Seattle Grunge Heroes Continue Road-Warrior Ways
MADISON, Wis. — Watching the Melvins rattle an audiences’ innards onstage with their ground-shaking guitar riffs and gut-punching drum beats, one idea crystallizes: Are the Melvins really a heavy metal joke? Or are they constantly putting its fans on?
Twenty years is a long time to carry on with a full-time, artistic shtick, but the group is just the bunch of musical weirdoes to stubbornly tickle and toy with a headbanging audiences’ expectations. The Melvins are originators of the Seattle music scene and remain dedicated purveyors of hardcore punk and cartoon metal. But, they’re also the ultimate fans of Kiss showmanship and have recorded heavy-rock masterworks only to follow them up with un-listenable, feedback tone poems that sound like vacuum cleaners and boom boxes in an electronics store rumble.
At Sunday night’s show at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, the band’s concert experience paid homage as much to the members’ sly sense of humor as the hard-hitting songs that they love. Their merchandise table was ideally suited to their audience of black T-shirted, comic-book geeks. They had smartass cartoon posters, gory, “Evil Dead”-loving T-shirts and surprise, surprise a Melvins-inspired comic book! Onstage, the band’s bassist was dressed like a plump Greek god while the group’s frontman played the whole show dressed in a cowgirl print mumu. Taking all this in, another idea comes through: These guys aren’t playing to please anybody. They gave up on that plan a long ago.
Life hasn’t been as easy as it could have been for the Melvins. Taking its musical cues from Black Sabbath as well as Black Flag, the band evangelized a sound that combined the estranged branches of heavy rock. Taking the opposite tact from Motorhead and years before the music world clued into Seattle grunge, the group proved that hardcore punk and meathead metal were two sides of the same coin. Their songs said that these often quibbling subgeneres weren’t as contradictory as its fanatical followers would have dilatants believe.
Unfortunately, the Melvins have failed to reap many rewards for this trailblazing concept. Baby-brother bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden would eventually expropriate the Melvins sound and go on to sell out arenas around the globe. The Melvins, however, remained an alternative-rock novelty. When the grunge tide rolled back, the group was still a leper to both purist camps and were essentially left where they had started: Playing mammoth-sized songs in tiny clubs. They spent the last decade recording album after album on indie labels and touring the country in a deluxe van for an endless string of one-nighters.
Despite what the band members might say, the pain and jealousy was especially acute considering the Melvins’ tight relationship with Nirvana. The band and Kurt Cobain had grown up together, played shows and partied in the same circles. The Melvins’ Dale Crover would often fill in when Nirvana needed a drummer and it was frontman Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne who suggested to future Foo Fighter Dave Grohl that he knew a great band who needed someone to man the drum riser. All this was two decades ago and the Melvins have logged a lot of miles since then.
On Sunday, one couldn’t help but mark the passage of time. The Melvins were selling caricature posters that depict Osborne yelling, “I killed Kurt Kobain,” to a horrified Nirvana fan. (The misspelling was a nod that belies the close friendship they once shared). Meanwhile, the Melvins were playing a club only a few blocks away from where Nirvana began recording their breakthrough “Nevermind.” The juxtaposition restates how long the Melvins have remained committed on their path to meager results. Even more telling was Osbornes’ infamous Sideshow Bob nest of hair. Once jet black, the wavy octopus on his head is now completely gray with a shock of white in the front a la “The Bride of Frankenstein.”
Although the Melvins have remained steadfast musically, they haven’t exactly stood in place. The band, which has always been a trio, has in recent years expanded into a quartet. A portion of opening act, Big Business, also serves as the Melvins’ new rhythm section. The addition of a second drummer to mirror Crover gives the Melvins the kind of sonic muscle to physically affect a crowd with every thud of the kick drum and cymbal crash.
The band’s hour-and-10-minute set drew heavily on their two most recent albums, “(A) Senile Animal” and the brand-new “Nude With Boots.” Both discs are among the strongest and consistently aggressive in the group’s catalog, but that didn’t mean the Melvins were going to meet every metalhead’s wishes and just rock out for 70 minutes. The albums’ title track opened the performance with Osborne strumming some almost catchy MC5-inspired riffs and easing the audience into what often times resembled a heavy metal street fight rife with pregnant pauses, fake macho posturing and patience-pushing fake-outs.
