Melvins and Bad Brains: What, Me Worry?
Which stoner? Bookending a musical week surrounding the closing of CBGB and its exorcised ghosts, the healing power of rejuvenating Loud called me forth. The Tuesday before, it was the Bad Brains at that noble club now (faith) no more — simply a great place to see music, no matter its storied history. The Tuesday after, I was at the Brooklyn's Warsaw club, down the street from the best white borscht in Greenpoint, with the Melvins. Let it come down.
The Melvins 'abrupt tempo downshift in the midst of speedy mid-'80s Metallica and hardcore gave them a link with an earlier generation of heavy rockers. Singer-guitarist Buzzo's an Osborne, after all, a distant cousin perhaps; and, doomsayer imagery be damned, Black Sabbath had great riffsongs, each Iommi lick waiting to be dialed in by legions of guitarists, some of whom would be in Sir Lord Baltimore.
With "sludge" being the preferred descriptive, followed closely by "ooze," most writers frame the Melvins 'texture in terms of industrial effluvia — "Charmicarmicat" from Eggnog is right up there in Exxon Valdez territory. What mesmerized me when I first saw them live at CBGB with O. Ray, somewhere around '97 when they were leaving their major label to return to the more open expanses of indie-dom, welcomed first by Amphetamine Reptile and then Mike Patton's Ipecac Records — was the insistence of their melodic twists. The Melvins are — within the development of Northwest rock — the progenitors of a sound reaching forward to Nirvana and backwards to the Wipers (the Mels cover "Youth of America" on 2001's Electroretard), and even backwardser to the Sonics.
And lest we forget, Seattle was also homeground of Heart (mmmm… some creamy guitar textures there) but the early Melvins were hardly Magic Men. Their models were Black Flag, Flipper, and Swans, a turgid brew of avant rockism that willfully set them apart from the mainstream. When nu-punk blended with metal in their local geographic in the early '90s, Buzz and drummer Dale Crover and a Spinal Tap-esque succession of bassos and bassas (Lorax!) took Atlantic's major league offer and made a trio of albums, the first helmed by Kurt Cobain, who contributed his celebrity, as the Melvins had contributed to his. Houdini, with its Darger-reminiscent cover art, moved them as close to song form as such an abstruse band was able, later joined by the righteous Stoner Witch and Stag.
But the Melvins were always less about song than slabs of igneous lava flow, the belch of a volcano at the moment of eruption. In 1997, after their major label sojourn, they returned to Amphetamine Reptile and let their prodigal instincts roam free over any soundscape they chose on Honky. If "A Lovely Butterfly" tracks the moment the pin is pushed into the specimen, the dreamy opener "They All Must Be Slaughtered" has the curious calm of a killing field after the carnage is over, with Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland bemoaning her fate over the top of its apparent serenity. The Melvins 'sense of twisted humor, an important part of their ability to do anything and make it sense — "Laughing with Lucifer at Satan's Sideshows" encapsulates travails in the majors amid a few well-chosen bleeps and skronks — isn't ironic; if anything, it's freaky, as if Tod Browning filmed their caravan migrating through Brooklyn on yet another lengthy tour. On this night, the sonic carnival of souls included Ghostigital, former Sugarcube Einar Orn's new band, heavy on the groove and harangue; Porn; moonlighting Fugazi bassist Joe Lally; and Big Business, a rhythm section on their own who have literally joined forces with the Melvins, now a four-piece with two drummers.
This radical refiguring — Coady Willis pounds pattern-for-pattern with Dale, the drum solos parcheeseeing a color guard marching band — has only gained the Melvins majesty (yo, King Bee!). Witness A Senile Animal, their newest and, in some ways, most definitive album. A group as prone to fucking with themselves as the Melvins — see Prick, which lets everything hang out, including a nailed-to-the-cross metal solo on "Pick It N Flick It" and a moment of "Pure Digital Silence" — often find themselves exploring one extreme or another. But primed by hearing the new material live, and now on the immediate download, the bracing empower of such headrush tracks as "Rat Faced Granny" (which packs as much rpm in its drivetrain thrust as Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hot Rod"), or the more familiarly glacial Melvin jam of "The Mechanical Bride," present-tenses the Melvins as even more deliberate and immediate in their chordal intoxications; "The History of Drunk" is told from the point of view of the hangover.
It's a prolific tradition, this Melvining, and they've honed it over more than twenty years of recording. They haven't changed much in attitude since the early-'80s, which can be heard on 26 Songs; and yet, unlike the Ramones who nary evolved, the Melvins are always up to try a new collaboration (Fantomas, with Mike Patton, is a grand example) or experiment with their bottomless formula. The Maggot, the first in a 1999 trilogy that continually turns their sound inside out, is a typical Melvins 'mélange. "Amazon part 3 and part 4" is pure Pleistocene, while their version of Peter Green's "The Green Manalishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown)" uncovers the latent prog-rockers behind the Melvins 'thick layers of guitar grime. Then they push the pedal to the floor with a paean to "Judy." Lucky girl.
The Brains are hardly as prolific as the Melvins, their scattered releases numbering in the all-too-few, yet the band's widespread impact bringing together the volatile strands of reggae and punk and metal still seems as revolutionary and uniquely uplifting now as it did then. Dr. Know was in especially fine guitar form on this CBGB evening, and H.R. smiled and nodded beatifically as the band bounced between their polar opposites and the audience joyfully bounced off each other. The SST album I Against I finds a common ground between the Rasta and the rock, mirroring the group's inner divide; their live album is one of the essential documents of its era.
I left both gigs a-tingle, voltage still running through my system, knowing that however many clubs close and years pass, some guitars sustain forever, and some groups remain eternal.