″ and most of “Part 4″ contain bogglingly mondo Southern blues-rock guitar cliches, like Lynyrd Skynyrd caught in a hall of mirrors. The more linear playing is particularly sloppy, harmonically meandering, and almost deliberately ugly. I predict that Metheny won’t stay committed to this music; he’s on a joy ride through the noise slum. For charismatic noise-guitar records of better stock, look elsewhere; there is no dearth of them. Try Japan: K. K. Null, Keiji Haino, and Masayuki Takayanagi have each recorded work that puts Zero Tolerance to shame. Null’s duet with guitarist Jim O’Rourke, A New Kind Of Water (Charnel House), for example, builds white-heat/white-noise bonfires where Zero Tolerance can’t quite flick its Bic.

    Zero Tolerance is crude and unworked enough that it sounds like a demo tape on the way to a finished product.

  2. What fun! Like Lou’s album referenced in your title, it’s as interesting for how it enraged those critics as it is as music. Provocation is also composition?

  3. Sure it’s possible to love both Pats — I do. Without Metheny, I wouldn’t have heard Ornette until much later in life, and any attempt to dismiss him out of hand as being nothing more than a sugar-free jazz cheese tycoon suggest only a passing awareness of his output.

    I’ve seen PMG probably 20 times since 1982, and they ALWAYS do something that’s way outside the comfort zone of the majority of the audience (I refer to it as the ‘die yuppie scum’ portion of the show). He’s fighting the good fight like you guys do, just with a much fatter bank account, and not as his sole direction.

  4. I used to work on a cruise ship, and one of the production singers wanted to check out some jazz. She said a friend suggested that she might like Pat Metheny, and asked me which CD to get. I said that if she liked Metheny, she would like any of them. Ooops. This is the one she bought. She at first asked if the disc was possibly defective, then turned it into a coaster. It’s nice to hear it again.

  5. I am really no fan of the Metheny-Group type output. And I am a fan of this record – love at first listen. But I also have to say that I don’t really see it as all that difficult to swallow that he believes equally in all the music he is making/has made. My own musical personalities are at least as multiple and maybe as difficult to reconcile as Metheny’s.

    At any rate, this is the greatest work he has done as far as I’m concerned. And John Corbett of RS seems to be about par for the course re: cluelessness in music critics. Exhibit A: holding up the disc’s LENGTH as some kind of evidence of its inferiority. 1) At 39 minutes + it is longer than most LPs. 2) Who CARES how long it is? Exhibit B, he clearly has no clue about the musical context for the work, which makes him eminently unqualified to write about it. This music seems to me to be related to minimalists like Eliane Radigue, LaMonte Young, in some weird ways even Part. The best he can do is compare it to Thurston Moore, which is an apt reference, but utterly unexplored in the review.

    Overall, Pat Metheny Group or no, I think the guy is a genius and virtuoso although the reasons I think so don’t seem to jibe with the reasons many others do.

  6. oops. Downbeat review, not RS. Oh well. And also occurs to me that he thought the disc was too long not too short. ha. Silly me.

  7. I played a chunk of this for Joe Morris when we did the “Invisible Jukebox” that appears in the current (March 09) issue of The Wire. He’d never heard it, and just kinda laughed genially when I told him what it was, but he didn’t have that much to say about it, so his comments didn’t make the final edit of the piece. I liked it when I first heard it back in ’93 or ’94, but hadn’t listened to it in a long time. I’ve probably played it more often than most of the Sonic Youth records I own, but less often than my Fushitusha and/or Keiji Haino albums.

    I think Metheny should make another bid for avant-cred like he did with the Derek Bailey collaboration – except this time he should go head to head with Mick Barr. I’d pay good money to see that.

  8. i’m wth bg porter – he’s a much more interesting proposition than just the PMG records would suggest. and i’m not sure pm has enough perversity in him to do a lou reed, so i think it has to be taken seriously somehow. but i always felt that this was a bit fake for want of a better word, and for a while i thought that maybe it wasn’t even him – even on the bailey collaboration his style shines through (even though imho it’s a shit record). but here there are no clues – it’s utterly devoid of any of his stylistic traits. a strange one, it’s kind of feeble though – if i want this kind of thing, i’d go for frith, sharrock et al. give me song x any day.

    but thanks for making me think about this one – i’d almost forgotten about it.

  9. What, Pat actually did something compelling while I was under some rock, homeless or distracted by the horrors that visit us free jazz advocates? Whee, good for him.

    I managed to antagonize him so thoroughly years ago that he refused to acknowledge my presence in a hotel lobby while I waited with OC, Billy Higgins and all of Prime Time for Haden to come down from his hotel room to be carted to a rehearsal at someones house in Somerville MA.

    I was the only one who knew where that rehearsal would be but Pat wasn’t about to ask me. I woulda been cordial and just told him but the antagonism from the past hit him hard.

    I frequently chuckle at how the PMG ended up getting residuals for being background music to the local forecasts on the Weather Channel.

    You have to see it as an example of how people in the day were stuck pandering to baby boomer blandness and dislike of free jazz.

    Baby boomers essentially wrecked America on many levels as we see now in the Wall street thief meltdown of the planets largest economy.

    I’ll think more kindly of him now.

  10. never thought i’d ever have to admit to liking something by pat metheny. please don’t tell any of my friends.

  11. Thanks so much for posting these…always wanted to check out this album, but considering it’s reputation, didn’t want to have to drop any $$$.

    I don’t think it’s as great as Thurston Moore apparently does, but it’s not nearly as bad as, well…pretty much everyone else says. Frankly, it doesn’t seem likely that many of the critics who wrote about this album ever actually listened to it.

    It would be interesting to hear about Metheny’s process in creating it…the two (I think there was just two) guitar parts in “Part One” could have been recorded separately and randomly layered (randomness, far from being a rip off, has had interesting musical consequences in the hands of John Cage and many others)…or he could have laid down the left channel, tracked it back and cranked out the right “jamming with himself”.

    How the parts weave together is remarkable either way…on the whole I’m impressed. This album is far from the senseless bludgeoning of noise that I was expecting.

  12. Many of the comments remind me of exploring “free jazz” with my college roomates in the 1970s. We’d listen to a record and when the abstract turned conventional, my roomate would say, “This is the part where he proves he can play.” The implication being that the melodic gave some sort of credibility to the dissonant.

    Many of the comments seem to be the converse of this, a mirror image of the same way of looking at this music.

    I’m with BG Porter; its possible to like both Pats.

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