The alternative revolution, and later the internet, have made it difficult to remember those heady days before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” invaded the radio and the rock world shifted towards punk rock for ever more. When the Melvins formed, in 1983, REM was putting out its first album for a Gen X audience going off to college for the first time. The first wave of punk had petered out, a victim of its own excesses. The metal underground was spinning up both it’s thrash varieties (Metallica, Slayer, Venom, et al.) and the Sunset Strip pop variety (Motley Crue and friends). The nascent Pacific Northwest scene was just forming high school bands and banging out Black Sabbath riffs in grungy basements and garages. Amongst these, of course, were the Melvins, named for a particularly obnoxious supervisor at a Thriftway in their hometown of Montesano, WA. They shared their scene’s love of 70s hard rock but tempered it through the grinding, off-kilter noise-riffs that were featured on Black Flag’s My War album. As far as local scene bands went, they became minor-league famous by the time Ratt was making it big and attracted a following of stoners and miscreants, first and foremost their sometime-homeless roadie, Kurt Cobain (who claimed the Melvins as his favourite band – and why not, he ripped them off enough). Cobain, of course, would go on to slay the hair metal bands with a single album and usher in the post-Boomer era of rock ‘n’ roll, and the Melvins would get briefly caught up in that wave of mass major label signings. By 1997 magazines like Guitar World were referring to them as part of the unfortunate wave of “boomerang bands” that went from major labels to indie labels when they failed to sell millions of albums, but the band has had incredible staying power over the years, putting out a slew of albums that have been all over the map when it comes to ambient doom-drone, sludgecore metal, chunky classic rock, and a thick filter of weird humour. What follows is a guide to their studio albums, eschewing their live albums except for one key recording.
Six Songs (EP) (1986)
The earliest Melvins collection straddles the line between snarling punk rock and Black Sabbath worship. Matt Lukin plays bass here, predating his more ‘famous’ days in Mudhoney. Had anyone been paying attention (beside the Seattle underground anyway) they would have seen the way forward for hard rock: you didn’t need cheesy high-pitched vocals about Satan and you didn’t need pretty riffs. What hard rock really needed, circa 1986, was garage-recorded grime – something thick, sludgy…grungy. The term would become synonymous with the early 90s but what it really boils down to is what Osborne, Crover, and Lukin show off here: a gripping mixture of Master of Reality and My War.
Gluey Porch Treatments (1987)
By 1987 most heavy bands were either Sunset Strip Crue-wannabes or engaging in speed wars in the thrash metal underground. The Melvins, on the other hand, were playing damaged Black Flag riffs at Black Sabbath speeds with gobs of off-kilter vocals courtesy of Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne. Their debut album ups the ante on the previous year’s EP, sounding like it has a bigger recording budget solely through the typical cost-cutter of the Seattle underground: cranking the volume up until it won’t go further. Two of the songs were rewrites of tracks from Six Songs, and a third (“Leeech”) was a cast-off Green River song the band had fallen for. Part of the writing credit on that track would go to Mark Arm, who would nab bassist Matt Lukin shortly afterwards to form Mudhoney.
After switching out Matt Lukin for Buzz’s girlfriend Lori Black (daughter of Shirley Temple) they decamped to San Fransisco and began tinkering with their sound. The heart of the band on Ozma is still that careening, chunky sludge, but there are moments of further experimentation here and there. “Oven” has a moment that is just drums and Osborne shouting, with some muted guitar serving only to emphasize Crover’s pounding. “Let God Be Your Gardener” starts off almost clean, in comparison to everything else they were up to, and “Revulsion/We Reach” features chimes and weird feedback. The Kiss cover (“Love Thing”) though an instrumental slice, shows an influence on the other side of Osborne’s voice: it’s a bit Ozzy Osbourne, to be sure, but it’s also a lot of Gene Simmons love filtered through the belligerent shout of Henry Rollins.
As the alternative revolution began to break over the radio, the Melvins lengthened their songs and deepened the sludge. Whereas their first two albums would feature a large number of tracks, inflated by several under-2-minute sketches, Bullhead trims the track list down to eight songs with only two clocking in at less than three minutes. The opening track, the nearly nine minute glacial “Boris”, gave the Japanese noise rock band its name. It also features a great last-minute breakdown that shows off exactly how deliciously unhinged Buzz was (and still is). While contemporaries like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were busy cutting the bongloads with Boston and the poppier parts of the Kiss discography, the Melvins were doubling down on their ice-covered pummeling. There’s more Ozzy than Rollins on here: witness a track like “Ligature”, which approaches the haunting, soaring aspects of the best of Black Sabbath much more than their earlier albums. “It’s Shoved” should sound familiar to anyone who owns a copy of In Utero while at the same time proving Black’s worth in the band (she would leave shortly after). Bullhead is an intimidating slab of a album, a thick album that holds its own as a doom rock classic.
