The Melvins been called the godfathers of grunge (an honourific they share with Neil Young). They were one of Kurt Cobain's favourite bands (but aren't they all?). They've pummeled their way into the metal canon, while also finding cachet with indie rock dilettantes and tastemakers, which is, yes, a nimble feat, but moreover, a big, fat anomaly that puts them in league with Sabbath, Zeppelin, and, really, who else?
It took them 26 years to crack the Billboard 200 ("The top 200 what?" asked singer, guitarist, and founder Buzz Osborne), clinching, just once, the #200 slot — and it was their unremarkable 2010 release The Bride Screamed Murder that did it. For all of the press clippings and acclaim, Montesano, Washington's Melvins haven't sold a million records or made much money — a discordance they're well aware of (watch King Buzzo try to buy a house with indie cred). They're rock & roll's cockroaches — resilient little buggers, important to our ecology, who've survived for 30 years now on detritus and t-shirt sales and rider beer when they're lucky. From the polished spew of the radio, they're hard to spot, but turn over a few couch cushions and you'll find evidence of 'em everywhere.
On November 5, Melvins issued Tres Cabrones, their 22nd studio album (depending how you count), and as close a return to their original 1983 lineup as they're willing to offer. (Longtime drummer Dale Crover picks up the bass to make way for original member Mike Dillard. Matt Lukin remains a Seattle-area carpenter.) With all of the turnaround in personnel, the different banners (like the albums with Jello Biafra or the 2011 Melvins Lite project featuring Mr. Bungle's Trevor Dunn on double bass), and, certainly, the daunting catalogue, the Melvins can be a hard band to get your head around.
For a while now, I've known Stoner Witch and sweet little else. What better reason to dive down the rabbit hole myself? Over the past two weeks, I've dosed my ears with nothing but Melvins in the hopes that my brain would form the synapses to "get it" or be irreparably fried in the trying. Here are the fruits: a primer covering as much ground as I could — ten essential Melvins songs across ten albums.
"Revolve," Stoner Witch, 1994
Let's ease ourselves in. This is as close to a classic rock tune as the Melvins have ever penned and easily one of their most accessible works. It sits on the front-half of '94s powerful Stoner Witch, the second of three albums put out by Atlantic Records in the years after Nirvana made grunge a hot commodity for major labels. "Revolve" nods at the melodic hooks of lite metal acts like Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses, but the chugging guitar suggests a closer allegiance to Motörhead and their ilk. All the while, Buzz's growl points at Swans and things more sinister. It's worth noting: those verses are what Metallica always wanted to sound like.
"Sacrifice," Lysol, 1992
And then the floor gives out beneath you. Lysol presents Melvins, the drone and doom lords — slower than a death march, darker than an abyss (isn't writing about metal fun?). I eased you in with all that classic rock, GnR schmaltz, but it's better you learn this face of the Melvins sooner than later. In the rotation of bass players, Joe Preston, who would go on to play with other heavyweights like Earth, High on Fire, and Sunn O))), took up duties for the album.
"Sacrifice" is a cover of the Flipper song, but the Melvins bleed out all of that flippant, punk energy. It's now just a carcass, better suited for the dirge. Perhaps one of the Melvins' most enduring qualities is how they wear their influences on their sleeve. They're unabashed rock nerds brave enough to pay a little homage (and, hey, sometimes a lot of homage) every now and again. In fact, the Melvin's recorded catalogue includes some 40-plus covers (check out our favourites here), which kind of earns them a special station, however unofficial, as arbiters of the rock & roll songbook, especially the chapters on punk and hard rock.
"Night Goat," Houdini, 1993
The Melvins were called "sell-outs" at the '93 release of Houdini, their first album on a major. Isn't that precious? Now it's a fan favourite — they played it front to back at the 2005 All Tomorow's Parties and again at the 2007 San Miguel Primavera Sound festival. And for good reason, the thing rips with sludgy menace the whole way through. Take "Night Goat," here. It runs you flat and just keeps on going.
Cobain was tapped to produce the album, but it was 1993 and Kurt was already kind of a mess, so they fired him before the sessions were complete, though some of that work ended up on the record anyways. Lori "Lorax" Black, the daughter of Shirley Temple (yes, Shirley Temple's daughter was in the Melvins), is listed as the bass player, but in hindsight Buzzo says her credit was more vanity than anything; she was on her way out of the band, so Crover and Buzz actually performed her parts.
