Reviewed by Nathan Keene
Tuesday, November 30 1999, 9:03 PM
I came to The Melvins for the first time recently, with great difficulty. I had missed them the first time around due to one of those infundibulae of personal rock-n-roll history, namely, that I never went to see them when I had the chance. I think it may have been their stylistic association with that whole Seattle thing and the faint whiff of corporate rock which people seemed to associate with them. We really looked down on that sort of thing in Portland -- out of having been largely passed over by it, according to our Seattle-ite detractors. Like they knew.
However, in 1999 I was wise enough to understand that some cultural products transcend their economic bases. In fact, I had reached such an advanced stage that I could imagine how The Melvins might after all owe their longevity as much to having attained mastery of their form as to the big, fat, "alternative" commodity producer contracts I had for all those years imagined their sitting down and signing over cigars and guffaws with the minions of Madison Ave. and Hollywood.
And now I was supposed to write something about their latest album, The Maggot. As I listened to the CD, I confronted for the first time a complete inability to fall back on comparisons to my previous listening experience -- or so I thought. That was until I realized all the comparisons I needed to make were from that dim time before I started listening to the underground music of the early '80s.
To make sense of The Melvins I had to go back to all those Senior recuperation days I took in my final April of high school so as to sit in the living room, chill in the heat of the wood stove burning full blast, and, at full blast on Mom's Advent speakers, absorb the loud-as-wanted sounds of bands like Iron Butterfly, King Crimson, and all the supposedly wild shit I'd just picked up on my first trip abroad.
I had Captain Beefheart. I had Marxist dub master and British anti-poet laureate Linton Kwesi Johnson. I had Heaven 17 (and it was a good album, too, believe it or not: Penthouse and Pavement cut before they fizzled trying to make it on MTV.)
But I had no Sex Pistols. I think Mom would've been afraid to listen to her Advents forever after, should anyone have expose them to such baldly evil music. Underground music would be a closed book to me for almost another year, punk rock somewhere below the cheesiest heavy metal on my scale of stylistic worthiness. Me, I was still into the good shit, like Yes.
As for The Melvins, who all these years later so confused my post-underground listening mind, I found it all suddenly made sense. One bass intro in particular kept haunting me as I listened to the lead-in for their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown.)" Fortunately, I was at my friend, John's house, who has a record collection spanning a vast sweep of styles and cheese levels back to about 1972. I had locked myself out of a rental car. As I waited for AAA, I strode up and down John's driveway in the blast of the evening offshore breeze on San Bruno Mountain above the United Airlines Flight Service Center, clutching my ribs and racking my brain. I had it. "John!" I yelled, rushing back into the house, "Do you have Pink Floyd's 'Shine On, You Crazy Diamond?'" The Melvins had taken it, sped up the tempo, and slightly rearranged the melody, but the shared lineage of the two progressions was undeniable.
The Melvins are a wide band as well as a deep one when it comes to their tributary swipage on The Maggot, and it gives the album the authoritative ring of musical scripture. As far as I knew, however, such things could be said of any body of Melvins work. What madeThe Maggot different? Was it hijinxs like dedicating an entire track to a piece in which a tuning oscillator slowly ascends and descends in no particularly musical sequence yet manages to sound like it's telling a story, or was it the use of all the oh-so-90s sound samples? The better to confront such questions, I went back to their first two records, Ozma and Gluey Porch Treatments.
Listening to these seminal punk-metal works finally gave me the background I'd been groping for in order to feel like I knew the way from my most familiar parts of the post-Vietnam musical landscape to those in which The Melvins reside, for it took me right to a sound I'd heard more recently. Ozma came out in 1989. From the gravelly guitar riffs and thudding bass lines to Buzz Osbourne's moaning vocals, and, of course, his reverence for the great guitar monuments of rock's antiquity, both records bear the unmistakable stamp of grunge.
I started listening toOzma and Gluey Porch Treatments expecting that they would take me back to the roots of The Melvins sufficiently that I could trace the band's subtle musical decline between the foundational and the later disks. What I found instead was evidence of a band that started within a genre it has now picked up and taken beyond its own limits, to a mastery of musical forms not often encountered anywhere, especially in the transient world of underground and "alternative" bands.
Sure enough, all the references to the roots of heavy metal are there, honed with the benefit of generational hindsight -- and so are all the things that made grunge so oft-accused of stylistic flimsiness: the cherished old riffs of rock idolatry, faithfully reproduced in every song for warm contemplation. Fortunately, The Melvins have always been able to bring enough of themselves to their music to avoid falling into mere revivalism, but Ozma, listened to ten years on, reminds me of the year it came out more than an album needs to.
I think I now know what The Maggot might represent. The Maggot is a sign that The Melvins musical accomplishments have gone beyond just appropriating the music they draw on and, finally, unmistakably transcend it. Certainly,The Maggot is just as full of guitar rock tributes as Ozma, since The Melvins are, after all, a guitar rock band. This time, however, they show that they are able to take those influences and do things with them that nobody else could. "Green Manalishi" may start with a retooled Pink Floyd lead-in, but you'll have to go farther than the old Melvins would have thought to push you to tease out all the rest of the influences in the song. The width that comes with the Melvins' depth turns out to be a later development, at least when comparing their earliest albums to their latest.
In the end, the influences won't even seem as relevant as the fact that The Melvins have incorporated them seemlessly into a piece of music which carries their signature above anyone else's. The crushingly heavy low end, the relentless echo of the symbols layered into the gradually ascending solo guitar and final crescendo of carefully-built effects chaos which jumps back to the oscillator tone for a moment before snapping into the noise assault of the next song -- all are The Melvins' own, and are situated so securely within songs played with such confident ease that this could only be a sound grown of years spent together doing what the best rockers do, and what rock itself does best: taking up the forgotten, and making it new again.
The Maggot is an Ipecac Records release.