Melvins (also known as ‘The Melvins’ or ’Melvins Lite’ depending on who you ask/which album you’re using as a reference) are one of the strangest, most unpredictable and most exciting bands of the past thirty years. With twenty three studio albums – soon to be twenty four, with the release of Hold It In in October – and several EPs, B side collections and live albums to their name, the band’s prolific output defies both expectation and clear categorisation. “Metal, hard rock, electronic experimentalism, punk, blues, pop, noise rock… no matter who is in the band at any given time – and the line-up has been known to fluctuate over the years, with vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover the only constant presences – Melvins continually delve into all sorts of musical avenues with a compellingly bizarre sense of humour and a genuinely autonomous attitude, doing whatever the hell they want and never slowing down or succumbing to stagnation.”
It’s tough to pick just one Melvins album to talk about for this feature, but their 1996 album Stag has a healthy blend of accessibility and far out weirdness which makes it a good starting point for newcomers. It has the usual hallmarks of a Melvins record; tightly scatterbrained guitar riffs, jolting time signatures and cryptic, enigmatic (OK, often nonsensical) lyrics from Osborne, built on a reliably solid foundation in Crover’s fantastic drumming (Crover also provides other instrumentation throughout, such as occasional guitar, moog synth and sitar). Providing bass on the album is Mark Deutrom (who also handles extra duties on some songs, including baritone guitar and piano).
The album’s varied instrumentation really adds to the sheer strangeness of some of the songs, and gives the whole thing an almost schizophrenic tone (in a good way). It veers between heavy metal riffs, bursts of jagged noise and poppy melody, finding time to cram in elements of country such as on ‘Black Bock’ (complete with whistling!) and the train-rollin’ slide blues of ‘Cottonmouth’. It’s as if Stag operates between the powerfully heavy and the lightly melodic, dipping its toes into both pools in equal measure. Opener ‘The Bit’ is absolutely crushing and remains a common Melvins fan favourite, and ‘Bar-X The Rocking M’ is a taste of the band at their most strangely groovy, breaking off into a jazzy middle eight with a lurching valve trombone solo.
The album has a vein of tongue-in-cheek creepiness running throughout. For example, ‘Yacobs Lab’ is like an eerie dirge version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, Deutrom’s bass sounding like some deep echo in a dark well as sinister electronic noises build and swirl in the background. ‘Goggles’ uses guitar feedback as though simulating somebody screaming in a nightmare, and then follows up on its nasty atmosphere with some droning bass and sludgy stabs of guitar, Osborne whispering over the crashing din before wigging out into heavily distorted screaming.
Stag‘s grinning madman mentality is summed up nicely on one of its best tracks: ‘Skin Horse’ begins with muted chugging guitar, rising to a euphoric ‘chorus’ (or as close to a chorus as the song gets) and then Osborne’s voice is fed through a chipmunk vocal effect, and the rest of the track becomes a twinkling, child-like lullaby on acid. It’s like the Teletubbies got really fucked up and hijacked a rock song. It’s really odd, it comes out of nowhere… and it’s brilliant. The same could be said of this whole album – and Melvins – in general.