Colossus of Destiny
Fifteen years ago a dusty blond punk rocker from Aberdeen, Washington, talked guitarist Buzz Osborne into letting him roadie for Osborne's band, the Melvins. At that time they were an eccentric trio in a remote but vibrant local scene, clearly talented but not significant enough to have garnered much attention outside the Pacific Northwest. After the young roadie, Kurt Cobain, formed Nirvana and transformed the musical landscape, the Melvins were recognized as godfathers of grunge, earning themselves a footnote in the annals of rock history.
But their footnote keeps getting longer. Years after their better-known followers--Tad, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains--have fallen by the wayside, the Melvins are still alive and riffing. They've traveled from obscurity to semiobscurity and back again: their first five LPs were released on Boner Records, they enjoyed a moderately successful three-album stint on Atlantic in the mid-90s, and four of their last five records have been issued on the indie label Ipecac. These days most critics seem to view them as a trivia question that won't go away, but like all great cult bands, the Melvins have survived long enough to generate their own context.
Ipecac--named after the medicine taken to induce vomiting--has provided shelter for a growing number of beloved has-beens. Last year Ministry released a live album on the label, and New York rap legend Sensational will release his comeback on Ipecac this month. Then there's label founder Mike Patton, front man for Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, whose voice, a sort of traffic-jam-meets-Burt Bacharach, has often been called the most versatile in the rock world. Fantomas, featuring Patton, Osborne, Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, and maniacal drummer Dave Lombardo (formerly of Slayer), released their self-titled debut in 1999. Composed entirely by Patton, meticulously arranged and produced, it's essentially a score for a comic book: each track corresponds to a page, some offering ambient background noise, others exploding with concise, condensed cacophony.
The eclectic group brought vastly different techniques to the project, and they had a field day creating the sonic equivalents of "Thwank!," "Crunch!," and "Blammo!" The record did next to nothing commercially but drew considerable attention from established artists, many of whom attended the group's live shows. Patton's musical connections, which range from John Zorn to Limp Bizkit, have helped him build the label; in addition to the Melvins he's picked up some surprisingly big underground names, all of them established artists who are past their commercial prime in the big-time record business (Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard, John Stanier of Helmet, Justin Broadrick of Godflesh). Patton's biggest score yet may be Ween's forthcoming collaboration with the Boredoms, due for release later this year.
But even on this offbeat roster the Melvins are in a class by themselves. They're fiercely creative and extremely prolific: in addition to Osborne's side projects, they've released five albums in the last two and a half years. In 1999 and 2000 they unveiled a trilogy of albums that were recorded simultaneously: The Maggot, The Bootlicker, and The Crybaby. The first is a traditional Melvins album, deviating little from their trademark gumbo of slow, heavy riffs and overpowering distortion. The second delves into psychedelia, with cleaner guitars and more consistent harmonies than usual. The last is all over the map, ranging from drastic variations on tunes by Merle Haggard and Hank Williams III to a stunningly faithful rendition of Cobain's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with vocals by 70s pop icon Leif Garrett.
Now comes another wave of doggedly uncommercial albums. Electroretard sparked a minor controversy with its title, exacerbated by the band's relationship with the Kids of Widney High. (In 1988 a teacher at Widney, a school for severely mentally handicapped children, recorded an album with his students that later became a cult favorite; Patton, a fan of the album, has signed a more recent class to Ipecac, and they've opened live shows for the Melvins and Mr. Bungle in California.) But longtime Melvins fans may find Electroretard unnerving for a different reason: except for the aptly titled opener, "Shit Storm," four minutes of unrepentant noise, the album consists of electronic versions of earlier material (thus the title), and Osborne's normally visceral vocals are relaxed, even soothing.
The second album of the two, Colossus of Destiny, is touted as a live/noise recording, and it sounds like a typical Melvins show drowning in reverb. Drummer Dale Crover has dubbed it the Melvins' Metal Machine Music, which might be a fair comparison if the only machine Lou Reed used were a jet engine. Like their 1994 fiasco, Prick, this new outing proves that despite the Melvins' relentless innovation they don't have much to contribute to the avant-garde, and that world is far too intransigent to take notice of a bunch of clowns in a grunge band.
Like they care. The Melvins are part of a growing contingent of rock artists who can sustain their careers without any sort of commercial context. The media may scrutinize every tremor of the music world, but bands like Fishbone, the Misfits, and the Melvins, to name only a few, are so unique that their fan base supports them long after critics and fashion have passed them by. They survive because of their energy, integrity, and sheer stubbornness, even in times of creative drought. If, like the Melvins, they take a few creative risks, their fans are often willing to go along with them--just for the ride.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sadie Shaw.