PRINT February 1994



Every three to five years there seems to be one band that artists, intellectuals, and cultural critics gravitate toward as symptomatic of the moment and, on a higher level, as a symbiotically beneficial organism. A few years ago it was the expansive fucked-upness of the Butthole Surfers that entered/altered art-world consciousness; and now it’s Melvins. Nearly ten years after escaping the redneck logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, and spawning the so-called Seattle sound of Mudhoney, Nirvana, et al.—the current “loser’s revolution”—Melvins seem to have arrived, and right on time.

The heaviest band in the world? The fathers of grunge rock? No, it’s not enough to label Melvins, or to acknowledge their influence. Where Pearl Jam is simply a band, Melvins are more like natural phenomena with mass and volume, something tangible and awesome at the same time. If they’re rock, they’re the Grand Canyon seen from a black hole in deep space. They are the undisputed masters of the massive grinding stomp. It’s with that sound—particularly in the songs they cover, most recently Kiss’ “Going Blind” and the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil” (they anticipated the current renewal of interest in both bands)—that Melvins have melded the polar ends of the ’70s, cartoonlike hard rock and hardcore punk.

As reigning heirs to The Glory That Is Rock, Melvins have created a kind of vast musical index, absorbing everyone from Alice Cooper to ZZ Top, from Black Sabbath to Black Flag, from Iron Maiden to the MC5, into their pores. What seeps out is totally Melvins; there is no mistaking their sound for anyone else’s. Melvins carve out space with sound: when they perform, one almost sees an object take shape—a wall, or a giant block or cube. This can give way to a sense of place: a sheer cliff, or a deep cavern. And they do this with the most basic of formats, the power trio of guitar, bass, and drums. The vocals of leader/guitarist King Buzzo—growling and rumbling, sometimes indecipherable, seemingly not human—are a fourth instrument, adding an eerie undertow to the thunderous pull. The sound is intensely percussive, as if everything were being banged out, nailed down. The new album, Houdini, ends with over ten minutes of drums, and while there are any number of lengthy drum solos in rock history, this is definitely not one of them. The piece sounds like a virtual war zone. Shots ring out, tanks rumble by, bombs rain down, sabers, even, are rattled.

Melvins’ music is about time—expanding time, or forgetting time (the same thing?). In punk’s heyday, bands like the Ramones could tear through a song in a minute or less; a decent pop band can make two verses and a chorus clock in at under three minutes; and the generic heavy metal band might need five. Melvins, as they touch upon, twist, and quote from punk, pop, and metal, could very well use all that time—all nine minutes—for a number of their own, and there’d be no guarantee they’d be done, or even have gotten it completely going. (The band has joked that they’re not responsible for “grunge rock” but for “dirge rock.”)

King Buzzo may admit that Melvins like to ruin a song, but their anarchic rearrangements of a song’s beginning and end, their experiments with speed and duration, texture and volume (hushed tones one minute, roaring the next), and the way they deal with sound as a physical entity have less to do with something being ruined than with something being invented. Melvins have elevated the heavy metal form into an almost intellectual pursuit. They have given it a precisely dysfunctional bent, and, at times, a political dimension. The poster for a concert at the New Music Seminar last summer featured a portrait of Stalin and the phrase, “The NMS People’s Revolutionary Council Invites You, Comrade, to an Evening of Class Struggle”—not exactly the party message of the “alternative” bands that play at this hip music-industry event. The high point of the concert was a version of the Flipper song “Sacrifice,” with brooding, growled-out lines like “Raising God and State so the nation will live,” “It’s time to enlist,” and “They demand a sacrifice of your life.” Given the current state of global conflict, the song functions as nothing less than ’90s agitprop. It is anthemic. It is Melvins’ “Dark Star,” their “Stairway to Heaven”—even if it’s more like a stairway to hell.

With Houdini, produced in part by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Melvins have their first major-label release after nearly ten years together. And yet their perverse relation to their career remains intact: their first official press release begins, “To be afraid when you are alone, in the dark, faced with the unknown, the unspeakable; that is understandable fear. To be afraid, mortally afraid, in broad daylight, in a crowded city street; that is to know Melvins.” After a bit of the band’s history, it continues, “The unearthly sound of thunder, seemingly from within the mind itself, searches. . . . Longing for fertile souls, those willing, yet capable, of irreverence within servitude.” The text gives one pause; one has to consider to what extent the band is playing with the signs and conventions of rock (irreverence) even as it is packaged by the music industry (servitude). It would be a mistake to think that Melvins are 50 percent committed and 50 percent at play; they are 100 percent committed and 100 percent at play. That means they have to work twice as hard and play twice as hard as a band that takes one route over the other, which may be one reason they take twice as long to get where they’re going. But the Melvins’ result is something undeniably, utterly real.

What is this thing called Melvins? Simply to formulate the question, like asking What is philosophy?, is already to have begun one’s pursuit.

Jutta Koether is an artist and writer who lives in Cologne. Robert Nickas is a critic and curator who lives in New York.