Those expecting the ensemble to thrash listeners from the get-go had to wait until the fourth song, “Civilized Worm,” to be rolled over by the Melvins’ thunderous onslaught. As “Civilized Worm” and many of the newer songs exemplify, the group’s sound now is all about duplication, with the ultimate effect being the combo wants to intimidate listeners as much as entertain them. Osborne shares bellowing vocals with new bassist Jared Warren while drummer Coady Willis partners with Crover to create rumbling tsunamis of drums.
In between the punk-ish sprints or the sludging riffs, the Melvins pushed many fans to their breaking points with extended, plodding soundscapes of feedback and screwy squeaking. Those looking to crowdsurf had to wait and wait through several songs before the mechanized blasts of energy of “Blood Witch” or the guitar-bass boxing match of “Hawk.” As its albums testify, the Melvins know riffs. Withholding the assault wasn’t a case of the combo torturing its fans as much as managing anticipation and perhaps, tweaking those who wanted this performance to be like any other at a metal bar. Headbangers beware!
The band’s wry sense of the humor became even more explicit as the show dragged on. A cover of the Who’s “My Generation” was rearranged to be almost unrecognizable. One of rock’s most famous songs was thoroughly Melvinized as Osborne grafted a horror-movie guitar riff onto it and the song’s frantic tempo was slowed to something akin to an ominous stroll through a haunted house. Another song that was cheekily reinvented was when Osborne and Warren sang a straight-faced, acapella version of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It had some onlookers chuckling and others hoisting their lighters in the air. It seems nothing is sacred and we should be glad the Melvins think so.
To cap off the show, the band dug deep into its ’90s heyday to drag out its lethargic, Sabbath-style epic, “Boris.” Warren, dressed like Zeus in a tunic and green, sequin-adorned headband, played the song’s signature bass line so that it slithered like an anaconda wrapping itself slowly around every listeners’ ears. This was all the more impressive when his headband fell from his forehead to cover his eyes. He continued to play blindfolded for most of the song while Osborne and the twin drummers pulverized the die-hards. Osbornes’ riffs were his heaviest yet and pounced on each person. The drum fills slapped each audience members’ chests like a thunderclap. This workout took us beyond the five-minute mark and there was no escape from its oppressiveness. If they wanted to clear the bar, this was a good choice.
“Boris” didn’t end the performance with the kind of explosion — musical or otherwise — but it made it clear that the Melvins play by their own rules. They might have once inspired a flannel-wearing army only to have fate play a joke on them by denying them the fruits of their labor. Twenty years later, maybe it’s the Melvins who have had the last laugh. They’re still here and making irreverently heavy music on their terms. For those feeling sorry for these guys, that’s the Melvins’ greatest joke of all.
Remaining Melvins Tour Dates:
- Monday, Aug. 4, Chicago
- Tuesday, Aug. 5, Detroit
- Wednesday, Aug. 6, Cleveland
- Thursday, Aug. 7, Buffalo, N.Y.
- Friday, Aug. 8, Rochester, N.Y.
- Saturday, Aug. 9, Boston
- Sunday, Aug. 10, Northampton, Mass.
- Tuesday, Aug. 12, New Haven, Conn.
- Wednesday, Aug. 13, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Thursday, Aug. 14, New York
- Friday, Aug. 15, Baltimore
- Saturday, Aug. 16, Carrboro, N.C.
- Sunday, Aug. 17, Atlanta
- Monday, Aug. 18, Athens, Geo.
- Wednesday, Aug. 20, New Orleans
- Thursday, Aug. 21, Houston
- Friday, Aug. 22, Austin, Texas
- Saturday, Aug. 23, Dallas
- Monday, Aug. 25, Albuquerque, N.M.
- Tuesday, Aug. 26, Tucson, Ariz.
- Wednesday, Aug. 27, Phoenix
- Thursday, Aug. 28, San Diego
- Friday, Aug. 29, Pomona, Calif.
- Sunday, Aug. 31, Los Angeles
For More Info:
- Soundbytes CD Review: Melvins Remain Keepers Of Flame For Hardcore
- The Melvins Official Web Site
- The Melvins’ Official MySpace.com Page
- Ipecac Recordings’ Official Melvins Site
- The Melvins.net (Unofficial Web Site)
- MelvinsWiki (Unofficial)
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 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.