|Image - Paul Milne|
Before I begin I really need to square something away. A little thing that’s been bothering me and it is to do with the Melvins, and influences. To my mind, Buzzo’s vocals and some sounds, particularly on Bullhead and Lysol, come straight out of the Pink Floyd playbook. I’m thinking Empty Spaces, from the Wall, the extended cut, from the messy but ultimately awesome movie. Now; am I going mad here? It seems too obvious to me that either it’s a nasty acid trip, or nobody has my massive brain. That’s all, on with the Melvinite Manifesto.
Many times I’ve mentioned the Melvins, but I finally feel like I’ve absorbed all their studio albums, so I’m ready to talk about it. I’ve decided to do a little retrospective and discuss every Melvins full-length for exactly 100 words apiece, according to my iTunes, that’s 20 albums. The reason for this absurd challenge is that the Melvins are a fascinating band, who have explored a wide range of ideas (just go listen to a cut from Gluey Porch Treatments, and then one from Lysol, and then the final track from Prick, and then a track from the Atlantic trio, and then the opening track off the Bride Screamed Murder, and you’ll see what I mean) and while a few people have asked me which Melvins album I think they should buy, I thought I’d better give a little time to it on here so I can direct everyone here in future. More than almost any other band, the Melvins change, from moment to moment and record to record. Pick the right one and you’ll be amazed and forever a fan, pick the wrong one and you might never spin a Melvins record again. Trust me, you don’t want your first taste of this band to be Prick, it’d scar you forever. But there are lots of bands that jump between visionary and appalling from record to record (oh hey Grand Funk, when did you come in?) but I’ve never encountered a band that has such a varied discography, and each and every one is worth talking about.
It could be said, without hyperbole, that the Melvins are the most important metal band of the last 20 years, beaten only by Sabbath to the ‘of all time’ moniker. You might scoff, because nobody has heard of them outside of the tiresome metal obsessives, but it isn’t about how many people have heard them, it’s about how many bands, producers and reviewers have heard them. Of those (noisy) household names that can count themselves amongst admitted Melvins fans are Tool, Soundgarden, Pig Destroyer, Foo Fighters and oh yeah Nir-fuckin’-vana! That’s right, the Nevermind revolution that basically was for heavy music what the Beatles were to rock and roll, that was because Cobain heard the Melvins and loved it.
The Melvins are listed alternatively as a doom, drone and post-punk band. That would align them with Electric Wizard, Pre-Hex Earth and Wire respectively. Personally I’d also add electropunk and ambient rock to that. So late Brainiac and Explosions in the Sky too. They also incorporate American hard rock, country and an almost insatiable post-punk-type aesthetic to destroy and reconstruct music – lyrical themes revolve around surreality, nonsense and randomness. With gulfs that wide, and all the space in-between in which to play, you better bet some of this stuff gets a little weird. I think as a blanket statement before we get down in amongst the releases, Houdini is probably the Melvins most definitive statement where the songs are the most normal, probably the best way to start a Melvins odyssey of your very own. I also like the name Houdini, kinda sums up the music of Buzzo and co., they’re not trying to trick you, but they are taking what you think you know about metal and about music and totally taking it apart.
Right, here goes. I’ll present it probably in two parts ‘cause otherwise it’ll be about 3000 words. I’ll also present a few lists at the end (oh how I love lists) of my top albums, and the albums I think you should listen to, or should direct your friends towards, and my own personal Melvins best of – but we’ll get to that in good time, now for album reviews, 100 words apiece, chronological order.
Gluey Porch Treatments
Despite its status as a debut album, Gluey Porch Treatments was very much seen as keeping the Melvins’ freak flag flying. Opening with Sabbath-beater Eye Flys and getting more ambitious from there, Gluey Porch Treatments is an audacious and ambitious debut. Post-punk sub-sludge songs that are over by the time you’ve looked up the lyrics in the liner notes, and they crash right up against longer, more defined cuts showcasing the madcap lyrics and Buzzo’s skill as a soloist. If the Melvins never got past that, it would be astonishing, but there will be so much more ambition to come.
