Valentine's Day! Let's do something special! How about a giant pile of Melvins, along with a survey of all their records? Breaks the formula, but who gives a shit! The Melvins are for lovers!
THE BONER YEARS
Not everything they released in this period was on Boner Records, but it's a convenient way to label things. Buzz Osborne formed the band in 1983 with Matt Lukin (who would later go on to help found Mudhoney) and Mike Dillard (who actually rejoined the band for an album thirty years later). Dale Crover pretty quickly replaced Dillard and that lineup stuck around for at least a little while. The Melvins are kind of legendary in the Northwest music scene for how much of the ball they got rolling. Not only did Lukin help form Mudhoney, one of the pillars of grunge, but Crover was Nirvana's original drummer (on Bleach). Not only THAT, but Buzz is the guy who introduced Dave Grohl to Cobain. It's not like things wouldn't have gotten going up here otherwise, but the Melvins family tree is pretty extensive.
At any rate, they ended up putting out some music on legendary underground Seattle label C/Z Records. They appeared on the Deep Six compilation LP as well as their own EP, 6 Songs (later reissued repeatedly with higher counts - it's now up to 26 Songs and readily available on Ipecac). Then came the first full length, Gluey Porch Treatments, the last record with Lukin. Even on this early material, the Melvins still sounded like the Melvins: obsessed with Sabbath, heavy as hell and alternately thrashy and sludgy. "Exact Paperbacks" comes from this album.
That record was followed by Ozma, Bullhead, and Lysol (now just called Melvins after a trademark dispute, with copies with the original name being a collectable), with the songs getting increasingly stretched out and heavier as things roll along. While the thrash side of things doesn't ever go away, the doom-y side of things was becoming increasingly dominant. Check out "Boris" from Bullhead, the song that gave the band Boris their name.
Goddamn that's a good song. You can already see several of Buzz's vocal styles, incidentally. Anyway, in addition to the main album releases during this period, there were several EPs: the excellent Eggnog as well as the KISS solo EPs. The Melvins were obsessed with KISS (Gene Simmons even played with them some, which probably made their decade) and they released three solo EPs on Boner as a farewell present to the label. They're, uh, for completists only.
At any rate, let's call this period's main releases as Gluey Porch Treatments, Ozma, Bullhead and Lysol. I like all those records and still listen to them (in fact, I have the edition of Ozma that includes GPT on it, so I end up listening to those albums in a row pretty often), but Bullhead is the clear winner if you had to pick only one. It's far enough along to have sophistication in their attack but shows off plenty of their doom chops. I'd probably pick Lysol next, given how mighty it is, but it's shorter than Bullhead, and that matters when the material is all great. These records are two albums that set the template for so many following bands.
THE ATLANTIC YEARS
Somebody in an A&R department during '92 noticed that somehow, despite having been instrumental in kicking off grunge, being pioneers in the entire scene, and even having a former member of Nirvana, nobody had signed the Melvins. The almost certainly apocryphal story going around the mailing lists at the time is that Atlantic signed them mostly just to piss off Geffen Records. However it happened, nobody apparently got around to listening to their records before signing them because the idea that the band that had just finished making Lysol would be a commercial hit seems...questionable? Bananas?
At any rate, the Melvins went into the studio and seemed to give it the ol' college try. And I'll be damned if the resulting record, Houdini, wasn't considerably more commercial friendly than anybody would have guessed. Previously, Ozma was probably their most straightforward record, but Houdini is even more so. Even today, elevnty-billion records later, it still stands as their most accessible record. That isn't to say that it's a safe record by any stretch. Take the blistering crunch of "Honey Bucket". That transition around :57, going from the opening thrash to the main riff, goddamn that's so good.
Or witness the stretched-old stoner rock of "Joan of Arc", featuring a fantastic howling lead vocal performance by King Buzzo. But, you know, the album did have a KISS cover on it as well ("Goin' Blind"), so it's not all gas huffing madness either. Balancing out that KISS cover and the radio-friendly(-ish) tunes is the fact that the album ends with a spaced-out ten minute spare percussion track that sounds like somebody looped up some old Neubauten.