Lysol (“Melvins”) (1992)
Following a 1991 European tour, the joining of Joe Preston on bass, and three simultaneous solo EPs, the band recorded Lysol. It would prove to be their last album on Boner Records and the first record of the drone/doom movement of the 2000s (Sunn O))) foremost among them). Bullhead may have been a slower, denser album than either Gluey Porch Treatments or Ozma, but Lysol slowed everything down into a near-singularity. “Hung Bunny” – the first third of the album – draws out rumbling guitar noise and punctuates it with spectral moans. The rest of the album grinds on slightly faster, but not by much. In amongst everything are another pair of covers, Flipper’s “Sacrifice” and Alice Cooper’s “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, both of which the band wrestle into submission. The band had to alter the name of the album when the actual Lysol brand complained about the use of their trademark; black tape was originally used to cover the name on the side of the album art but eventually they took it out entirely.
While the band was busy making strictly non-commercial drone metal, their former roadie was busy becoming the Voice of a Generation. As sales of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains drove a new revolution in rock ‘n’ roll, hungry major label executives began to scour these bands for compatriots and influences to fuel continued growth. One of the odder choices was, of course, the Melvins, although after Kurt Cobain declared them his favourite band their move to major was likely a foregone conclusion. Signed to Atlantic Records for a three-album deal, they attempted an album that was true to themselves, despite their expensive new surroundings. Early production efforts with Cobain grew futile as the Nirvana frontman fell deeper into his heroin addiction, and Osbourne and Crover basically recorded and produced the album themselves. It returns to the same sort of stuff they were peddling on Bullhead – crushingly dense sludge-metal – but the budget is bigger and every instrument hits like a punch in the gut. Even the Kiss cover (“Goin’ Blind”) grinds like the grungiest song ever recorded. Tracks like “Honey Bucket” and “Set Me Straight” lurch like a seasick sailor into punk territory while “Hag Me” and closing track “Spread Eagle Beagle” drive it back home into the drawn-out noise drones of Lysol. “Sky Pup” adds a bass-heavy, bouncy air to the proceedings, showing some more of that Alice Cooper influence that hides beneath the monolithic sludge at times, and along with “Pearl Bomb” showed willingness to experiment with their sound. It’s hard to pick a prototypically “Melvins” album, but Houdini is pretty close.
Released on Amphetamine Reptile and titled backwards in order to get around their Atlantic contract, Prick is an album that can be succinctly summed up by King Buzzo himself: “Complete and utter nonsense, a total joke”. Prick was an outlet for weird experimental noise, fiercely non-commercial even by Melvins standards. New bassist Mark Deutrom doesn’t really get up to much as it’s pretty much a colletion of noise, jokes, feedback, country-twang sketches, and field recordings of buskers in the London Underground. Originally to be titled “Kurt Kobain”, the band changed the name to Prick at the very last minute due to Cobain’s suicide. “Larry” and “Rickets” are the only traditional songs on Prick, and both are quite rewarding. Beyond them, however, this one’s for collecters only.
Stoner Witch (1994)
The band’s second album for Atlantic widens their scope quite a bit. Right from the get-go the band adds more melody than they’d shown in their entire career to date, brought to a heady life by the addition of Garth Richardson (GGGarth) as producer. “Queen”, “Sweet Willy Rollbar”, and “Revolve” all strike out for hard rock territory rather than the sludge-noise they’d perfected on Houdini. “Goose Freight Train” brings all of that to a halt, bringing up a creepy ‘stalking you through the deserted streets’ vibe instead. “Roadbull” features schizophrenic dynamic shifts and a moment that achieves a spaghetti western version of glory. There are plenty of noisy moments on Stoner Witch – especially epic meltdowns like “At The Stake” or “June Bug”, or the pure art-noise bleeding into uptempo riffing of “Magic Pig Detective” – but the album really showed a band that was willing to push the envelope of their sound regardless of what their label might have wanted.