"Boris," Bullhead, 1991
Here's one from the Melvins' third studio album, this time featuring Lorax on bass proper. Bullhead is heavier and slower than anything that came in their catalog before it, a lumbering step away from their earlier, often hardcore-leaning efforts, which were flavoured more by Black Flag's My War. Revel in its mucky trudge, but know this isn't some straight ahead glowerfest. "Boris" is a bit of Melvins, the merry pranksters, joking with, and more often, joking on their fans. Rumour has it Boris was the name of Buzz's cat. So chances are, this sickly, black anthem is actually about Osborne's tabby.
Want more capers? The band swears this is their best song; there's this Leif Garrett-fronted, faithful-if-cheesy rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," probably Kurt's least favourite song; and they did a thing like cover "You're In The Army Now," "99 Bottles of Beer," and the campfire classic/Cheech & Chong's "Tie My Pecker To a Tree" for their latest. But this is where the Melvins transcend simple music-making and knock on performance art. And if you were wondering, yes, "Boris" is the song that gave the Japanese noise rock band their name.
"Civilized Worm," (A) Senile Animal, 2006
Kevin Rutmanis from Cows and Tomahawk left after playing bass in the band from 1998-2005, so King Buzzo and Crover annexed Big Business' Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis (yeah, two drummers) for 2006's (A) Senile Animal. While two drummers can approach the height of decadence, trading solos or turning every track into some patchouli-scented drum circle, the Melvins use the twin cavemen to double down on the heavy. "Civilized Worm" has this excellent late '90s early 2000s space rock vibe à la Shiner, Hum, and Failure, coloured a little outside-of-the-lines by Buzz's trademark drone.
"Eye Flys," Gluey Porch Treatments, 1987
Speaking of early efforts, here's track one off of their 1987 debut full-length Gluey Porch Treatments. It's basically four minutes of sludgy, squealing noises until that high-hat opens up and it lays out the blueprints for grunge in about as elegant a way as you can do a thing like "lay out the blueprints for grunge." Not that there weren't other bands working in this space at the same time or before (Green River, Skin Yard, Soundgarden), but "Eye Flys" is seminal.
"Oven," Ozma, 1989
Another oldie. Ozma is the Melvin's second studio release. "Oven" kicks off with some hardcore bashing before Buzzo has fun with a spell of schizoid singing, and we all see why exactly Mike Patton fell in love with the band. It's quick, too, in and out in a minute-and-a-half — something they stepped away from in future albums.
"The Bit," Stag, 1996
Stag is the last album the Melvins made on Atlantic before the suits realized they hadn't drafted the next Nirvana. "The Bit" kicks off the album. It hums along with some pretty sitar strings, another notch on the Melvins psych-musts belt, before falling right off the cliff. Heavy shit. How many snare heads did Crover go through recording this? He's like a blacksmith on that thing, just hammering away.
"Lovely Butterfly," Honky, 1997
Atlantic Records drops the Melvins and they go and release this beauty, packed with abrasive, industrial experiments like "Lovely Butterfly." Does it surprise you that Patton signed 'em to Ipecac for the very next record?
"Little Judas Chongo," Hostile Ambient Takeover, 2002
Hostile Ambient Takeover is a strange album. There's a drum solo track; a Depeche Mode-aping synth jam, a blistering punk aside, and a whole bunch of bluesy detours. But at the center of the record, "Little Judas Chongo" lays bare the band's beating heart. This is the Melvins' legacy marched into the 21st century: a palette of gnarly guitar sounds digging into some exemplary doom licks, that elemental, reptilian bass that just slithers along and keeps the whole thing in line, Crover's heavy on the war drum (with a few nice fills, too), while King Buzzo makes his proclamations.
Their sound here hasn't traveled terribly far from even the Ozma days, but it has distilled, become more robust and better realized. Once you get a taste for that sound, you quickly notice that the Melvins are the only game in town. The way they blend psychedelia, classic rock, punk, doom, and noise, all tempered with that twisted wit, is a secret family recipe. People crave it. They seek it out. They travel from afar. It's no wonder King Buzzo's court has so many loyal followers.
Bonus: Cover Songs
If we haven't scratched your Melvins' itch just yet, read our favourite covers performed by the Melvins.