Grunge Schmunge

The Melvins don't give a damn, and so should you

It may be difficult to remember now, but back in the days before the ascension of MTV, before grunge, before Kurt Cobain nailed himself to the cross in the name of his art, the rock underground lived and breathed a contrarian spirit. You didn't have to actually understand your instrument to yank something new out of it; the thing was, or seemed to be, to create. Something. Anything. You didn't have to have -- or even want -- a million greenbacks. You didn't have to have a tour bus. You didn't have to have an MTV Buzz Bin video. And you sure as hell didn't have to have a hit single.

The Melvins -- now three CDs deep into a deal with Atlantic Records -- still don't. They spent a paltry $50,000 recording their latest release, Stag. They toured on this summer's Lollapalooza bill in a rental car, because, says Melvins guitarist and vocal enigma Buzz Osborne (a.k.a. King Buzzo), "We've got a major label that would give us tour support, and we could spend it on a tour bus. But in actuality, you're spending your own money, so we have to watch out for that kind of stuff and tour within our means."

The Melvins produced a video for their new single, "Bar-X -- The Rocking M," with celebrated porn director Gregory Dark, and though the video is allegedly G rated, "MTV just told us flat out, 'We don't want it,' " says Osborne. " 'We have no interest in playing your stuff on any of our shows, none of the alternative late night shows, nothing.' "

Nonetheless, if you ask most any of the dozens of critics who've spent some recent quality time listening to Stag, the band has made its most adventurous, most creative, most contrarian release to date. And this at a time when -- according to all known laws of commerce and novelty -- they ought to have called it a day and tendered their applications at the local convenience store.

And what about radio support? Don't hold your breath. Of all the once-underground bands whose ties to, or patronage from, Kurt Cobain lifted them into the mass-commercial realm, the Melvins' ties were perhaps strongest, and Cobain's fandom most sincere. But for one reason or another, the gravy train never stopped at the Melvins' station.

To which Osborne responds, "Fuck 'em. I don't give a shit. Fine. It's not gonna make us not make records or not be a band."

It all started, more or less, in 1984 in Aberdeen, Washington, when the Melvins -- at that point consisting of Osborne and two now-former bandmates -- decided they wanted to be the world's "slowest, heaviest band." Sneering at an underground dogma that embraced speed as punk rock's savior, the Melvins went glacial, churning out volcanic metal riffs that made Black Sabbath sound like a band on a pogo stick. The music that resulted earned an uncomprehending nod as the sludge that would later congeal into grunge.

"It's nothing that I'm really interested in now," says Osborne. "But back then, that was a very adventurous move, you know, in a world of 200-mile-per-hour skinhead bands. It wasn't real well received, but we never stopped."

"It wasn't real well received, but we never stopped" might as well be the Melvins' motto. The band's three indie releases, along with a trio of solo efforts a la Kiss, were fine for legend but failed to move the band forward commercially, and by the time the Melvins debuted modestly on Atlantic with Houdini in 1993, the group (by then Osborne, bassist Mark Deutrom and drummer Dale Crover) had moved out of sludge and into something more closely resembling heavy metal. Last year's follow-up, Stoner Witch, sold a measly 70,000 copies -- even less than Houdini -- which must have made the band Atlantic's alternative loss leader of the year. All of which brings us to Stag, a release that is surely the product of a long progression toward progressive weirdness, but which comes twisting out of the speakers like some overnight revelation. For the Melvins, boundaries are starting to fall to the ground like gut-shot pigeons. Stag's leadoff track, "The Bit," walks a leaden stutter-stomp that says "Melvins" in all the old recognizable ways, but the standout riff is played by Crover on a sitar. "Bar-X -- The Rocking M" sounds like the Melvins woke up one morning to find themselves inhabiting the bodies of some Southern California ska/punk/funk outfit spinning turntables and blowing brass (actually, that's Fishbone's Dirty Walton on trombone). For you longtime Houston locals, the tune sounds like an outtake from a late-era Sprawl session (which is something, certainly, that no one has ever before said of the Melvins). "Black Bock" is a strummed acoustic number with nursery-rhyme plucking patterns and Osborne doing his best cloud-bound vocal impression of Syd Barrett. "Soup" is an ambient experiment in viscous bubbling. On "Buck Owens," the Melvins cross Rush with their long-eschewed stylistic nemesis, speed metal. "Berthas" sounds like Motorhead fronted by a whispery crooner. And "Cottonmouth" is Crover's stab at playing a parody of (homage to?) muddy Delta blues, complete with train whistle.

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