The sitar that opens up “The Bit” shows the way for this album: that old Melvins crunch, now with more *stuff*. Check out the horns and the scractching on “Bar-X The Rocking M”, or the trippy-as-hell middle of “Buck Owens”. Hell, check out Buzz’s mild-as-milk singing on “Black Bock” or “Skin Horse” for a real trip-out. This is the same guy that sang “Hooch” three years prior. Even a lengthy stomper like “Goggles” doesn’t follow the same tried-and-true sledgehammer path of Bullhead or Houdini; these are more like sludge tracks for the thinking person, full of weird deviations and odd nooks and crannies. On tracks like “Sterilized” and “Lacrimosa” they take the ambient drone-metal ideas they brought to Lysol and update them, adding in more of everything – more ambiance, more creepily unfocused vocals, more crashing, glacial drum hits. Stag is a wildly experimental album – probably too experimental for Atlantic, who dropped them after the album was released. After signing the band in hopes of finding the next Nirvana from a list of Cobain’s favourite bands, an album that was about half burbling, creeping noise-drone and weirdness was probably a bit too much to bear.
“Mombius Hibachi” was the first Melvins song I ever heard (on late-night MuchMusic), and as far as introductions went I could have done a lot worse. On an album that’s easily as weird and experimental as Prick, it’s one of the few tracks that kicks out the atmosphere that they were going for on Stag. It’s willfully noisy but compelling for that. “They All Must Be Slaughtered” is reminiscent of the opening drone of Lysol; “Lovely Butterfly” is the reimagining of their sludge metal through overdriven noise-bursts; “Air Breather Deep In The Arms Of Morphious” draws out an ambient drone and bisects it with a distorted, fuzzed-out mid-section and coda. The funniest moment is “Laughing With Lucifer At Satan’s Sideshow”, which amalgamates everything that must have been said to them by coked-out record execs during the Atlantic era. Taken all together it’s the most experimental album in the Melvin’s canon, and amongst the most divisive.
The Maggot (1999)
The end of the 20th Century brought the Melvins onto Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records and their sound back to something approximating the halfway mark between Houdini and Stoner Witch. There are still weird ambient moments (like the first couple of minutes of “Manky”) but for the most part The Maggot is a return to the sludgy metal that they made their name on in the first place. It doesn’t hit as hard as Houdini, it doesn’t have that classic snap like Stoner Witch, and it doesn’t have the out-there experimentalism of Stag, but it holds it own. It forms the first part of a trilogy along with the next two albums, which were released as a packaged vinyl trilogy some time afterwards.
The Bootlicker (1999)
The second part of the band’s 1999 trilogy is a much more subdued affair than its predecessor. The songs come off much more like alterna-rock pieces than they do the stomping sort of sludge the Melvins made their name on. The guitars are muted, the drums are produced very quietly, and Osbourne’s whisper-singing takes up a lot more sonic space than his molten howl ever did. The bass is mixed very high, giving tracks like the sprawling “Let It All Be” and “Mary Lady Bobby Kins” a propulsive feel that comes off as a more mature version of their distorted dynamic leaps on Stoner Witch. The Bootlicker brought back the experimental side of the band that had been mostly missing on The Maggot (especially when you take into account the closing track, “Prig”), and affirmed them as not only the Gods of Metallic Stomp, but also as a peachy-keen laid-back stoner rock band as well.
The Crybaby (1999)
And just like that the trilogy went from weird to completely out-there. The Crybaby is a mixture of cover songs and original material and features a heavy guest list. The album kicks off with 70’s teen heartthrob Leif Garrett singing on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Given the band’s history with former roadie-turned-generational touchstone Kurt Cobain, and Garrett’s history as a commercial unit, is this some sort of a meta statement? Who knows. The cover is pretty faithful, for what it’s worth. Elsewhere, the band covers the Jesus Lizard with David Yow (who also shows up later on with an Osbourne collaboration), Hank Williams with the man’s grandson, Foetus, Bliss Blood, label head Mike Patton, and Merle Haggard on a particularly inspired version of “Okie From Muskogee”, also featuring Hank Williams III. As eclectic an album as you’ll find in the band’s catalogue, it also ranks among their best.
A sort of odds-n-ends collection, a post-Trilogy stopgap. One out-there experiment in back-masking, three covers (including Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”) and four reworkings of older Melvins material from the Gluey Porch Treatments/Ozma/Bullhead era. In other words, largely inessential and useful only for completists.
