MELVINS – At The Stake: Atlantic Recordings 1993-1995

After Geffen Records scored an unexpected commercial and financial success with Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ album in 1991, other major labels began to scour the Seattle area, convinced that the city and its surrounding towns would result in a similar brand of ‘Teen Spirit’. By 1993, around the time that Seattle Fever had reached its peak, pretty much every band who’d been name checked by Kurt Cobain or other important figures had made the leap from indie cool to bigger things. Even supposed second division acts like Tad found themselves signed to major contracts. Looking back, it could be argued that a lot of these bands didn’t quite have the impact the labels had desired, but these major deals certainly elevated their profiles.

That’s certainly true of (the) Melvins. The Dada-ist sludge metal/garage punk oddballs were there right at the beginning of grunge’s inception – they were actually making swampy noises as far back as 1983 – but most people didn’t really clock them until Cobain started to name check them and they signed a deal with Atlantic Records approximately a decade later. Signing to a major label certainly benefited Buzz Osborne and his bandmates. It could be argued that their brief dalliance with a big label and bigger budget would set them in place to be a cult band for years afterwards, but if Atlantic were hoping for an easy cash cow, they’d come to the wrong place. This box set charts the Melvins’ most “famous” period, bringing together their three major label albums and a selection of bonus tracks, and shows how – regardless of what Atlantic possibly wanted them to do – Buzz, Dale and that week’s bass player would continue to do whatever the hell they liked…just with the aid of far more money and/or better studio facilities!

In the ultimate act of biting the hand that feeds, 1993’s ‘Houdini’ begins the Melvins’ major label journey with one of their most obtuse recordings to date. ‘Hooch’ features an easily recognisable Crover drum sound – insanely loud and drenched in echo – coupled with a brilliantly heavy riff, but it also comes with a ridiculous vocal performance where Buzz growls his way through various phrases from a made up language. “Do day rucka pin / you sinka mah swan” he bellows, all the while chugging through a riff that comes with twice the volume of their previous independent efforts. It’s funny, weird, and altogether challenging – especially for those who’d picked up the album hoping to find bona fide grunge superstars – but it sets a great precedent for the next forty minutes.

The run of tracks that follows such a weird opener cements the Melvins place within the consciousness of grunge oriented listener. ‘Night Goat’ works a deeper bass against a mid tempo crashing drum, whilst the riff spends most of its four minutes working a repetitive chug, interspersed with ugly blues guitar leads, before ‘Lizzy’ slows everything further via a strange blend of swamp rock and pure sludge. The clean vocal sets it apart from more typical Melvins fare, but Crover’s dead weight drumming and the eventual combo Sabbath-ish riffs and shouting that fills the chorus has such an unmistakable sound. It really couldn’t be anyone else. It’s also one of the best tracks for deploying a quietLOUDquiet technique – hugely popular at the time – but it’s fair to say ‘Lizzy’ isn’t as impressive as some of ‘Houdini’s heavier tunes.

Taking the Kiss classic ‘Goin’ Blind’ and heavying it up about 200%, Buzz and co work some great sludge, and applying a drawled voice really brings out the sinister tone in one of Gene’s best songs. A couple of strange bum notes along the way highlight the Melvins penchant for an unfussy recording style despite the major label backing and, as usual, Crover’s drumming is immense, even though Peter Criss didn’t really leave him too much to work with. ‘Honey Bucket’, meanwhile, casts a less than melodic net back to much earlier Melvins recordings. The speed driven, heavily distorted riffs that drive an almost Cardiacs-meets-Mudhoney arrangement were spawned as far back as ‘Oven’ (1989) and the extended intro is a direct descendent of the brilliant ‘Zodiac’ (1991). By the time the muddy tune hits its stride, the groove sounds like a weird cousin of White Zombie playing something from the soon to be released Melvins opus ‘Stoner Witch’. It’s all about the riff and the intensity; don’t expect any lyrical hook or chorus of any kind. Whatever happens, by the time it reaches an abrupt end after three minutes, it’s marked itself out as an instant classic.

