Why the Melvins Are Guitar Music's Best and Most Bizarre Unifier

Even if their new album is a throwaway, over the past four decades no one has fused rock's ironic swagger with metal's sludgy nihilism the way the Melvins have.
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The Melvins

Ever since Black Sabbath invented the genre, metal has had an odd relationship with rock. On the surface, they look alike—similar guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, similar (primarily) white male demographic, and even, with Led Zeppelin, similar canon. Yet, the similarities are often less like the relationship between siblings and more like the relationship between a person and his or her corpse. Rock's knowing, ironic swagger becomes, in metal, the single-minded slog of earnest debasement. The Who stutters about their generation with an iconic sneer; Metallica bellows endlessly about some faceless leper messiah. Mick Jagger's clever, carefully arranged Miltonic man of wealth and taste becomes the blunt, thudding buzzsaw of Deicide's "Satan Spawn, The Caco-Daemon."

This isn't an absolute division: There are many groups, from Guns 'N' Roses to Nirvana to High on Fire, that have borrowed from both sides of the rock/metal divide. If there's one band that has made a career out of turning itself into its own rock/metal doppelganger, though, it's the Melvins, perhaps the only band that manages to be both an indie-rock institution and metal royalty. Like the freakish two-headed cartoon animals adorning their 1993 major label debut Houdini, the Melvins have always managed to make their individuality about de-individuation; their face is facelessness, and their facelessness is a face. The carefully spelled-out and mangled lyrics on that same album ("Los ticka toe rest. Might likea sender doe ree. Your make a doll a ray day sender bright like a penalty") mock and embrace both the inarticulate roar of metal and rock's pretension to profundity.

An even better example is the mammothly sinister "Sacrifice" from 1992's Lysol (aka The Melvins). The lyrics rage against war's regimentation and loss of self:

Can't you hear the war cry?
It's time to enlist
The people speak as one
The cattle, the crowd
Those too afraid to live
Demand a sacrifice

But at the same time, the pleasure of Dale Crover's slow, thundering anvils-dropped-from-a-great-height drumming and King Buzzo's dragged-out-bellowing is in the feeling of being ground beneath the indifferent tread of some unnameable and indifferent beast. Flipper's original version of the song is sludgy and slow, but has a punk energy and anger; the band is raging against the machine. The Melvins' slower, heavier version, on the other hand, is—like metal—about identifying with the forces that will destroy you. When King Buzzo talks about cattle being sacrificed, he's reveling in the gouts of blood at least as much as he's protesting them.

"Sacrifice" is arguably the Melvin's best song, which makes it one of the best tracks recorded by anybody ever. Since it was originally written by another band, it seems to bode well for the Melvins new covers album, Everybody Loves Sausages. The eclectic song selection, from Venom's "Warhead" to the Kinks' "Attitude" to Roxy Music's "In Every Dreamhouse a Heartache," is promisingly bizarre, as is the collection of guests, including Scott Kelly of Neurosis, Jello Biafra, and JG Thirwell (aka Foetus).

Flipper's original version of "Sacrifice" has a punk energy; the band is raging against the machine. The Melvins' slower, heavier version, on the other hand, is—like metal—about identifying with the forces that will destroy you.

Unfortunately, the album isn't much like "Sacrifice." It's a cute novelty rather than a revelation. And instead of proving the Melvins' mastery of rock and metal, it shows mostly that lurking at deafening volume between the two as the Melvins has done requires a lot of subtlety... and is prone to the occasional misfire.

Everybody Loves Sausages isn't bad; it just tends to remind you of other things that are better. "Warhead," for example, with its vacillation between doom trudge and Motorheadish swagger, is enjoyable enough. But it certainly isn't anywhere near classic Melvins tracks like "Sweet Willy Rollbar," where Crover turns the staggering, quick-tempo beat into sludgy doom through sheer force of impact, leaving the impression of a brontosaurus experiencing carefully calibrated seizures. Similarly, Bowie's "Station to Station" with Thridwell is a way less interesting take on the links between metal and avant garde noise than such dissonant ear-searing old school tracks like "Charmicarmicat" from 1991's Eggnog.

When the Melvins aren't upstaged by their back catalog, they're overshadowed by the artists they're covering. The startlingly reverent version of Queen's "You're My Best Friend" is sweet but superfluous. Why listen to the Melvins sing this when you could listen to Freddie Mercury instead? "Black Betty" loses Leadbelly's soul and replaces it with relatively anonymous grunge/classic rock. As blues revivalists, the Melvins are no Led Zeppelin—nor even, for that matter, ZZ Top. For once, the Melvins' channeling of the blank metal horde comes off not as creepy or weird but as just sort of generic.

It would be easy to blame this on the Melvin's age. The band started in '83, which means that they now are trudging into their fourth decade. It's the rare rock band (or metal band, for that matter) that's still making decent music 30 years out, so you couldn't really blame the Melvins if they, too, had started to fall off.

I don't think they have, though. Their 2012 album, Freak Puke, was fantastic. The bizarre bop-sludge "Worm Farm Waltz" could have been a Houdini out-take, and "Let Me Roll It" managed to be both sold-out stoopid double-entendre stadium rock and faceless death march. The album as a whole was probably one of the best things released last year.

The band haven't lost it, then. The problem is more localized. The way that the Melvins are and aren't the Melvins seems like it should translate well to a record of covers, but it turns out that it doesn't. Or at least, not these covers. Maybe they need to get rid of that rock eclecticism, and channel instead metal's bone-dumb obviousness. A Melvins album-length retread of Black Sabbath's Paranoid would work pretty well, I'd bet.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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