They seem like part of the furniture now, like they’ve been here forever. Like carpentry too, they’re reliable, solid and can break bones if used (in)correctly. For over 30 years now, the Montesano troupe named after an unpleasant supervisor have diligently toured, recorded and even been signed to a major label. Melvins, led by a snarling elderly lion known as King Buzzo, are soon to drop their new full-length – Pinkus Abortion Technician, which features Butthole Surfers’ very own Jeff Pinkus. For such a significant moment for the band, it’s almost shocking to note the lack of promotion the album has received. Shocking, were it not for the band’s own reticence toward advertisement or attempting to expand their fanbase. Today, we’ll look at a band that brought the members of Nirvana together, and puzzle over their transition from coolness du jour to a well-liked curio in the heavy music scene.
In the beginning, of course, it was an uphill struggle. Melvins’ sound is weird: a proto-sludge blend of Blacks, both Sabbath and Flag, colliding unexpectedly into drone, plunderphonic and country elements. One of their most famous songs is a cover of a Kiss track. With this in mind, it’s almost hard to believe that a band fronted by a giant badger could reach any degree of success, much less release three albums with Atlantic. Despite this, there was a significant moment in the mid-to-late ‘90s where citing Melvins was the done thing if you were trying to break out as a doom or sludge act; hell, it’s fair to say that a lot of sludge’n’doom wouldn’t even exist without records like Houdini or Bullhead. Japanese amp-worshippers Boris have made direct references to them on several occasions. Nowadays, it seems like the runaway success of doom metal as a subgenre has eclipsed the oddball appeal of Melvins, whose basic recipe of chugging guitars and clattering drums set against experiments in noise has changed very little since their inception.
Sludge as a genre was also never a front-runner for major label attention, and although Melvins can cite plenty of famous friends (as hinted above, they introduced Kurt Cobain to Dave Grohl and are thus basically responsible for the explosion of grunge in the early 1990s), their status as strange guys in a strange scene has never really faded. When Houdini emerged in all its baffling glory on Atlantic, it was clear that A&R departments were scouring the Pacific Northwest for any group that had their heads together and the amps turned up, rather than a major label taking interest in a group who wrote nonsensical dirges like ‘Gluey Porch Treatments’. When they were dropped two albums later it was no surprise, but that only persuaded Buzzo and co. to continue on the path they’d been beating. Their moment in the sun that came to influence so many groups and define a scene was over, but that was unimportant. Grunge dying on its feet in the late ‘90s hardly helped either. The main thing for Melvins was apparently to keep creating and collaborating, and if it was remotely profitable or popular that was a pleasant bonus.
Whilst Melvins come across as metal’s weird uncle who moved away decades ago but still sends faintly disturbing Christmas cards, there are other things to consider too, such as their tenure with Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records. While this has led to plenty of fruitful, fun and fancy collaborations and unique albums (check out Basses Loaded if you like low end, or Everybody Loves Sausages for a cute cover album/album cover), the promotion for their plethora of recent releases has been minimal. Buzzo seems very content to be signed to a label best known for one-off releases, as the band’s now been with Ipecac for nineteen years and show no signs of stopping. The variety of releases and sheer volume of the band’s output can also be daunting for prospective fans, but once the most famous albums are out of the way it’s relatively easy to find a preferred iteration of the group.
At this point, with the band able to command attention from almost any musician that they’d like to work with, and a core fanbase who are clearly paying the group’s utility bills (if nothing else), perhaps expanding doesn’t matter, and it’s obvious that rockstar-esque commercial success is a moot point too. In this way they remind me of personal favourite NoMeansNo; another group of oddballs in an odd scene who struck gold almost accidentally, influenced a bunch of other musicians, and politely got back to work making strange albums that no big label would touch with a ten-foot pole. And if that’s what they’re best at, and bands like Slayer, Tool and Primus enjoy them enough to give out support slots, why try to fix what ain’t broke?
Pinkus Abortion Technician is due April 20th through Ipecac Recordings. Pre-order here.
Words: David Burke