Melvins

TrackSingle / Album
Let God Be Your GardenerOzma
Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No MoreBoner Records BR21
BorisBullhead
Hung BunnyLysol
Honey BucketHoudini
Lovely ButterflyHonky
Safety ThirdPigs Of The Roman Empire
The Kicking MachineNude with Boots
What's Wrong with You?A Walk With Love And Death
Star Spangled BannerSugar Daddy Live

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Melvins photo 2

Melvins 1991 (l to r): Dale Crover, Lori Black, Buzz Osborne

 

Contributor: Ian du Feu

“The disgusting stink of a too loud electric guitar,
Now that’s my idea of a good time.” Frank Zappa

I don’t really like the Melvins … I love them. They have managed to blend both types of music, heavy metal and hardcore punk, to produce something monumental. It has been an absolute pleasure spending an extended amount of time with their back catalogue.

Perhaps you don’t need reasons for liking or disliking something, but trying to choose 10 tracks has been difficult; so for this Toppermost I have chosen 10 tracks I really like, and hopefully they are 10 reasons why the Melvins are super awesome.

The Melvins band started in 1983, and since then they have regularly toured, released about thirty albums, plus singles, EPs, live albums, books, DVDs and solo work, collaborated with other artists and had teens of band members. From 1984, Buzz Osborne (guitar & vocals) and Dale Crover (drums) have been the constant band members; basically if it’s Buzz and Dale on drums it’s the Melvins. They were originally from Montesano, Washington, the mother lode of the grunge scene, and took their name from a universally disliked colleague in a store where Buzz worked. The rock obsessed Buzz’s sole ambition on forming a band was to play a gig, which he indeed managed.

The band carried on gigging and were included on compilation hardcore local releases from about 1984. Their first release was the Six Songs EP in 1986, this was followed by Gluey Porch Treatments in 1987. The songs were short and very heavy blasts. In England a night-time DJ began to take notice.

Meanwhile in the mid-1980s the teenage me was absorbing an evening education from the John Peel radio show. These shows had a variety of musical styles, my favourite bit was between the tracks when John would comment on the music, or football, or current events. His timing, inflection and choice of words was very endearing; a ‘shuffly bloke’ style, underpinned by a mischievous wit. Peel would mix up the sounds, placing a reggae track next to a short punk single, possibly followed by a piece of Ivor Cutler whimsy, and the programmes became an unmissable event.

The Peel Show was where I first heard the Melvins and I probably wasn’t impressed. But hey, I was young and foolish, and John knew best. If Peel hadn’t played the Melvins it’s highly unlikely I would have listened to them, such was his importance.

I have wondered why Peel did play their music. There are probably a number of reasons. In the mid to late 1980s John seemed to be getting increasingly frustrated with his audience, (admittedly an audience he had fashioned) and their over reliance on the post-punk and indie scene to the exclusion of other styles of music he was playing. His end of year listener polls – the Festive Fifty – particularly caught his ire some years. It’s likely the Melvins were an aural antidote for Peel’s concern about his audience. That’s one explanation for his interest in the Melvins; he played their tunes and the kitemark of quality Peel session followed. Initially, the grunge genre label hadn’t been coined and the Melvins seemed to be similar to grindcore originators, Napalm Death. Peel continued to patronise the grunge scene, and took a great interest in Nirvana and Hole. He liked a short battery of loud noise, and the Melvins first two albums certainly provide that. Peel was also a big fan of bands who appeared to him to have no choice but to do what they were doing, rather than following a planned career; again the Melvins fit into this notion. Peel’s admiration of Captain Beefheart may also have signposted him to the Melvins work. In short, the Melvins had a lot of characteristics of a classic Peel band.

The first track I have chosen is from this 1980s period. My version of Ozma has Gluey Porch Treatments tacked on the end, giving thirty-four short heavy tracks on one disc. There is nothing more likely to grab my attention than a vague random religious comment. Let God Be Your Gardener is possibly a play on the churchy ‘let God be your guide’; it is sound zen advice for gardeners and for a laid back lifestyle. Clocking in at under two minutes the song is a brief showcase of the Melvins oeuvre. A descending bass riff is punctuated by blasting guitar chords and precise snappy rhythmic drumming. The economical four line lyric adds to the doomy aggressive sound and is open to a broad interpretation without definitely meaning anything.

The Melvins carried on and by 1989 their material was being issued by five indie record labels. The original bass player, Matt Lukin, left the band and went on to form Mudhoney. Lori Black (Shirley Temple’s daughter) replaced him on bass. Dale Crover had left for a while too as the band nearly imploded, and played drums on early Nirvana sessions. Around this time Buzz and Dale relocated to San Francisco.

Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More was released as a split 7″ single in 1989. The track is a version of a Mudhoney song. From the Melvins earliest releases up to the present day the band have covered about seventy-five songs. These tracks, forming a significant part of the catalogue, are from a variety of musical areas; rock, punk, heavy metal, psychedelia, film scores, traditional songs, contemporary grunge scenesters, all given the Melvins treatment. The main thing that seems to bind the covers together is the group’s interest in the music, it’s stuff they were fans of. Generally, the covers have a memorable tune and are often relatively melodic. The Melvins cover of Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More is heavier, faster, and draws the tune out a bit more than the original; it is not as fuzzed-out as Mudhoney’s version.

The 1990s saw the Melvins really hit their stride. They toured a lot and released a massive amount of influential material. Having been around at the start of the grunge scene, the next two albums, Bullhead and Lysol, saw the band lay down a template for various metal sub-genres; sludge, stoner, doom metal can all be traced back to this period.

Bullhead was recorded in 1990 and released in early 1991. The songs became slower and longer. The album opener, Boris, clocks in at over eight minutes. A slow, drop tuned three note reverberating riff chugs along throughout, Buzz’s guitar keeps the rhythm moving and tight, like a Hank Marvin for the slacker generation. Dale’s drumming is fairly low in the mix, and is relatively light compared to the thunderous guitar. Over this, Buzz screams something about wanting and taking, the lyric is ambiguous but makes more sense if it is indeed about his cat. The song inspired a Japanese shoegaze metal band so much they called themselves Boris, and it is a blueprint for ‘sludge metal’.

The album cover has some stylistic similarities to Black Flag’s My War. Melvins have stated that this Black Flag album was influential to their sound.

The cover picture, a cartoonish still life of a fruit bowl, gives no indication of the style of music on the record, and is a contrast to many gory heavy metal album covers. The strange juxtaposition of the bright colours on the cover and the doomy music was further confused for me when I found out that the images were taken from condom packaging.

The band’s impressive work rate continued; the Eggnog EP and a split single with Nirvana were released in 1991. Lori left and was replaced by Joe Preston. The band continued touring and in 1992 released three EPs with a band member’s face on each cover, in homage to the four Kiss solo albums from 1978. At Nirvana’s insistence, Melvins played Reading festival; for some reason they were placed before Bjorn Again in the running order. The band got another kitemark of quality when the festival organisers referred to them as “the worst band ever to play Reading Festival”.

Lysol was released in 1992. I have chosen album opener, Hung Bunny, as my fourth track. Lysol is just over half an hour long and its six songs segue together. Hung Bunny is about ten minutes of low-end frequency feedback. The song’s structure comes from keeping the reverberating drone going. Vocals and drums are kept to a minimum and the guitar manages to sound like the flow of molten lava. At about two minutes you can hear a faint ‘om’ chant which rolls in and out for the rest of the piece. The overall feel of the song is quite spiritual, like a very metal chakra. The album cover art is based on Cyrus Dallin’s statue, Appeal To The Great Spirit. Sunn O))) took note and Rabbits’ Revenge on their debut album is a version of Hung Bunny. The Lysol album was instrumental in launching the drone metal genre.

Melvins - Lysol

 

Melvins statue

As grunge entered the mainstream and Nirvana started selling millions of albums the Melvins benefitted by association and were signed to Atlantic in 1992. The following year saw the release of the fairly accessible Houdini album. Kurt Cobain is listed as the producer for some tracks on the album, but his input was probably negligible. Joe Preston had left the band and Lori Black briefly returned; her input to the album is also probably quite small. There was more money around for production and promotion, and my fifth track choice, Honey Bucket, is a short number which was accompanied by a great video.

The opening advancing camera shot takes the viewer into a barn where the group are playing to an audience of sheep and goats, some dressed in Melvins t-shirts. It’s fast, it’s furious and it’s a lot of fun.

Stoner Witch and Stag followed. Both are classic albums. During this period the band moonlighted to record the uncommercial Prick album. By 1997, the Melvins work was done at Atlantic and they returned to indie labels for the rest of their career.

Lovely Butterfly from the experimental Honky shows the elastic nature of Melvins songs. The Honky album version of the song is short, the speakers are strained to the point of overload and the overall effect is very metallic. The song was reworked for the Electroretard album and the drumming is brought forward in the mix. An integral part of the Melvins sound has been Dale Crover’s drumming; loud, powerful, full of intricate fills, sometimes laying down the rhythm for the band, sometimes elaborating over a guitar rhythm. When Coady Willis joined, and the band became a two drummer behemoth, the drum stands were sometimes combined to form a mirror image drumming unit. The memorable drumming pattern at the heart of Lovely Butterfly makes this 2007 concert version a firm favourite of mine.

