2006 / Music

Review: Melvins Remain Keepers Of Flame For Hardcore

Seattle Grunge Forefathers Release New Disc

While most revolutions — musical or otherwise — can be counted on to devour their children, the ones who survive do so by staying true to their mission. History has proven that in uncertain times, cool consistency will always outlast popular fervor.

Photo: Ipecac Recordings

Photo: Ipecac Recordings

Mocking sales figures, pop fashion trends and fortune alike, the Washington state-reared, California-based Melvins are such an example of tenacity. The band is still alive after nearly 20 years together and releasing ever more albums of their unique brand of heavy rock. The group’s new album, “A Senile Animal,” is the latest example of the band’s monolithically staying the course.

Hailing from the same neck of the woods as Nirvana, the band frequently loaned their drummer to a youthful Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic and thoroughly mentored the pair in the ways of punk rock.

But, more than having famous friends, the group should be regarded for basically developing the musical template of ’90s grunge: the thunderous, heavy guitars, staggeringly slow tempos and concussive drumming. This blend of hardcore punk abrasiveness and heavy metal riffage would provide albums of fodder for its Seattle neighbors like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana. What the Melvins lacked in savvy songwriting skills, the group could made up for in consistency, producing album on top of album of mammoth-sized, bellowing rockers.

Timing, however, has never seemed to be on the Melvins’ side. Their creative peak came too late for the group to be lionized like other ’80s hardcore bands like Black Flag, Fugazi, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets. At the same time, they were too early to be considered contemporaries of their grunge progeny (the band had decamped for California years before).

With the tides of popularity emerging and then cresting around them, the group has settled into a comfortable role as cult band and keepers of the flame. Exiled to a string of farm-league indie labels, they have forged an identity that seems ideally suited to their stubbornly-followed, occasionally cartoon-y aesthetic sense.

“A Senile Animal” is really more of the same from the band, if not a little better. Again, musical uniformity is part of the Melvins’ charm, like a tradesman ever improving his craft. Its 10 songs are a listener’s endurance match, as one must duck the rain of blows from the guitar and drums and then wait out long, softer, almost jam-y instrumental passages. Vocalist-guitarist Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbornes’ booming, guttural vocals are still a surprising combination of allure and menace but without surrendering to the hypermachismo rife in most metal bands. His yelling is more about the recreating the sound of horror movies — as key influence Black Sabbath did — than trying to sound like a tough guy.

In fact, the biggest change for the Melvins is their new hires. Besides mainstays Osborne and powerhouse drummer Dale Crover, the group now includes second drummer Coady Willis and Jared Warren, the latest in a Spinal Tap-like line of bassists. The group was never short of power, especially with Crover’s brutalistic stickwork and leaden foot, but the extra pair of hands makes the group’s earth-shaking rhythms even more massive.

The disc’s best songs hit hardest with the fewest interruptions. “Blood Witch” has a stilted riff and moves forward at a stiff pace, which gives space for the dueling drums to play off each other and inject percussive flourishes. The song only breaks free of these constraints when Osborne’s guitar exhales hot blasts of volume after each verse but quickly acquiesces again. For the last third of the song, the group can no longer hold the energy back and the riffs fly free, only diverted with occasional Primus-inspired drumstick clacking digressions.

“Civilized Worm” roars to life like a sputtering tank engine and is equally prone to momentary distraction, but moves at a steady, languid pace. Besides featuring one of the record’s most accessible guitar motifs, it also benefits from the band members joining Osborne on choral backing vocals on nearly every lyric. Osborne’s understated soloing is part Stooges-esque skinny guitar lines and part Sonic Youth’s shrill noise. The song concludes with Crover and Willis creating a thunderous roar on their drums that sounds like a galloping herd of horses.

The Melvins’ pick up speed on “A History of Drunks,” which follows traditional hardcore conventions (i.e. they play really fast). As the riffs rumble, there is some raga-like, prog-rock interplay between Osborne and Warren tucked in to the end of the song’s chorus. Likewise, “You’ve Never Been Right” chugs by like Sabbath’s “Paranoid” before collapsing into another tumbling drum solo.

“Hawk” fuses together the group’s trademark lumbering and charging rhythms. The track is two and a half minutes of an unrelenting guitar free-for-all, with the vocals and hammering drums pinned along for the wild ride. Osborne’s guitar thrusts forward and sweeps around like a monster whose limbs are swinging wildly. The music is all explosive power and has no sympathy for the already pummeled listener.

By contrast, it is only natural to feel some sympathy for the Melvins as each new record becomes ever harder to find and they’re stuck playing the same small clubs that they did in the ’80s. They certainly missed out on the big payday, but the Melvins remain one of the few Seattle bands still around and perhaps the only one with its musical soul intact. Sure, they are one-dimensional musically, but there’s a degree of inventiveness in their narrow focus that has allowed them to remain immune to the changing times. Their music still survives. And in that way, so does their revolution.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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