The very sound of the words “sludge metal” is enough to send shivers down any music fan’s spine. It’s all faux-mystical lyrics, self-indulgence, and cock-rocking, right? Right. But in any genre there are anomalies, and Washington’s underground legends The Melvins are one such break from metal’s norm. If you’ve heard the name, but never heard the music, chances are you’ve heard the whispered in the same hallowed breath as Nirvana, forming in the same town, and being a predominant influence over the entire grunge genre. However, the success their critical acclaim and influence ought to have afforded them has always fallen short. Peg it down to the abrasiveness of the band, their outlandish humour, their daunting back catalogue, or their rather strange hairdos, but now, on this 20th anniversary of Sub Pop and all things grunge, it’s about time the Melvins receive a payout on their hard-earned kudos.
The Melvins story begins in a convenience shop in a Montesano, Washington. Lead singer and guitarist Buzz Osborne (King Buzzo to his friends and compatriots) decided to name his new band after his much-detested co-worker Melvin, a sign of the obscuro sense of playfulness the band would come to embody. With seemingly little care for the polarized reviews the band received from the fore, the power trio (being Buzz, other permanent member Dale Crover, and a cast of rotating bassists) ploughed themselves a distinctly unique trough with JCB riffs and a joy in getting dirty. While influences like Black Sabbath and Swans are tangible in the Melvin sound, their distinct artfulness and willingness to experiment, as well as their shunning of the accepted metal template and image set them apart as a Bovril band in the Washington pre-grunge landscape.
However, with 1991 ‘s self-titled album, and 1993’s seminal Houdini the band found their critical footing. With incomprehensible vocals, Sensor Excel-sharp guitar hooks (we didn’t have Quattro’s back in those days, kids) and a knack for meticulously constructed songs, King Buzzo soon earned the band a buzz big enough to make his afro jealous. The major labels came knocking with band’s burgeoning success, but Atlantic’s release of the band’s powerful triptych in Houdini, Stoner Witch, and Stag couldn’t match a level of commercial success to meet the critical, and the Melvins promptly found themselves shunted back into the Washington underground. Their subterranean existence has continued today. They’re a band burnt by the hot stove of commerciality, but happy to continue spreading their music throughout the world. This year’s Nude With Boots has enjoyed success that has been so fleeting to them in recent times, enjoying across the board positive review, and renewed attention thanks to it. No longer one of those pigeonholed bands with the sole validation that they “influenced Kurt Cobain”, their vigour seems to have renewed for fresh ways to make fucked up records.
“But I just don’t like metal!” To shun the Melvins upcoming Button Factory gig, and indeed, their hefty back catalogue on the grounds of genrefication ought to be a punishable crime. Aside from their crafty musicianship, the band never fail to raise a quirk-appreciating smile. For instance, Buzz’s lyrics range from the wittily deranged to derangedly witty (“After giving her the twenty dollars to, uh, have oral sex with me, uh, she looked around the car and she said, uh, for twenty dollars more I can clean this place for you. That’s what she mainly did there.”) You may well have had your eyes magnetically pulled towards their bizarre album covers, which include cartoons of two-headed dogs and blind children being surprised by spiders, or caught interviews on YouTube of Dale Crover pretending to shave with microphones and Buzz exuding hate vibes on Madonna (“people like buying crap. We’ve beavered away at being horrible but it hasn’t really worked.”) The Melvins bring an array of colours and expression to a black, brown, and tangled genre often maligned for its derivative soullessness, and we’re looking forward to having the Button Factory walls painted with multi-coloured sludge.