Being true to yourself in rock’n’roll works as a commercial gambit only if who you are is at least partly in synch with what the world is ready or waiting for. For every big name doing something that at least seems original, there’s invariably a more radical, more iconoclastic, more intemperate out-there version of same, someone whose idealism (or incapacity, as you like) keeps the masses at bay. In the case of Kurt Cobain, that someone was (and is) Aberdeen homeboy Buzz Osborne, singer/guitarist of the Melvins, inimitable steamrolling overlords of the slow-flowing magma.
The trio has being going since the mid-’80s. Osborne, mainstay drummer Dale Crover and a procession of bassists (a pre-Mudhoney Matt Lukin and Lori Black, the punk-rock daughter of Shirley Temple, among others) have produced a steady stream of the sludgiest, heaviest downer music this side of Henryk Górecki. Weaned on Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Kiss, Motörhead and the Nuge, Osborne (who prefers to be called King Buzzo) upends silly old notions of stability, melody and structure in a growling, ominous arena-scorning punk/metal meltdown that stops, starts, speeds up, unwinds, curves, collapses and explodes on an uncharted course. Osborne’s imagination and bent wit mark him as a singular composer, one who bellows creepy lyrics in short bursts of anti-dirge drama. Oppressive in the best possible sense, the Melvins produce richly sensual, stunningly ugly music that gives the feeling of being crushed by a friendly fat guy tripping his brains out. When the band is truly in its glory, the Melvins replay the sinking of the Titanic, invoking the grinding inexorability of an implacable iceberg tearing apart the hull of a great vessel inch by grueling inch. It is a wonder to behold.
Following a debut 7-inch EP (later expanded by three songs and reissued on CD as 10 Songs) and album, Osborne and Crover relocated to San Francisco in 1988, got Black in the band and made Ozma, an outpouring of overweight weirdness cut into short slices like “Let God Be Your Gardener,” “Cranky Messiah,” “Creepy Smell” and “Raise a Paw.” (The cassette includes an extra song; the CD appends all of Gluey Porch Treatments.) With Black renamed Lorax, the trio cut the more expansive Bullhead — longer tracks played more slowly, and with more downward pressure. Between the groaning syncopated plod of “Boris” — beat, beat, beat, bend, beat, beat, beat, beat, bend — and the relative brisk organization and feedback of “Cow,” Bullhead is the clearest exposition of Melvin-hood to that point, and the blueprint for much of what was to follow. (The well- recorded January 1991 concert — presumably in Germany, considering the label and the opening stage remark about Hogan’s Heroes — consists of material from the first three albums played with surehanded power by the San Francisco lineup. The rendition of Bullhead‘s “Anaconda” is especially impressive.)
The 20-minute Eggnog is a mixed drink; of the three exceptionally fast-paced tracks that fill its first half, only “Antitoxidote” (a cheer of “Pigs don’t let it!” set to a racing boogie rumble) is the only one that sounds like an actual song rather than a fragment extended by ear- splitting jams. The rest of the record is given over to “Charmicarmicat,” an awesome slo-mo monument of riveting enervation that seems to breathe between notes as Crover counts off downstrokes in increments of ten.
By the time the Melvins got back in the studio, the group had been cited as a primary influence and favorite band by their old pal in the suddenly ascendant Nirvana. Notoriety was encouragement to indulge itself, and the band’s next project was a high-concept tribute to Kiss: three simultaneously issued solo albums with consistent Kiss-parodying artwork and come-ons to join the nonexistent Melvins Army. Black had been packed off to some private hell and did not get to make a solo record; one-album bassist Joe Preston, however, was around and did. His off- the-wall contribution to this undertaking consists of found- sound tapes, some chaotic crypto-metal noise played by people called Denial Fiend and Salty Green; Preston’s only credit is for vocals and co-writing, although neither activity yields anything audibly attributable (unless something unexpected transpires more than halfway through the 23-minute “Hands First Flower”).
King Buzzo’s four-songer is an exposition of opposites, recorded as a two-man-army with one Dale Nixon (a name Greg Ginn once used in Black Flag): “Annum” is tense pop, quietly sung and delicately played, while “Porg” is a sonic collage that sounds nothing like the Melvins and “Skeeter” fires an instrumental salvo straight down the band’s speed alley while someone named Dave recites a shaggy sex story. Crover’s disc is more surprising and entertaining: joined only by bassist Debbi Shane, he sings and plays original songs that build muzzy heavy-pop structures evolving from Melvins rhythms. “Hex Me” is the best of the four tracks, but the whole disc reveals an entertaining soft spot in the band’s rugged demeanor.