Whatever, it was a record that was probably as close as the Melvins were capable of getting to being accessible to a mass market. And it's really good! What to do next? Of course, a surprise release on noise rock label Amphetamine Reptile Records!
I walked into Paul's Records in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, like I did every Tuesday, and nearly fell over. The Melvins on AmRep? Fuck and yes, where do I sign up? I bought it along with whatever else I bought that day and listened to Prick on the way home. And how do I put this? Prick is not a good record. At all. Calling it slapdash is an insult to slapdash things everywhere. It's an assortment of found sounds, studio fuckery, random experimentation and one hilariously flaming guitar solo on "Pick It N' Flick It", which is the Melvins' "Eruption".
At any rate, while the record isn't a total throwaway ("Larry" is entertaining, for example), it's awfully close. I mean, "Pure Digital Silence" is basically just that. It's entirely possible that Prick might be the most disappointed I've ever been with a record. Let's move on.
Purportedly, the reason they released Prick (and the live album that came out at roughly the same time) was to raise some funds for studio time. Why their deal with Atlantic didn't cover that is anybody's guess. Maybe Houdini didn't cover their advance? Who knows? At any rate, the resulting record was Stoner Witch, which might be my favorite of the Atlantic records. "Revolve" is a cut from that album, which is just a straightahead rocker.
As always, with the Melvins, there's something difficult on the record. This time, the glass shard in the cup is "Magic Pig Detective", five minutes of squealing electronic noise. But overall, Stoner Witch is another record that's pretty easy to get into and presents a relatively friendly face. It's also chock full of oversized riffs, just in case you were worried.
Word on the street was that those two records didn't sell the way that Atlantic hoped, though, so the Melvins had one more shot on a major. And I'm pretty sure they said "fuck it" and just made the record they wanted to make, Stag. You've got "Soup", with its distorted keyboard noise and...some kind of Eastern instrument in it, and not a single riff. It opens with a sitar. The second track features just a little bit of chiming guitar and not much else. "Bar-X-The-Rocking-M" features a trombone. It's just all over the place. What most impresses me is that it wasn't a return to the pre-Atlantic strangeness. It's a totally different record than Lysol was, in kind of the other direction entirely. But it's also totally recognizable as a Melvins record. "Buck Owens", for instance, is a delicious slab of riffage.
This adventurous, fascinating record got them dropped. Of course. Well, no matter. They returned to Amphetamine Reptile for another record, Honky, which further cemented their alienation from any commercial potential. It's a record filled with ambient, uh, soundscapes. Can I say soundscapes without sounding like a hopeless buster? Well, I did. What else are you going to call them, though? It's like they got some Tortoise in their stoner metal. The center of the album is called "Air Breather Deep in the Arms of Morpheus", a title that any stoned-off-their-ass prog band would be thrilled to call their own.
I actually like Honky, but it seems like it was made by a different band. In the end, what do we make of the Atlantic (and AmRep) years? They made their most straightforward, commercial records and still made them smoke. They also decided to seize the rudder and truly get off the rails (to mix metaphors), so I think the modern Melvins were kind of born with Stag. I think all three of the major Atlantic releases are worth having. I'd say something like Stoner Witch, Stag, Houdini, Honky from this batch (under no circumstances should anybody acquire Prick). Where do those records stand alongside the first batch? We'll see later!
THE IPECAC YEARS
They band had just been dropped from Atlantic after a strong trio of albums and had licked their wounds with a strange, interesting, and somewhat short of great Amphetamine Reptile release. With Amphetamine Reptile starting to wind things down (their last full album release would be a Melvins live record, actually), it was time to find a new home. Enter Ipecac Recordings.
Run by Mike Patton, Faith No More's singer and head weirdo of Mr. Bungle, it seems like an obvious pairing. The Melvins were never really a truly conventional band, and their experimentation was really just getting seriously under way. Mike Patton, of course, was Mike Patton, a dude who followed up his commercial success with Faith No More by releasing...whatever it is you call Mr. Bungle.
