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….” 

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