The Melvins in overdrive | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The Melvins in overdrive 

An appreciation of an aged, evolving beast

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click to enlarge An aptitude for facial expressions and haircuts: Melvins in 2008
  • An aptitude for facial expressions and haircuts: Melvins in 2008

Like firecrackers, most bands blow up. Their fuses burn. They build to a critical point. If they're lucky, the explosion leaves a mark. Other bands, the sort Neil Young called rust, seem to have slow-burning, limitless fuses. They steadily put out records that barely change. They live off royalties from old songs and loyalties to old sounds. The stale ashes eventually disperse in fresh wind.

By all reports, if you had asked people in Chapel Hill in 1986 which category the Melvins would fall into, most would have said neither. At that time, the Melvins were a new band from Aberdeen, Wash., on tour with throwaway California punks RKL. No one rolled out the red carpet. "We played some shitty punk-rock hell hole. I don't remember where," remembers Melvins founder Buzz Osborne of his first night in North Carolina. "Everybody hated it."

But here we are, 22 years later, and the Melvins stand as one of the most influential American rock bands in history. Among active acts, only Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo (arguably) match their accomplishments, output and influence. The bands who've borrowed one aspect of the Melvins sound or another are legion, and Boris, the Japanese metal band that now fills big stateside rock clubs, took its name from the first track on 1991's Bullhead and several cues from those early Melvins records.

There are the historical linkages, too, which for more than a decade, every music writer has reverted to when on deadline: Kurt Cobain was a fan and a Melvins gear lackey who didn't pass his audition to be the band's bassist. Melvins drummer Dale Crover toured in Nirvana and played on an early demo. Joe Preston played bass in the Melvins in the early '90s and went on to help power Thrones, High on Fire, Sunn O))) and Harvey Milk. Crover worked with Acid King. Acid King spawned droves of Southern metallurgists ... You get the incomplete picture, right?

These are only footnotes to one of the most impressive plots in heavy metal history: For a quarter-century, the Melvins have never sat still, instead plumbing every depth of extreme weirdness it could find, from sludgy stoner rock to riff-backed power that, at times, has approached pop. The band's legacy has been more of a locomotive for evolution than a reason to keep giving people what they expect. Nude with Boots, the band's fifth album in five years (who still records at that pace, really?), is a sprawling 42-minute panoply of what the band's done best, mixing ghastly down-tuned jams with an electronic interlude and a title track that's one of the year's best open-road anthems. Perhaps more dynamic and inventive than ever, the Melvins of Nude with Boots sounds like its own fresh wind.

But it hasn't been easy. In fact, if keeping a band interesting for 25 years was simple, fewer bands would feature former members of a band you liked better. The Melvins' first drummer lasted about a year, and as many as 13 bass players—from eventual Mudhoney member Matt Lukin to KISS' Gene Simmons—have played in the Melvins. The Melvins became a quartet in 2006, incorporating Los Angeles duo Big Business after a stint working with Jello Biafra. After all, stopping was never an option. Osborne, who Crover describes as the hardest working musician he's ever met, says he can't wait to stop touring so he can make the next record: "I think we've just scratched the surface ... I have no idea where we'll go, but I imagine that we have a long journey ahead of us, to things I haven't even thought of yet."

From 1991's Bullhead (left) to this year's Nude with Boots (right), the Melvins have trudged and changed.
  • From 1991's Bullhead (left) to this year's Nude with Boots (right), the Melvins have trudged and changed.

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