Anyway, the new partnership made it clear that the Melvins weren't going to put a lid on their experimentation any time soon, as their first release on Ipecac was actually a trilogy of records. First up was The Maggot, which was actually a pretty straightforward record filled with songs that wouldn't have been out of place on Houdini or Stoner Witch. The only real oddity is that all of the songs on the CD were tracked so that each song was divided in half, allowing you to skip to the middle of the song if you wanted. It also gives you a jump in the middle of the song if your player doesn't do seamless playback or you use shuffle. Sigh. Highlights include the straightforward crunch of "AMAZON", the slower burn of their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Green Manalishi", and the power of "The Horn Bearer".
It's a good album, but not a great album. If you liked the Atlantic albums, it's a worthy purchase, but it's only middle of the pack for them. But that was only the opening salvo. Next up was The Bootlicker, which opens with the menacing "Toy", featuring a great little guitar bit from Buzz and, uh, jingle bells. From there, we launch into "Let It All Be", a ten-minute song that at times can almost be described as "groovy". It's clear at this point that these are not your older brother's Melvins. Halfway through that song, it thrums loudly and then goes back to another quiet meditative guitar bit, with the occasional bell. The fucking around from Honky and bits of Stag are in full force here. That song never really goes anywhere, but it's still a niece piece.
"Doesn't really go anywhere" could be the subtitle of the album, honestly. It's a much quieter record than pretty much anything they've done before, but there's a certain enjoyable atmosphere to the proceedings. I like it better than Honky, anyway, and think it's not a bad record to pick up to hear this other side of the band. "Up The Dumper" comes from here, showing off a quieter side to the band.
Of course, they saved the, uh, "best" for last. The Crybaby was the third of the trilogy, and it's a covers album. Featuring a whole lot of extra guests. The album opens with a cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" featuring...Leif Garrett on vocals.
From there, we go to a cover of the Jesus Lizard's "Blockbuster" (off their debut EP) featuring...the Jesus Lizard's David Yow on vocals. But wait, he didn't actually sing "Blockbuster" the first time around, it was David Wm. Sims who sang it originally. So, yeah. Helmet's Henry Bogdan shows up with Hank Williams III for "Ramblin' Man" and "Okie From Muskogee". And so it goes. Technically, not every song here is a cover, there are also new compositions that are all collaborations with various people. The J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Wiseblood, etc, etc, etc) collaboration ("Mine is No Disgrace") is something that should have happened a while ago. In fact, I'd LOVE a full record from those guys. Thirlwell is worthy of a full writeup on his own sometime in the future. But, just in case, he's probably most famous as the guy who composed the theme for "The Venture Bros".
The Crybaby is probably the best of the trilogy records - not as conventional as The Maggot, and not as aimless as The Bootlicker. The trilogy of records was an ambitious way to kick off the Ipecac relationship, and it would kind of only get stranger from there.
Electro[slur] was their next album, and it's kind of another cover album (with a terrible name that I'm choosing to censor here). Sorta. There are covers of The Wipers ("Youth of America"), Pink Floyd ("Interstellar Overdrive"), and the Cows ("I'm Missing"), the latter being amusing because Kevin Rutmanis (from the Cows) was on bass at this point. There's also four re-workings of their own songs, "Revolve" (from Stoner Witch), "Tipping the Lion" (from Stag), "Lovely Butterflies" (from Honky), and "Gluey Porch Treatments" (which is actually "Bitten Into Sympathy" from Gluey Porch Treatments). Then, there's an original track which can only be described as fucking around, with what sounds like a backwards Melvins song and some undirected noodling on guitar. Things straighten out with the "Youth of America" cover, which is pretty conventional, albeit nine minutes long.
Overall, the re-workings of the old material are fine, if somewhat unnecessary. There's more use of electronics, as you might guess from the title, and things seem a bit more subdued in parts than the originals. The Cows cover might be my favorite track on the album, which is probably telling. "Lovely Butterflies" shows how the Melvins could integrate more electronics into their habitual sound and get a nice result, but the album as a whole is almost more like fan service than a really coherent thing. I'm not sorry to own it, I play it occasionally, but it's deeply inessential.
