The cover gives little away. The blood-red title “Lulu” is smeared across a dismembered mannequin. A small sticker says “Lou Reed & Metallica.”
The stars met when they performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert in 2009. It’s a combination as odd as Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead or James Brown with Luciano Pavarotti.
Reed has set his deadpan words against hard rock before, though never to a wall of guitars as bone crunching and sustained as this 87-minute double CD.
The starting point is his lyrics for “Lulu,” a production based on works by the German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864- 1918) about an abused femme fatale. The opening “Brandenburg Gate” drops casual references to absinthe and opium, like a 10th-grader trying to mimic Reed’s “Berlin.” Fortunately, it gets better.
Still, it makes for a grueling listening experience, with heavy metal pulsing over Reed, who growls rather than sings. It’s worth persevering because occasionally the combination gels, and when it does it’s extraordinary. The closing “Junior Dad” extends to 19 minutes as a narcotic groove drifts into orchestral calm.
Like Reed’s albums “The Raven” and “Metal Machine Music,” listeners will be divided between those hailing it a classic or a clunker. Sadly, it’s closer to the latter. Rating: **.
Bjork’s new album is also a concept. The title “Biophilia” references her subject matter of life and natural processes.
Attention has focused on its interactive elements. Fans with iPads or iPhones (not yet Android) can download an app, which turns “Biophilia” into an audiovisual game or a sort of home studio. You can alter the way the crystals grow on the screen as “Crystalline” plays, mix in different musical tones for “Dark Matter,” or change tempos and bass lines.
It’s easy to get lost in Bjork’s invention and pay less attention to the music. Her unearthly vocals are to the fore over sparse harps that recall the ambient sound on her “Vespertine” and “Medulla” albums.
The good news: This is Bjork’s best collection in a decade, a step up from “Volta” in 2007. The bad news: It’s an acquired taste. The lyrics are mad -- “Like a virus needs a body, as soft tissue feeds on blood, some day I’ll find you, one day I’m there ooo-ooo-ooo-ooh.” Rating: ***.
Tori Amos also is joining the concept-album trend. Her latest, “Night of Hunters,” is “a 21st-century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years,” according to the singer’s website. Her first release on Deutsche Grammophon has tunes adapted from Bach and Schubert.
I approached with caution: Amos has tried conceptual recordings before, such as “Boys for Pele.” She can be baffling, once telling me at a news conference that she believed in fairies and elves. Yet Amos also can be brilliant, as on most of the earlier “Little Earthquakes.”
This album, recorded in her studio in Cornwall, manages to be both. I give it the benefit of the doubt when the beauty shines though on “Battle of Trees,” based on Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1.” Rating: ***.
After all this far-from-easy listening, it’s a pleasure to report that Florence & the Machine keeps things simpler for its second CD. No overcooked concepts weigh down “Ceremonials,” which is a powerful piece of Britpop.
Florence Welch improves on her 2009 debut “Lungs.” She turns down the volume just a little, making a track like “Breaking Down” all the more passionate. Rating: *****.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
Lou Reed and Metallica are on Warner Brothers, Bjork is on Polydor, Florence & the Machine on Island and Amos on Deutsche Grammophon. The CDs are priced about $9, with deluxe editions from $16. Download prices vary across services.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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