Hostile Ambient Takeover (2002)
The 21st Century found the Melvins forging their own way through the changing music world by weilding a spiked sledgehammer. Their first proper album of the century found them straddling a line between the molten sludge they’d become known for on tracks like “[untitled]” and “The Fool, The Meddling Idiot”, and intricate, proggish tracks like “Dr. Geek” and “Little Judas Chongo”. The “The Fool, The Meddling Idiot” features an ending that bursts open into electronic work that resembles EDM on bad opiates. “The Brain Center At Whipples” evolves into an orgy of speed and crunch. The real hostile ambient takeover is saved for the sixteen minute closing track, “The Anti-Vermin Seed”, which meanders along in a low-frequency thud for ten minutes before blossoming into one of Buzz Osbourne’s best vocal takes.
Pigs Of The Roman Empire (2004)
With the Melvins’ dabblings with variants on industrial and ambient music, it was really only a matter of time before they hooked up with Brian Williams, the Welsh dark ambient pioneer better known to the dregs of society as Lustmord. The results are pretty much as you’d expect: Melvins sludge mixed with industrial-tinged ambient stretches. The centrepiece is of course “Pigs Of The Roman Empire”, a 22 minute piece that follows a lumbering sludge riff through moaning, abandoned vistas. “The Bloated Pope”, “Pink Bat”, and “Safety Third” are Melvins-oriented riff-fests while the rest of the album (especially the opening and closing tracks) are exercises in the creepy mood-building that Lustmord is best known for. As far as collaboration albums go, you can do a lot worse.
Never Breathe What You Can’t See (2004)
Another collaboration album, this time with punk legend Jello Biafra, and the first album that really finds the band playing second fiddle. After witnessing the Dead Kennedys “reunion” (which, after long years of acrimonious lawsuits, happened without Biafra at the mic) the Melvins approached Biafra about doing an album. There is no sludge on display here; the Melvins put together a snarling punk rock record that sounds a lot like what Biafra’s later band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, would sound like, which in itself is a lot like what a modern Dead Kennedys would likely sound like. The star of the show is Jello Biafra, and the success of the album lies directly in what you think of him. Fans will find a lot to like; detractors will find little to recommend here.
Sieg Howdy! (2005)
The Melvin’s second album with punk rock political firebrand Jello Biafra combines some leftovers from the Never Breathe What You Can’t See sessions, a couple of remixes from that same album, and a couple of covers. The first of the latter is “Halo of Flies”, a favourite Melvins cover that was performed the first time Biafra saw the Melvins play live. The other is an updated rework of the classic Dead Kennedys screed “California Uber Alles”, which rails against the recall campaign that placed action star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s mansion. The end result is pretty much the same as Never Breathe What You Can’t See, albeit with some interesting tweaks on older material.
Houdini Live: A Live History of Gluttony and Lust (2006)
I don’t normally include live albums in these discographies because they’re often stopgap albums, meant to keep the band’s name out there while they tour or fight over how the next album is going to sound. They’re rarely satisfying and they’re often quite disappointing (Hold Steady I’m looking in your direction). Every once in a while, though, something either iconic or completely out-there comes along and I’ll have to mention it. Case in point: A Live History of Gluttony and Lust. There are other live Melvins albums, and they’re all okay, although not really essential. ALHGL turns the concept on its head though, in much the same way as Type O Negative’s Origin of the Feces once did: it’s a live album without an audience. The album captures the band playing their iconic Houdini album live to an empty warehouse. Why? Who knows. For that matter, who cares? Houdini was an album crying out for a visceral live treatment, and the band delivers amazingly. Just find a small room, roll in a keg full of cheap beer, invite some friends over, and crank this album to the maximum volume. Bam. Instant Melvins show.
(A) Senile Animal (2006)
The revolving door that is the bass position for the Melvins revolved again for A Senile Animal, but with a slight difference. Instead of replacing the departing Kevin Rutmanis with yet another disposable bassist, the Buzzo and Crover decided to join forces with Jared Warren and Coady Willis of Big Business, giving the 2006 lineup of the Melvins not just a bassist but a second drummer. The outcome is a sort of return-to-form, Stoner Witch-style, featuring a blend of metallic sludge riffing and classic rock arena anthem making (“Civilized Worm” especially seems like a slowed-down Deep Purple, or maybe classic-era Cheap Trick). “Civilized Worm” actually shows off the strength of the double drummers, ending as it does in a landslide of drum sticks, and the intricate prog-level rhythms of “You’ve Never Been Right”, “Blood Witch”, and “The Hawk” all point to the idea that having a second drummer does not necessarily mean that you’re self-indulgent. “A History of Bad Men”, meanwhile, reprises the best ideas off of Houdini as a headbanging epic, and “The Mechanical Bride” lurches along like the best of Bullhead. Easily the best Melvins album since Stag.