Interestingly, ‘Houdini’ features a couple of tunes that come a little closer to a typical Seattle sound, when ‘Teet’ teases with a Krist Novoselic bass sound and ‘Copache’ takes a Nirvana ‘Bleach’ era workout and increases the aggression. True to form, though, these won’t have been included for any sort of commercial gain, and Buzz fuels the latter with an especially angry vocal to ensure it doesn’t come too close to being a grunge classic. For those who prefer the Melvins to take things at a slower tempo, the lop sided doom metal drudgery of ‘Hag Me’ (taking the guts of Sabbath and playing them back at half speed) and sludge metal of ‘Joan of Arc’ flaunt a dark side to the band where heaviness and lo-fi recording techniques take a precedent over memorable song writing. All of this – for better or worse – is brought to a close by ‘Spread Eagle Beagle’, the ultimate musical equivalent of wasting studio time and resources. A ten minute noise collage created from manipulated drum sounds, the painfully slow avant guard piece is Crover’s homage to Nick Mason’s ‘Grand Vizier’s Garden Party’, and much like the Pink Floyd piece, you’re rarely likely to listen to it, let alone genuinely enjoy it.

Despite its obtuse approach, the media response to ‘Houdini’ at the time was generally positive, but looking back, it’s possible that positivity came with a lot of goodwill due to the Seattle boom. ‘Houdini’ is a good record, but listening with a critical ear, it’s not always as inventive as prior Melvins releases, and tends to err on the side of one-paced in places. ‘Hooch’, ‘Night Goat’, ‘Honey Bucket’ and ‘Copache’ make it an essential collection filler, and there’s a reasonable amount of other stuff to enjoy, but it could certainly be argued that ‘Houdini’ is the least interesting of the Melvins’ three Atlantic records.

The following year bought a double whammy of Melvins’ work into the world. Capitalising on the band’s new found major label status, Amphetamine Reptile Records issued ‘Prick’, an unlistenable sound collage, whilst Atlantic released ‘Stoner Witch’, a riff driven collection of tracks that takes the best bits of ‘Houdini’ and various other stoner-based influences and a world of pure odd, making for one of the all time great Melvins discs.

For those who enjoy ‘Houdini’, ‘Stoner Witch’ is one of those albums that could be branded “an unmissable treat”. In tracks like ‘Roadbull’ and ‘Queen’ and ‘Sqweetis’, the drum heavy sludge and doom sounds are recycled, but taken to the next level, proving the Melvins’ core sound still has plenty of legs. It’s in the other sonic experiments where the record truly comes into its own, however. It’s hard to imagine any fan – whether dyed in the wool, or fleeting – not being knocked sideways by the wonky groove metal of ‘Revolve’, or the speed driven rifferama of ‘Sweet Willy Rollbar’, a heavy riff demon that works the trio into a sweat, but ends far too soon. It would be equally strange for the seasoned Melvins fan not to fall for the charms of the frankly weird ‘Magic Pig Detective’, a wilful six minute experiment where Buzz makes scratchy noises with his guitar and Dale casts forth strange rattling noises. It isn’t so much an instrumental piece as a slow burning eavesdrop into a place where three oddballs never seem to get past knob-twiddling, yet at the same time, in context of the band’s need to do seemingly whatever the hell they like, it sort of works. Whether it works sequenced in the middle of the album is a different matter, but as always, that’s the Melvins for you.

Equally worth the listening time, ‘At The Stake’ is a pure doom masterpiece; a soundscape where Melvins take the Sabbath-esque to its logical extreme with a mix of slow, deep and hard riffs, an ominous but warm bassline and a little guitar mangling to leave the listener with one of the more accessible examples of their sound. More accessible it certainly is, but it still doesn’t compromise on pure intensity…or intent. ‘Goose Freight Train’ slides into a sloppy take on 50s jazz, and in doing so, becomes a Melvins tribute to a noir-ish soundtrack, which is as different from the likes of ‘Sweet Willy Rollbar’ as possible, and the core of ‘Stoner Witch’ ultimately becomes quite different to ‘Houdini’ and the ‘Stag’ follow up (only obvious in retrospect), and ‘Shevil’ paints a sparse desert rock landscape where wavering guitar and bass sets a tone that’ll be copied by many in years to come, but it has a sound that’d, perhaps, be heard most directly in the hands of Fatso Jetson. ‘Stoner Witch’ is more varied than ‘Houdini’ and arguably more accessible than some of the earlier Melvins discs, but you’re never more than a track away from something brilliant, which immediately makes it the highlight of this multi-disc set.