Next up was Colossus of Destiny. Hoo boy. I'm not sure what to say about it, really. It's a single track, nearly sixty minutes, of mostly electronic noise and found sounds recorded live. It's more musique concrète than it is anything else, about as far away from their Sabbath worshipping roots as you could get. I don't recommend it, exactly, but if you want to listen to it, it's all on YouTube (this is the first part). I mentioned that The Bootlicker doesn't really go anywhere, but that's really, really true of Colossus. It's just atmospheric noise. It's not abrasive in the way, say, Merzbow or Whitehouse or acts like that. If anything, it's more like early Negativland than it is anything else. About 48 minutes in, some drums actually appear, giving you the idea that an actual song might show up. No song does. I suppose the last couple minutes, where some shouting and guitar actually show up, might count. Sorta. There is technically a second track, which is five seconds of nothing. Apparently the Melvins thought fucking around with tracking was hilarious back then.
It was about time at this point for the Melvins to produce a normal record, which, of course, they did not. Hostile Ambient Takeover was next in line, and while it's much more conventional than the last one, it's still missing a few marbles. It starts off conventionally enough, with Crover tearing off thirty seconds of groove on the drums before launching into a huge rock track straight out of Stoner Witch. The main riff on "(Untitled)" is super fantastic.
The Melvins hadn't sounded that energized since maybe Stag. Although, they can't resist a minute or so of noise at the end of the track, just to keep you on your toes. "Dr. Geek" features Buzz going almost rockabilly on the guitar, sounding a lot like the Reverend Horton Heat on "Psychobilly Freakout". "Little Judas Chongo" has just a filthy bass tone on it. But the center of the album is "The Fool, The Meddling Idiot", which starts out as five or so minutes of stretched out classic doom-y Melvins in the vein of Lysol and ends up with a couple minutes of synth and distorted vocals. And then the drum solo from the beginning of the album again. Things wrap up with the pissed off sounding "Foaming", and the epically pissed off sounding "The Anti-Vermin Seed", a slow burn of a track that waits until ten minutes in before King Buzzo starts hiss-yelling at you.
It's the most "normal" Melvins record in years, and it's still pretty weird. I like it a lot, though - the self-indulgence has been reigned in a fair bit, with the experimentation here mostly helping the compositions and not just getting in the way. It's the easy pick of this entire, strange period of the Melvins' existence, with a nod towards The Maggot for just straight up rock and The Crybaby for the oddness of it all.
Note that there is actually one record from this period that I've never listened to, their collaboration with Lustmord. I was pretty worn out on their experimental phase, and when I learned that they were doing a collaboration with an electronic artist, I just couldn't quite get on board. I've got every other album they've made (skipping the live records), but not that one. It might be awesome, but I'll find out another day.
THE DOUBLE-DUO YEARS
In the discussion of the Melvins thus far, I've somehow managed to avoid talking about their bass player. Or, players, really. There have been a lot. Not quite Spinal Tap drummers, but still quite a few up to this point in the story. Matt Lukin handled the first stuff (6 Songs, Gluey Porch Treatments), Lori "Lorax" Black played on the stretch from Ozma through Bullhead, Joe Preston was on Lysol (and the EPs), Mark Deutrom was on the Atlantic Records through Honky, and Kevin Rutmanis took over for the trilogy records through to Hostile Ambient Takeover. For the most part, there wasn't any huge problem with most of these folks (most of whom were pretty accomplished), they just left the band. Rutmanis is the big exception: he just up and disappeared on the band one day. They eventually tracked him down, he re-joined briefly, and then was kicked out due to a drug habit. Most of this churn at bass didn't really end up screwing up their sound or anything, it was just kind of a strange feature of the band.
At this point in the story, they had just finished the Lustmord collaboration, and they also made two records with Jello Biafra (which are pretty good, if you can take late-model Biafra). I saw them on the Sieg Howdy tour, and it was pretty awesome. The Melvins opened for themselves, playing a full set of their own songs, leaving the stage, and then coming back on with balaclavas on to play a full set backing up Jello. I still don't know how they didn't collapse from head exhaustion.
