Graded on a Curve:
The Melvins, Freak Puke

It’s not a bit surprising that a band on a label called Ipecac has released a record titled Freak Puke. The pleasant twist is that in reverting back to a trio with bassist Trevor Dunn, The Melvins have delivered their best release since 2006’s (A) Senile Animal.

The Melvins, by my count eighteen studio albums strong (not including collaborations), have become one of the longest-serving examples of the “heads down/amps turned way up” mode of rock ‘n’ roll expression, a style not known for its survivalist tactics. While the vast majority of groups specializing in music of comparable heaviness understandably lack the stamina and depth of creativity for creating worthwhile records over a period of more than a few years, The Melvins have managed to stay interesting for close to thirty.

Part of the secret might just be their refusal to fall comfortably into one single camp. Often hailed in mainstream coverage as a “godfather of grunge” due to geographical location and their music’s motions toward a punk/metal hybridization, and most importantly because of their close ties to Mudhoney and Nirvana (if not to Sub Pop proper), The Melvins were surprisingly (and in retrospect, understandably) indifferent to cultivating a forefather-esque association with a rock movement that would inevitably culminate in a big ol’ nasty backlash.

Signing the rather predictable ‘90s major-label deal with Atlantic (who just as predictably didn’t really know what to do with them), the then trio of guitarist Buzz Osborne (aka King Buzzo), drummer Dale Crover and not long for the band bassist Lori “Lorax” Black (aka child actress Shirley Temple’s daughter) retained a close relationship to the indie scene that spawned them, again as if sensing that the tide would inevitably turn in the other direction, with bands of their ilk being hung out to dry if found too dependent upon the corporate teat.

But after deeper investigation The Melvins’ relationship with the indie landscape is one of the more unusual aspects of their back-story. While it made total sense to see their releases on such labels as Sympathy For the Record Industry and Man’s Ruin, and for the band to foster a long-term liaison with Amphetamine Reptile (one of the noisier imprints to soldier out of the late-‘80’s underground), it left some observers scratching their heads to find them amongst the participants in Calvin Johnson’s International Pop Underground Convention circa 1991.

The difference between Tom Hazelmeyer’s Am-Rep and Cal J’s K Records (where Melvins’ tracks could be found on cassette comps as early as 1984) can be illustrated by how each label’s fans might choose to spend their spare time: in the case of Am-Rep- target practice, cigar smoking, bidding on ltd edition Frank Kozik silk-screens on eBay; regarding K- vegan picnics, volunteer work, self-publishing zines.

I generalize to make a point; as an unabashed fan of both labels (and the quite important, still vital scenes they helped to document) I also understand how rare it was for a band to be a part of both. Indeed, the only other figure to gain similar acceptance from these highly oppositional (if not completely incompatible) scenes is Brit garage titan Wild Billy Childish.

All this wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t also signify the underlying breadth of the band’s sound, an expansive exercise in the heavy and the slow that’s too often summed up as just a variation on metal, be it stoner, sludge, doom, or drone. But to reestablish the point made above, the greater number of bands caught simply dishing out predictable helpings of heaviosity nearly always expire creatively before they hit the five year mark. That these guys have been pumping this stuff out for nearly three decades is testament to the fact that they’re actually up to far more than the average post-Sabbath skunk-smoking muck-meisters.

This is all no great secret. However, The Melvins are more than a little bit self-deprecating regarding the significance of their activities and quite backhanded at times in referencing the experimental background of some of their collaborators. For instance, in the liner notes to 2005’s A Live History of Gluttony and Lust, a live in an empty warehouse in-sequence recording of the band’s ’93 Atlantic debut Houdini, Buzz tongue-in-cheekily describes the activities of the album’s bassist Trevor Dunn as being limited to the “drowsy, headache-inducing, goose-honking New York ‘jazz’ scene.”

In actuality, Trevor Dunn was a member of Mr. Bungle and the avant-metal supergroups Fantômas and Tomahawk while doing some of his most interesting work with his own group Trio-Convulsant (with incredible guitarist Mary Halvorson and superb drummer Ches Smith) and in the live context with such acts as The Nels Cline Singers and the amazing Rova Saxophone Quartet.