Nude With Boots (2008)
Nude With Boots continues in the same vein and lineup as A Senile Animal. The focus here is definitely on the classic part of classic rock, with the ghosts of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath seemingly everywhere (check out the beginnings of “The Kicking Machine” and the title track for emphasis on this point). There is nothing here to really distinguish it from A Senile Animal, except maybe that the sound is even crunchier than it was two years prior. It touches all the right notes from their heyday, Bullhead-through-Stoner Witch, with some truly crushing moments, such as the dual-drum highlights of “The Savage Hippy” and “It Tastes Better Than The Truth”. This is Melvins stripped down to the basics: no Lysol-esque doom/drone interludes, no hostile ambient takeovers, no weird detours into multi-instrumental jamming. Hard, whalloping riffs that sound heavier than compressed lead, like god intended.
The Bride Screamed Murder (2010)
It could be argued that the Melvins get bored every three albums. Stag was certainly their most experimental Atlantic album; The Crybaby was the most out-there of the trilogy albums, and The Bride Screamed Murder is the oddest of the albums with Big Business as the rhythm section. Songs like “Evil New War God” and “Pig House” are classic sledgehammer Melvins, to be sure, (well except for the whistles that carry out the latter), but there are tracks like opening number “The Water Glass” that marry strange call-and-response vocals to strident marching band arrangements, “My Generation” that melts the Who classic into molten metal, “Hospital Up” which ends in a free jazz freakout, and the acapella version of “Peggy Gordon” here called “P.G. x 3”, which is amongst the more haunting versions of a Canadian folk song ever to be recorded. While it’s not as eclectic as either of of their previous “third albums”, it was the most out-there the band had been since 2002.
Freak Puke (2012)
Out goes Big Business, in comes Trevor Dunn to take over bass duties, albeit with an acoustic standup bass. This “Melvins Lite” lineup produced an album that moved away from the back-to-basics Melvins/Big Business records and moved on to a sprawling, acid-damaged sound that took the lumbering sludge and added in atonal strings, proggish arrangements, and a more harmonious set of melodies. It’s alternately spacey and scuzzy, often within reaching distance of back-to-back songs, like the transititon from “Holy Barbarian” to “Freak Puke”, or the cracked-out Baroque art-damage of “Inner Ear Rupture” moving into the stomp of “Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out”. The best is saved for last, of course: Paul McCartney cover “Let Me Roll It” is characteristically bludgeoning, and serves as a nice toss-up for the lethal freak-out of the closer, “Tommy Goes Beserk”. Not the highwater mark by any means, but a solid effort for a band on their umpteenth album.
Everybody Loves Sausages (2013)
The Melvins have always thrown covers into their albums and live sets, but Everybody Loves Sausages is the first full cover album the band has released. The track list is wide-ranging, including classic touchstones like David Bowie, Queen, and “Black Betty”, poppier choices from the Kinks and Roxy Music, a cut by underground metal pioneers Venom, and a nod to the 80s art-punk scene of their youth through The Jam and Throbbing Gristle. The results are all over the place. Queen’s “Best Friend” is largely unnecessary, consisting of a straightforward reading of the vocals backed with a broken circus synth, and “Black Betty” is just a slightly more breakneck version of the Ram Jam cover, but Mudhoney’s Mark Arm adds a sneering spit to The Scientists’ “Set It On Fire” and the mile-a-minute take on “Attitude” kicks the Kinks original up and down the street. The full cover of Bowie’s epic “Station to Station” is also an interesting reading, adding feedback and existential dread into the coke-disco original. It’s stylistically all over the place, and for a cover album that’s okay.
Tres Cabrones (2013)
Thirty years in to this weird experimental sludge metal band, Dale Crover switches to bass so that original drummer Mike Dillard, who left the band in 1984, can take over the kit. Calling themselves “Los Melvins”, the band redo a bunch of songs they’d written way back at the beginning in 1983, throw in some traditional tunes (“99 Bottles Of Beer”, “In The Army Now”, “Tie My Pecker To A Tree”), a cover of The Lewd’s “Walter” and half a cover of The Pop-O-Pies “Fascists Eat Donuts”. It’s a fun sort of reunion album, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it fits together an integral part of the original Melvins story that often gets lost in their improbable rise and fall from a major label recording contract.