The thing about the Melvins — nearly 30 years into their career and too many releases to count when you factor in live records, compilations, splits, tour-only specials, elaborately-presented box sets, etc. – is that you can really only compare them to themselves. And even that’s not fair, because their progression over all this time has been relentless — and never mind the fact that guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover have for a long time anchored a fluid lineup of bassists, second drummers, outside collaborators and other contributing artists — studying the path of those two alone is fodder enough for a two-year Masters program in the sludgy arts. They are among the most influential active bands in the heavy underground the world over, and they boast a cult of followers like none other, ready at a moment’s notice with hyperbole and open wallets for whatever brilliance the Melvins are able to churn out next at a rate that continues to be astoundingly prolific. Their latest outing – a full-length complemented by a Scion-sponsored EP called The Bulls and the Bees – comes under the moniker of Melvins Lite, and finds Osborne and Crover partnered with bassist Trevor Dunn for a collection of 10 tracks charmingly titled Freak Puke.
Dunn is no stranger to the Melvins. He’s played with them before, and both he and Osborne were members of the much-revered Mike Patton-fronted avant garde outfit Fantômas. Dunn also traces a pedigree back to Mr. Bungle (also with Patton), and has worked with the likes of John Zorn, Secret Chiefs 3 and his own Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant. What’s unique about his appearance here alongside Osborne and Crover is that the band took the time to signify that Freak Puke (released, as most of their records are these days, through Ipecac Recordings) is separate from the ongoing lineup Melvins lineup of the two mainstays and bassist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis. Indeed, that four-piece Melvins incarnation appears on The Bulls and the Bees, so is clearly ongoing, and one might look at Melvins Lite as a side-project still under the umbrella of the band’s output. In that way, it’s not so different from Melvins past collaborations with Lustmord or Jello Biafra, separated mostly from them by the name – which seems more suited to any number of the bands the Melvins have influenced along their way than to their own output in whatever form it might come. Whatever shifts in the band’s songwriting processes may have come into play with Dunn’s involvement, there are still a few characteristically Osborne riffs on display, from the sleepy groove of opener “Mr. Rip Off” to the single-worthy album highlight “A Growing Disgust,” on which Dunn seems to have switched from the bowed upright of the earliest cuts to a more standard rock approach.
He makes his presence felt early, though, and maintains it throughout, standing up every bit to Crover’s percussive mastery and the personality that always seems to ooze from whatever Osborne touches. Introduced with a big rock crash, “Inner Ear Rupture” is essentially two minutes of Dunn freaking out with his bow that’s led into excellently by the finish of “Mr. Rip Off.” The two tracks don’t run one right into the next (at least not on the promo download), but work well together in establishing Freak Puke’s breadth early. It’s the Melvins, even if the “Lite” in the moniker refers to their being a trio and not a four-piece, so they could and do take the album anywhere they damn well please, but it’s still good to make that clear at the outset, even if some of the strongest moments on the record are the most straightforward. To that end, “Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out” seamlessly integrates Dunn’s bass runs with a righteously fuzzed solo from Osborne and handclap-ready snare hits from Crover before a chorus revival leads to a rhythm section-only showoff. Crover and Dunn are paired well, and the rocking stomp at the beginning of “Worm Farm Waltz” further shows the variety they’re capable of, moving from riff-led chugging into a more open chorus and back again before the titular waltz aspect kicks in. Dunn leads the charge amid double-layered vocals and tom hits from Crover, and if it sounds odd, well, that’s pretty much the point. Welcome to the Melvins.
“A Growing Disgust” follows and is all the more an anchor for the first half of Freak Puke for how recognizably Melvinsian it is. Osborne’s guitar is out front, his vocals reciting lyrics about who the hell knows what or why, and Dunn adds depth and range to a song that’s restrained structurally compared to some of what’s around it – “Worm Farm Waltz,” for example, or “Leon vs. the Revolution,” which follows – but goes to prove that all the elements at work that might seem bizarre or off-kilter don’t happen by mistake. Not that the Melvins needed to prove that 30 years on, but like the opening duo setting the course, a reminder is convenient in this context. A trio of shorter cuts ensues beginning with “Leon vs. the Revolution,” which seems to be acting as the setup man for the weirdness of “Holy Barbarians” even as the title-track strikes a balance between the two. All three tracks aren’t as long put together as the closer, “Tommy Goes Berserk” – each is under three minutes – but they offer a striking progression one to the next. “Leon vs. the Revolution” is faster but still within the Melvins “tradition” and not out of line with some of the songs on the first half of the album despite a fight-chant finish, but “Holy Barbarians” finds Dunn back on his bow and is Freak Puke’s darkest and most psychedelic moment. Background swirls of bass underscore a subdued Osborne vocal given foundation by Crover and the song is almost entirely fluid in its eeriness. Bringing back a more aggressive pulse, “Freak Puke” toys with Thin Lizzy-style classic rock tropes while also giving Dunn another excellent riff to work off of on bass. If in the grander scheme of the album as a whole “Freak Puke” is outshined, it’s only because it’s followed, after a feedback finish, by the Wings cover “Let Me Roll It,” which Melvins Lite so excellently make their own, turning its pacing into genuine plod, allowing Dunn to shine during a start-stop guitar verse and going full-on drunkard-gang-vocal for the chorus delivery of the title line.
It works perhaps most of all because it’s absurd and they know it, but for what it’s worth, Dunn also kills it on bass and sounds like he’s having a blast doing so. The central line of the song is simpler than most of the material he plays on Freak Puke, but a simple bluesy groove is undeniable, and they still find room to end the track with feedback guitar noise from Osborne leading into the subdued introduction to 9:40 closer “Tommy Goes Berserk.” Quiet verses foreshadow the build to come, and finally the song takes off at 2:45 on a long and deceptively memorable run, Osborne’s solo infused with hooky melody even as he tops it with a megaphone-style verse. Dunn and Crover are locked in all the way as the layered rhythm and lead guitar lines again take over, and the only shame of it is they don’t ride the part out for the full 9:40 runtime, instead deconstructing the song until a little before seven minutes in and letting various samples, ambient and experimental-sounding noises bring Freak Puke to a probably-purposefully anti-climactic conclusion. For probably all but the über-converted, Melvins Lite will probably be a grower on at least some level, as the appeal of the songs seems to reveal itself more with subsequent visits, but even if it’s the basic acknowledgement of the band doing what they do how they want to do it, Freak Puke earns immediate respect. With Dunn having recently joined Tomahawk (not to mention the potentially impending Mr. Bungle reunion) and Osborne and Crover continuing as the Melvins proper with Warren and Willis, whether or not this is a one-off remains uncertain, but the obvious comfort of these players in each other’s spheres shines through the tracks and makes for as exciting a listen as ever. As Melvins fandom seems perpetually divided into camps of those who hail as groundbreaking the weirdo wizardry ongoing within their work and those who pine for the heavy rocking indulgences of the band’s remarkable early and mid-‘90s output, Freak Puke affects an engaging balance between the two sides and seems to have something on offer for everyone. In any case, what was true at the start remains true now: the Melvins are in a class of their own.
Tags: Freak Puke, Ipecac, Melvins, Melvins Lite, Washington