 

The prolific work rate continued at the end of the 90s with the trilogy – The Maggot, The Bootlicker, The Crybaby

– all good, powerful albums; alas there had to be some casualties in my track choices.

Electroretard (2001) is an album of remixed songs and Hostile Ambient Takeover (2002) is an eclectic affair.

Around this time the Melvins were touring with Fantômas and released a live album with them. Collaborations have been an integral part of the band’s history, from early split singles through to the present day. Some associations, like the one with Big Business, went so well they were absorbed into the band for a time. All the collaborations have brought something new to the band’s dynamic, whilst still sounding like Melvins. The period in the early noughties when they linked up with Jello Biafra is interesting; two more overtly political albums resulted. My favourite collaboration is the album with Lustmord, Pigs Of The Roman Empire, which also has Adam Jones from Tool assisting on guitar. Safety Third has all the Melvins heavy, reverby, sludgey guitar and drum sound complemented by a sinister production, giving a ‘horror film music score’ feel to the piece.

The period of manic experimentation and collaborations sort of drew to a close when bass player Kevin Rutmanis sort of left the band in 2005. In an industry which is prone to excess and temptation, Buzz and Dale have remained incredibly focused, sober and hard working. There was a slight wobble, but the Melvins ship was steadied with the inclusion of Coady Willis and Jared Warren. The band found a new vigour and continued on their eccentric way.

(A) Senile Animal was a return to fast rock and this continued on the 2008 album Nude With Boots. The Kicking Machine is a stripped down rock classic. The dual drumming is so confident, the beat swings allowing the guitar riffs and fast chord progressions to kick the song along at top speed. On the album version of the song the vocal sounds immense with the slight echo effect used, and there is even a hint of harmonies. This is the sound of band at one with their style and enjoying playing. The live clip (above) shows the band in their unusual stage attire, looking like something from the Sun Ra Arkestra.

The same line-up recorded The Bride Screamed Murder in 2010. Some interesting idiosyncracies were starting to creep back into the work but overall the album is quite accessible.

Since 2010, Melvins have continued their prodigious work ethic; the 2012 album Freak Puke is Buzz and Dale with Trevor Dunn on stand-up bass. The change of bass player has helped to produce quite a glidey, echoey record. The album was supported by a fifty-one date tour where each American state was visited on consecutive days. There has been an album most years; collaborations, projects and touring have continued.

So far in 2017, there has been the association which produced a Crystal Fairy album, a Melvins double album, an extensive tour, and solo offerings from Dale Crover and new bass player Steve McDonald (from Redd Kross, not Coronation Street). The double album A Walk With Love And Death is a massive affair; the album title could be a nod to the John Huston film of the same name. The first disc, ‘Death’, is thick and heavy with Melvins riffage, the second disc, ‘Love’, is the soundtrack to an arthouse film and is far more experimental. I have chosen What’s Wrong with You? from the first disc as a relatively bouncy affair, possibly showing Steve McDonald’s Beatles-y influence on the band. The album release includes a couple of beautiful limited edition coloured vinyl records and a CD booklet version. Melvins have released a variety of product during their career; 5″, 7″, 10″, 12″ records, coloured vinyl and limited edition artwork in records, CDs, books and DVDs aimed at the collector market. Melvins have continued through a tumultuous time for the record industry, straddling the change from analogue to digital, and have recognised that product needs to be available to provide an income. They have been pragmatic, and realised that digital content is basically for free, (just checkout all the blog sites offering free downloads of the albums) so income has to come from other sources. They are also honest enough to torpedo the ‘vinyl sounds better argument’ and refreshingly admit that CDs will produce a better sound than vinyl.

For my last track from the grunge guitar overlords, I have chosen an a capella version of the Star Spangled Banner. This may have been included into their repertoire as a reference to Hendrix’s rendition, and possibly their intentions are not too serious or respectful, but I’m glad it exists. Initially released as a limited edition of 666 7” singles in 2008, it was also included on the Sugar Daddy Live album.

I chose this rendition of Star Spangled Banner because I think the Melvins encompass something that is good about America, and about the ‘American Dream’. In a world that is becoming dominated by multinational companies and homogenous product, it is refreshing and vital that there is still a place for personal independence, innovation and a really strong work ethic.

Melvins - Lysol

 

Melvins photo

Melvins 2017 (l to r): Dale Crover, Steven McDonald, Buzz Osborne

 

 

TheMelvins.net

Melvins facebook

Melvins Go Shopping – What’s In My Bag? (YouTube)

Melvins biography (iTunes)

This is Ian’s fourth post for Toppermost (after Fats Waller, King Tubby, Dawn Penn). He spends time listening to music and can be found @IanFergie.

TopperPost #647

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