Genre: Sludge Metal, Sound Collage
Favorite Tracks: “Sober-Delic (Acid Only),” “Euthanasia,” “Edgar the Elephant”
The Melvins are a tough nut to crack. Their most popular and what are often considered to be their best albums tend to be the least regarded by the band (looking at you HOUDINI), while the band’s own favorite albums—those they feel are most representative of them as a band—include some of their most ambitious, challenging, and downright bizarre work. And yet, none of that matters when discussing the Melvins’ truly staggering body of work. To quote frontman/mastermind Buzz himself, The Melvins have always been much more of a “What have you done lately?” band. They are, and have always been, ever-forward-looking—continually working harder to push the envelope and to do that which has never been done before. Now, after 34 years as a band and 25 studio albums (not to mention countless EPs, splits, and live albums), the Melvins’ latest is also their first-ever double album, A WALK WITH LOVE & DEATH.
A WALK WITH LOVE & DEATH is The Melvins at some of their most, uh, Melvins-y. The first album, DEATH, is a conventional studio album, whereas the second album, LOVE, is the score to an as-of-yet unreleased, Melvins-produced short film also titled A WALK WITH LOVE & DEATH. Phew. Despite being a double album, the two albums share little-to-no connective tissue, either musically or (as far as I can tell) on any kind of thematic level. What we have instead is an extensive, sprawling exploration into the poles of the band’s sound. Let’s begin by first looking at DEATH, which finds The Melvins alternately wading through spaced-out, murky psychedelia and rumbling through upbeat, almost poppy takes on ‘70s rock—all of it punched up by the band’s own special brand of humor.
Album-opener “Black Heath” is a sleepy jam propelled along by a buoyant, funky bassline, which meanders along before leading right into “Sober-Delic (Acid Only),” where Buzz showcases some of his trademark angular riffage as well as some proper psychedelic noodling. However, The Melvins shake out any cobwebs on the next track, the towering monolith that is “Euthanasia”—a retake on their self-same track off of 1990’s DOPE-GUNS-‘N-FUCKING IN THE STREETS (VOLUMES 4-7). This time around Steve lays down some bass that sounds almost like THROUGH SILVER IN BLOOD-era Neurosis ( . . . or maybe that was Neurosis sounding like Melvins?) before the song collapses in on itself in a mind-melting outro that is sure to leave listeners dumbfounded.
Next up (and out of left field), is a fun little power pop number by the name of “What’s Wrong with You?” With vocal duties handled by bassist Steve McDonald, it (quite fittingly) sounds like it could be a Redd Kross outtake. It’s upbeat, peppy, and unbelievably catchy—none of which are adjectives I think I’ve ever attributed to anything Melvins, but hey!—and serves as a bit of a palate cleanser between the slab of early ‘90s sludge that is “Euthanasia” and the mid-‘00s Melvins saunter of “Edgar the Elephant.” The rest of DEATH continues along that vein, with “Flaming Creature” utilizing a bit more metallic riffing, while single “Christ Hammer” is pure Melvins, with Buzzo belting out his signature nonsense over a riff that bends in and out of a relaxed backbeat. “Cactus Party” sees a cool vocal assist by oft-collaborator Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes, while album closer “Cardboa Negro” brings DEATH full circle, dipping back into the languid psych which started the album before spiraling out into a some of the weirdness that is to come in LOVE.
Ah, LOVE. Where DEATH is a something of a Melvins sampler platter, LOVE is 40 minutes of contextless, oftentimes abrasive, and deeply unsettling soundscapes composed of heavily manipulated, warped noise (in the genre sense), field recordings, conversations, and God knows what else. In that regard, it is not dissimilar to the experimental sound collages put out by Industrial Records in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In fact, the closest comparison I can make is to the art-insanity of Monte Cazazza, or early Throbbing Gristle. I would venture to say that most people are going to hate LOVE, and I will admit it most definitely an acquired taste, but it has grown on me. In that sense, it is a lot like Melvins’ most notorious release, THE COLOSSUS OF DESTINY—a long, squalling fit of awful, senseless noise, but one that nevertheless rewards a careful, patient listener. And the fact that The Melvins have swapped the more fitting titles of the two albums makes the whole package all the better.
A WALK WITH LOVE & DEATH is Melvins at both their most subdued and most flagrantly self-indulgent. DEATH is a smooth, enjoyable listen that undulates between languid quasi-psychedelia and their trademark sludge, with a little bit of sardonic power pop thrown in for good measure. LOVE, on the other hand, is an intentionally needling litmus test. And yet, for how varied and seemingly uncharacteristic much of their new material is, Melvins seamlessly integrated quite a bit of it with deep cuts off of landmark albums such as OZMA, LYSOL, and BULLHEAD during their recent show at The Observatory. Perhaps that is a testament to the band’s indefatigable prowess, or to Buzz’s writing chops, or maybe both. The takeaway here is that the best moments on DEATH stack up to some of the best moments across their groundbreaking and hugely influential three-decade-plus career.
Together, for better or worse, LOVE and DEATH amount to an almost insurmountably ambitious, challenging, and—yes—downright bizarre opus that will stand as a contentious and divisive work from a band that has often been, and reveled in being, contentious and divisive. It probably won’t win over any new fans, and almost certainly will prove to be a hard pill to swallow for casual followers and those still hung up on the Atlantic Records days, but it is sure to appeal to those with an appreciation for the weird and unbridled, unapologetic creativity. And for that alone, this record is worth listening to. Either way, The Melvins are going to carry on in doing what they’ve always done: that which is least expected.