So…what do you do when you’ve released a career-defining, genre-defining classic? If you’re the Melvins, you do a complete U-turn and retreat into a world of wanton weirdness. 1996’s ‘Stag’ is one of the most bizarre and wilful albums to be released by a rock band on a major label, with the exception of Mr. Bungle’s ‘Disco Volante’ released a few months earlier. As if taking lessons from Mike Patton in how to destroy your relationship with the monied establishment, ‘Stag’ lurches all over the place. It takes grunge and sludge as obvious jumping off points, but mixes the stoner based elements will all sorts of crazy musical embellishments.

Its lead single ‘Bar-X The Rocking M’ mixes sludge metal riffs with DJ turntable scratches, adds a slurred vocal and tops everything off with a less than melodic solo from a valve trombone. To hear it for the first time can cause massive confusion, but eventually it’s hard not to love such an arty piece of metal. ‘The Bit’ works a similar level of heaviness, but instead of just giving fans a slab of riffs, the sludge is tempered by sitar and an atonal, buzzing repetitious groove that calls upon a couple of White Zombie’s independent recordings. In true Melvins tradition, it’s more about riff than song, but the way Buzz croons weirdly above the repeated groove at least attempts something of a hook. Delving into a landscape of pure noise, ‘Goggle’ pays homage to the earlier Melvins experiments when a lo-fi sludge riff crawls mercilessly over six minutes with Buzz throwing out walls of feedback and Dale (half buried in a mix that sounds like a cassette sourced demo) smashes the hell out of his snare drums. With hushed vocals adding a horror tone, any melodic flourishes are left to bassist Mark D, peppering the wall of sludge with a hard slapped bass. It’s unrelenting, almost impenetrable, yet at the same time, strangely fascinating.

In terms of balls out metal riffs, ‘Buck Owens’ is a standout, with an intro that comes straight from the speed oriented sounds of the band’s earlier outings, before dropping into a jagged slice of groove metal that sounds like a leftover from the ‘Stoner Witch’ sessions, and the massive sounding ‘The Bloat’ mixes doom metal and blues tones, allowing for some mean slide guitar during its first section, before the melodic elements fall away to reveal a stripped down, drum led noise delivered at funereal pace. In many ways, this is more typical Melvins, but it’s not long before ‘Stag’ tips the balance once more when ‘Black Bock’ arrives with a jangling indie tune that sounds like a Flaming Lips cast off. Most fans know that Melvins love the element of surprise, but few would have second guessed this musical twist in ’96. Elsewhere, the double whammy of ‘Captain Pungent’ and ‘Berthas’ takes riffs derived from the ‘Stoner Witch’ sound and twists it into a crashing rock ‘n’ roll homage, which brings the Melvins sound very close to the likes of Fu Manchu. Those looking for a brilliant riff above all else, will certainly find some easy consolation on these tracks after soldiering bravely through some of stoner metal’s most experimental workouts.

‘Tipping The Lion’ presents a blend of strange psychedelia and atonal guitar work drawing from Mr. Bungle influences and odd jazz works, before Crover embarks upon a loud, clattering drum break to close. Despite some less melodic features, its quieter stance allows the listener time to reflect upon how broadly talented this avant trio can be. In another twist, ‘Skin Horse’ sounds like a weird Foo Fighters homage played by half wazzed sludge fiends. Its instrumental moments are some of ‘Stag’s most straight, but to ensure the safe zone is kept brief, Buzz adds an ugly croon over the alternative rock groove, ensuring that – no matter which route the music takes – the end product is unmistakably Melvins, before the track’s coda assaults the listener with a melody that sounds like a child’s ballad, and when you figured ‘Stag’ just couldn’t get any stranger, the twee music is coupled with annoying pitch-adjusted voices!