Melvins (an album announced as Lysol but released without any indicated title after the spray’s manufacturer got wind of it), the only long-playing document of the Osborne-Crover-Preston lineup, registers only one track on the CD display, but there is in fact a full-stop pause and several song changes in the unidentified 30-minute monster. The first half is a big gulp of guitar distortion into which the rhythm section weighs in from time to time; at the twelve-minute mark, the arrival of a steady beat and vocals shape it into a bone- crushing mother of a song. After the brief intermission, the trio gets right back into it, shifting gears from sludge to a martial drum exhibition to a complete rendition of Alice Cooper’s creepy “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” ending the program with a concise original. Weird and wonderful.
Cobain’s clout got the Melvins (who had ejected Preston and reclaimed Black for a brief spell) signed to Atlantic; for good measure, he co-produced half Houdini‘s tracks and played guitar on one. (Too bad he didn’t bring them along to MTV Unplugged instead of the Meat Puppets.) Faithful to the band’s basic principles but open to suggestion and appreciably accelerated and tightened from its baseline, Houdini is a wild-eyed humdinger, teetering between the Melvins’ traditional fuck-you stance and an it’s-here-if-you-can-take-it posture. “Hooch,” “Copache,” a thoroughly devolved cover of Kiss’ “Going Blind” and the glacial-paced “Hag Me” all blast away with typical bummed-in fervor. The self- produced “Honey Bucket” explores the stylistic link with Nirvana, but new ideas appear here as well: “Spread Eagle Beagle” is a clanky percussion solo, “Pearl Bomb” ticks away to a fast electronic beat and the spry “Sky Pup” comes from some heretofore unknown corner of the Melvins’ universe.
Before assenting to make its second major-label album, the mischievous Melvins (with bassist Mark Deutrom) adopted a clever nomenclatural disguise — Snivlem — and cut Prick for the Amphetamine Reptile label. Perhaps reasoning that it’s not the Melvins so it doesn’t have to be good, King B and the boys fucked around, slopped a bunch of dull, mind-numbing dreck onto a platter and deemed it an album. It isn’t. Among the eleven formless tracks are newsreel interviews, acoustic and demi-electric jams that go until the tape runs out, ambient noise, church bells and anything else left lying around an English studio. This obnoxious time-waster only makes a great band look bad — and, worse, ineffectual.
Stoner Witch gets back to serious business, but without much inspiration. Sharing the load around (Crover and Deutrom both play some of the guitar and co-wrote most of the songs; Buzz gets credit for bass as well as his usuals), the Melvins weigh in somewhere between Ministry, Motörhead and a Moog orchestra, mainly playing terse, mobile songs that bear a fair resemblance to days of old but are motivated and propulsive in ways the Melvins never used to be. Crover especially sounds like a changed man, thundering away in rhythms that drive songs along rather than poke idly at their progress like a cat standing on a mouse’s tail. (Except on the quiet noir swing of “Goose Freight Train” and the pure-noise first half of “Magic Pig Detective.”) Osborne’s desire not to be restricted to the structural limits of music he’s been playing steadily for a decade is certainly understandable; the album can be seen as a transitional effort to widen the group’s possibilities, to identify areas for further study. That doesn’t make it a keeper. As a slab of determined rock force, Stoner Witch certainly kicks butt, but it lacks too much of the special everything that makes the Melvins unique.
The X-Mas release (aka Tora Tora Tora) is a spectacularly packaged hard-cover album containing four 7-inches; if a collection of vinyl 45s is the worst imaginable format for a live record by a group prone to elongated workouts and a technology-challenging dynamic range, the use of maddening lock grooves brings the whole concept in line with the band’s genial perversity and makes this an artistic coup of some sort. Recorded on the Melvins’ ’95 Tora Tora Tour and sprinkled with such comical offbeatitude as radio ads and call-in shows, official arena announcements and loopy stage patter, Live is an essential condiment to the band’s more substantial (if predictably uneven) main courses.
The lively and entertaining Stag remedies the failings of Stoner Witch by bringing back the spunk and leavening the behemoth metal snarl with variety and humor: the inaugural sitar, the wailing trombone on “Bar-X- The Rocking M,” the unabashed pop vigor of “Black Bock,” the munchkin gimmickry of “Skin Horse” and the shocking acoustic blues of “Cottonmouth.” No longer confined to a single design, the Melvins spread their wings and drop a fat sky patty all over rock’s ugly landscape.