Anyway, Rutmanis had just been kicked out, and apparently they had a solid brainwave, because they replaced Rutmanis with not just another bassist, but with an entire rhythm section, importing Jared Warren (bass) and Coady Willis (drums) from Big Business (note: that was the entirety of Big Business at the time). The result, (A) Senile Animal, was the best record that the Melvins had made since probably Lysol, 14 years earlier. The new lineup inspired some tight songwriting from Buzz, with straight-ahead muscular stoner rock played at the top of their form. The second drum set added a ton of texture and Warren's backing vocals really sharpened up things on that end. It's a truly great record, punishing from beginning to end. You can hear both drum sets really well in the down-tempo "Civilized Worm", or the riff-tastic "The Hawk", best listened to on headphones.
The Melvins were apparently done with their avant-guard phase, and back to making rock again, and the world was a better place. Nude With Boots followed a couple years later, with the same line up and the same quality. It sounds to my ears like there's a little Zeppelin mixed in with the usual Sabbath for this record, but that might just be the first track, "The Kicking Machine". I guess there's a big of Page in "Suicide In Progress" as well.
At any rate, I think the album is objectively as good as the previous one, although it's less surprising, so I tend to prefer (A) Senile Animal, which was a huge breath of fresh air. A third album with the double-duo lineup followed, The Bride Screamed Murder (yet another great album title). It's still a very good album, although I don't think it quite rises to the other two albums. It's not quite as focused, more noodly, and just not quite as listenable as the other two. There's still plenty to enjoy on it, such as "The Water Glass" turning into a march.
There's also the almost tender opening of "Hospital Up", which undergoes a couple transformations along its 5:40 running time. Of course, "Hospital Up" ends with a minute and a half of total nonsense, because hey, why not? The self-indulgence comes through on a totally pointless 7:39 cover of "My Generation". Ah well. Things end with "P.G. X 3" about which the less said, the better. OK, a few things: harmonica, a capella singing, echoey unaccompanied guitar, a child counting...it's all in there, folks!
Having made three (very good or better) records with the same lineup, it was of course time to change things up. There was a remix record (Chicken Switch, which I never listened to) and a new album featuring, yes, a new lineup. Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, among others) showed up to play double-bass on the record. Calling themselves "Melvins Lite" (which I've always hoped means that the Warren/Willis lineup will be back at some point), they made Freak Puke.
From the first track, featuring bowed bass, you knew this was going to be a different sound. And it was, with frequently a more subdued sound to things. The acoustic bass sounds great with the other guys. The first song almost sounds Calexico-like, to me, which isn't a bad thing at all. You continue to get bowing from Dunn throughout the record, which is a dimension nobody realized was missing from Melvins records until we heard it.
As yet another piece of formal experimentation from the band, this ranks with one of their most successful. It probably helped that Osborne had played with Dunn before (in Fantomas), but while it's unmistakably a Melvins record, it ends up with a much different texture. "Worm Farm Waltz" is a good example of how you have what sounds like a normal Melvins song, but it winds up being of a different character.
I really like the record a lot. It's the strongest of all their various serious departures, and I wouldn't mind hearing more from the Melvins Lite lineup. It does continue their annoying habit of tacking on stupid throwaway endings to songs, as in "Worm Farm Waltz" above, but whatever, those can be ignored. There's less crunch than on the previous several records, but enough that you don't forget who you're listening to. Oh, and there's a cover of "Let Me Roll It" from Wings, so that happened. It's actually kind of faithful to the original.
POST DOUBLE-DUO YEARS
There's not really a through line for the remaining albums. The next record they put out was Everybody Loves Sausages, another covers album, and therefore is inessential almost by definition. But, hey, they cover Venom's "Warhead", that's fun. And Queen's "You're My Best Friend".