Ozma is where the Melvins begin to expand their repertoire; looking at the tracklist, one would reasonably expect this to be a post-punk offering from the mighty Melvins, but in fact what they present us with are 17 sonic slabs in a doom/stoner frame. Few longer than three minutes. The application of post-punk ideals to doom metal asks – do we need ten minute doom songs? The Melvins answer: hell no. The songs on this album take what Torche do without all of the pop-doom dilution. Ragged around the edges certainly, but the beginning of the Melvins soul train.
Three is the magic number, as much of a cliché as that is. Bullhead is the Melvins condensing their sound into a listener-friendly relatively ‘normal’ album. Easily categorised – pure sludge. For me the best of the first three albums. Here we get layered vocals, great harmonies, professional songwriting. A recurring thing in the Melvins music is what can unflatteringly be called nonsense, and it isn’t always clear if they’re laughing with me, or at me. Here it’s all business, and I don’t want every Melvins record to be this distilled and sharpened, but once in a while sure is nice.
This era of Melvins requires a column to itself. What happened to these guys that they wrote three of my top 20 albums in the space of a coupla years? Not content with apotheosising the sludge punk of bands like Flipper; the Melvins set about inventing drone metal, ‘cause it wasn’t gonna invent itself! This is the Melvins coming of age; until now they’d been honing to a fine edge all those ideas in their melting pot of influences, but this was something wholly new. Lysol would be a spiffing Melvins cherry-pop for those of a drone/doom persuasion.
Probably the go-to Melvins album, Houdini is the closest they have made to a ‘commercial’ album. The first of the reliable Atlantic Trio, where songwriting, production and vision are the most consistently good and easy to grasp. This is the album that probably takes the fewest listens to work out if you love or hate it. You still get your fix of the Melvins’ more experimental side with finisher Spread Eagle Beagle. For me though it just doesn’t have any moments that compare to the songs on Bullhead and Lysol. The album you initially get into and then leave behind.
Initially released to exploit the massive and rabid fanbase to help pay for the Stoner Witch sessions, because of a label dispute, the Melvins couldn’t use their own name and had to write it backwards. The presence of Prick in the context of the Melvins discography is more interesting than any of the sounds. It serves as a perfect mad experimental antidote to the solid as-close-to-mainstream rock they were putting out with Atlantic. Delightfully oddball in a pure Melvins sense for those in the mood, schizophrenically awful for those not. Do not make this your first taste of the Melvins.
The best of the Atlantic trio and a great starting point in all things Melvin. The one most infiltrated by the Melvins trademark weirdness, including production credits for the Magic Eight Ball – spiritual guidance and Scott Humphrey – door squeaking & pencil sharpening. Audially always pushing the boundaries as well as decibelly pushing the red line; Stoner Witch showcases the Melvins up to this point, from riff to shining riff, the band’s punk sensibilities against Merzbow-inflected shoegaze. Being at once enjoyably listenable and containing some of their most prized riffs (Sweet Willy Rollbar) as well as the ear-punishing Magic Pig Detective.
The final member of the Atlantic trio and probably the least of them. Talk of the Melvins ‘exploring the possibilities of the studio’ was largely bullshit, because the result is a Melvins album overloaded with unnecessary minutiae to the point where the grunge sludge punk is almost totally obscured by half-arsed ‘progressive’ numbers and crisp, soulless over-production which drowns the raw oddness. Buzzo doesn’t even sound like Buzzo, and when that happens you know you’re in serious trouble. Accessible though, but it’ll just give you a false impression of their weirdness, so overall one of the Melvins most skippable albums.
From the band that brought you Lysol, and the label that gave you Prick. Honky serves as a raucous two finger salute to the commercial music-making the Melvins just abandoned. In the context of their discography it’s the album that most closely resembles them as a band in the music industry. Any time you reckon you’ve got them pegged is when you realise you ain’t got a clue. A collection of ambient experimental pieces interspersed with noise rock. A weird addition, but multiple listens multiply the enjoyment manyfold. Easily one of my top picks, but for the seasoned Melvinite only.
Well that’s it. I better get my ass workin’ on the second half or they’ll have released more god-damned by-the-Jesus albums by the time I have the fucker written. There is a new Melvins EP out on Scion A/V records for free so you better all go take it by the horns and enjoy that boyo.
Written under duress by Steven.