In addition to all of that, ‘Stag’ also finds time for a few sonic experiments: ‘Yacob’s Ladder’ brings a touch of dark ambient; ‘Soup’ sounds like a manipulated field recording of a dripping tap and someone’s vibrator, before John Carpenter-esque keys add to a mounting unease; ‘Sterilized’ plays like an old Melvins tune sourced from a water-logged cassette, making its finer points hard to make out beyond an occasionally loud drum and weird voice, and ‘Lacrimosa’ utilises some spooky arsed voices over a pulsing bass and crashing drum, playing like an extended intro to something really intense. Don’t wait for the explosion, though; this really does just amble through a vague fug of darkness for over four minutes…

It takes a long time to fully appreciate ‘Stag’ and all of its bonkers charms, but once you do, it becomes an alluring musical circus that’s almost unique. It sounds even stranger coming off the back of ‘Stoner Witch’, obviously, but when heard on its own, it could be considered one of the Melvins’ classic discs.

Obviously, most Melvins fans will own these three albums on CD already, but this box set includes a massive purchase incentive with its array of bonus tracks, which almost make up a complete album by themselves. There are various single edits included for completeness, along with a few really angry sounding live tracks, but a handful of non-album studio recordings are where the real interest lies.

A really aggressive take on MC5’s ‘Rocket Reducer 62’ allows the band to revisit some of the lower fidelity noise that filled their first couple of releases, and Buzz sounds very comfortable shouting his way through the incessant chorus hook. Taking a voyage into a world where poorly recorded garage rock meets a grunge-ish wall of noise, this could be considered one of the great deep cuts, but it’s quickly outshone by an equally energised cover of The Germs’ ‘Lexicon Devil’. The band don’t do anything to make it different from the original, but a better guitar sound and bigger production values than Darby Crash and friends ever had certainly helps to make it a worthy cover, and an angry, retching vocal ensures the spirit of the original cut is never far away.

Taking a journey into a sludgier sound, ‘Instant Larry’ couples a great ‘Stoner Witch’ era riff or six with a wall of distorted vocals and atonal guitar work that results in a four minute blast where those early White Zombie vibes return, and the pure anger in Melvins’ sonic assault sounds ready to burst. …And that’s before Crover adds a massive rumble of drums and weird treated vocals fill a jagged coda. ‘In The Rain’ changes the mood again when Mark’s bass takes the lead in a nod to Minutemen and weird art punk vocals bark their way through a tune that could be considered a throwaway novelty, and an alternate take of ‘Tipping The Lion’ adds a wall of distortion, making its once familiar melody sound like a strange, semi-industrial dirge. It’s all pretty obtuse, but if you’ve acquainted yourself with the albums – and can acquire a fondness for ‘Stag’ – its mix of sludge and droning sounds will have some twisted appeal. Best of all, Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ gets a very faithful reworking, right down to the repeated guitar bleeps around the two and half minute mark. With the original cut whipping up a semi-impenetrable noise in places, its great to hear the Melvins’ recreating the psych jam with so much love…and an unexpected amount of care. There are a few heavier moments, as you might suspect, but never enough to draw attention away from the adulation of an early psych classic.

The “Atlantic Years” aren’t always the most exciting in Melvins history (which says more about how much great stuff they released afterwards than the quality of these albums), but the recordings included in this set give a sizeable and solid overview of a band capable of almost anything, and in ‘Stag’, unfamiliar listeners will get an absolutely fantastic insight into some of their stranger musical affairs. For anyone yet to swear allegiance to Buzz and Dale, this is still a great primer (it’ll at least avoid too much risk), and for the committed fan, its bonus cuts make filling collection gaps a lot easier. Whichever way you approach it, this triple disc set is (mostly) brilliant.

Buy the box set here: MELVINS – At The Stake (box set)

April-June 2023