Yeah, as I say, inessential. Tres Cabrones followed, with the "Los Melvins" lineup. Mike Dillard, original drummer back in 1983, returns on the skins, with Dale Crover becoming the...eighth?...bassist to show up on a Melvins album. Hopefully he won't leave! The album is looser in a lot of ways than the contemporaneous material, and Dillard isn't quite the Bonham imitator that Crover is, so it's not their strongest record. Still, there's a fun solo on "City Dump", which also sounds like a malfunctioning vehicle, so that's good.
And, did you want to hear the Melvins take on "99 Bottles of Beer"? You did not, but there it is anyway. A couple moments of fucking around aside, it's a pretty good album. It's not going to make anyone forget their many career highlights or anything. It's pretty far down on their depth chart, but there's no shame in that.
Another album, and another lineup change followed. Up next were two Butthole Surfers (Paul Leary and J.D. Pinkus), bringing the Melvins back up to a quartet for the first time in three albums. Something that was pretty different is that Leary actually wrote a couple songs on the record, including "You Can Make Me Wait", and they're very recognizable as being from a different songwriter. I think the Butthole Melvins is a decent album, but I think the band is kind of trying to find their way a little bit.
And rather than figure it out, Basses Loaded came out next, where they just leaned into the parade of bassists and tried to speed run things. Six different people handle the low end on the album, including Crover himself, alongside most of the recent folks (Pinkus, Dunn, Warren) and a certain Krist Novoselic. While things are once again written by the Melvins, providing a certain cohesion, it can't help but feel a little fractured. "Choco Plumbing" is a good tune from the album, but it's a little bit treading water.
Oh god, time to speed this up. A Walk With Love & Death is amazingly the first Melvins double record, but it's really just kind of two records stuck together. The Death disc is a "conventional" Melvins record, featuring Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) as full-time bassist after guesting on Basses Loaded. There are probably more lighter moments than seen since Freak Puke, as the band usually takes at least a few cues from their bassist ("Black Heath", the opener, shows some of this). The other album, the Love disc, is actually a film soundtrack. And it's just full-on experimentation again, which we hadn't seen since probably Honky. So, about 20 years?
Finally, we come to their most recent record, Pinkus Abortion Technician, the album name clearly a tribute to the Butthole Surfers' old classic, Locust Abortion Technician. And, indeed, they have a Butthole Surfer on board, with J.D. Pinkus back for another spin on bass. But, hell, the figured why not keep McDonald around. I'm seein' double! Four bassists! It's clearly a little bit of a tribute on the tunes also, with four songs having songwriting credits from Pinkus, and two covers of Surfers songs added. Oh, and a Beatles cover. It's mostly not a Melvins record, then, but a record that the Melvins played. It's good work, but not essential.
RANK THEM ALREADY, LOSER
So, after all of that, where are we at? I count 24 Melvins records I mentioned here? albums that I own, not counting collaborations or remix albums. Let me take a whack at a quick stack rank and see what I come up with:
GENRE DEFINING CLASSICS:
GREAT RECORDS I RECOMMEND WITHOUT RESERVATION:
(A) Senile Animal
Nude With Boots
VERY GOOD RECORDS, YOU SHOULD GET THEM IF YOU LIKE THE ABOVE:
The Bride Screamed Murder
Hostile Ambient Takeover
DECENT RECORDS THAT HAVE SOMETHING TO RECOMMEND THEM, BUT ARE FLAWED IN SOME SIGNIFICANT WAY:
A Walk With Love & Death
Gluey Porch Treatments
Pinkus Abortion Technician
FOR COMPLETISTS ONLY, WITH SOME INTERESTING BITS, BUT SERIOUSLY MELVINS, COME ON:
Everybody Loves Sausages
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU OBTAIN THESE RECORDS. AS A MATTER OF FACT, YOU SHOULDN'T EVEN READ THEIR NAMES:
Colossus of Destiny
So, there we are. If you start at the top and work your way down, don't feel bad about stopping at any point on the way. The Melvins have made a lot of music over the course of their now 35 year career. A lot of it is great, most of it is challenging, and some of it is...misguided. But they're still making vital music today, which is an amazing accomplishment. Here's to