The Melvins in contrast, if a band willing to set the controls for outbound territory throughout their career, still generally kept those flights of oddness/abrasiveness well within the tradition of noisy punkish audaciousness, not at all far from the sonic strategies employed by such acts as prime Flipper and pre-crap Butthole Surfers. From this angle, it’s easy to have fun side-stepping the generic while ticking off the squares and coming up with some truly off-the-wall material, all while not having to worry about it getting taken too seriously by stuffy art-scene interlopers.

Hooking up with Greg Werckman and Mike Patton’s Ipecac label (roughly the left-field heavy rock equivalent to John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint, though far less prolific) changed this a little bit, though some punk rock attitudes do die hard. That is; if Dunn, a player born from the wilds of the mid-‘80’s Cali-rock scene, has no qualms about mixing it up with rockers, jazzers, “new music” experimenters, or even restless contemporary singer-songwriters like Sean Lennon, it seems clear that The Melvins have been a little bit hesitant over getting unreservedly connected to someone else’s avant-garde.

Naturally, this is utter nonsense. Groups like Sun O))), Earth, and Boris have stepped to the forefront of progressive metal largely because they’ve proudly refused to be defined by its restrictions. And based upon their new full-length, again self-disparagingly credited to Melvins Lite, whereupon Trevor Dunn stands in for the duo of Jared Warren and Coady Willis (collectively known apart from their membership in Melvins as the duo Big Business), it might be time for Osborne and Crover to ditch their issues with experimentalism once and for all and let their avant-freak flag fly.

Beginning with 2006’s (A) Senile Animal, Melvins included the pair of Warren and Willis, expanding the group for the first time into a legit four-piece with Crover and Willis acting as formidable double-drummers. Prior to this, the band hadn’t released a studio album since 2002’s Hostile Ambient Takeover, mainly due to the absence of bassist Kevin Rutmanis, and the fresh movement detailed by (A) Senile Animal was a welcome and successful wrinkle in their development.

This was largely extended through 2008’s Nude with Boots, but 2010’s The Bride Screamed Murder proved to be one of The Melvins’ lesser albums. To be blunt, too much consistency appears to be contrary to this band kicking out top-flight work. And in the past, they seemed to sense this, bouncing around from more straight-ahead “normal” albums like Stoner Witch and Stag to the screwy patience-testing of Honky or Colossus of Destiny. Perhaps hooking up with Warren and Willis proved so fulfilling that they temporarily lost track of what made Melvins tick.

Freak Puke does hold a few lesser songs, but on the whole it’s succeeds quite nicely in combining The Melvins’ stylistic attributes with the rather huge sounding and at times sweetly expansive amplified acoustic bass, especially on opener “Mr. Rip Off,” which begins with just the largeness of Dunn’s bowed instrument before shifting into an environment of relative rock tranquility.

The brief two minutes of “Inner Ear Rupture” is also essentially a showcase for Dunn, additionally serving as a preamble for “Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out;” that track begins with some bowed bass that could possibly leave a smile on the mug of a Steve Reich fan before sharply detouring into some bold buzzsaw riff-rock and culminating in a short rhythmic exchange halfway between an arena-rock instrumental showcase and a post-jazz-fusion exaltation in chops, but with a crucial punk edge. The verdict; these guys are splendidly shifty in how they blend such a wide range of seemingly irreconcilable influences.

And there’s actually something more than sarcasm in the moniker Melvins Lite. This is mainly palpable through the singing voices of Crover and Buzzo. But a lot of the songwriting, if not pop inclined, does fall to the more melodic side of The Melvins spectrum. So it’s ultimately of no great shock that the band’s cover of McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” succeeds so well. If the undistinguished rocking of “Leon Versus the Revolution” provides the record’s low-point, the band does get in some quality crunch on the title track and in much of the similarly broad “Worm Farm Waltz.”

But it’s the lengthy closing track that leaves a lingering impression of positivity, initially furthering Freak Puke’s melodic agenda before upping the tempo and taking flight into a fine mid-section that really doesn’t recall any of The Melvins’ extensively annotated prior motion. It does end with some spacious and attitudinally punk audio mess-around, and that’s certainly indicative of the band’s creative wheelhouse. As such it’s very cool.

As much as I’d theoretically love for these wily jokers to full-on embrace the experimental, in the end maybe I don’t want them to change too much. Perhaps Freak Puke serves as a happy medium.

Graded on a Curve: B

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