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Grope for Merit 

How the Melvins have perverted the indie process with Honky

Wednesday, Aug 20 1997
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Before that pasty altrock stew bubbled over into their arena, it seemed the Melvins could do no wrong. Not because their odd, abbreviated albums were ever perfect, but because they showed perfection (of a style, or at least a shtick) as a process. From Gluey Porch Treatments through Ozma, Bullhead, Eggnog, Melvins (ne Lysol), and the three 1992 solo EPs (which mocked those recorded by the individual members of Kiss in 1978), the independent releases (put out by dinky companies like Boner and C/Z) offered an escalating commentary on what rock fans deem "heavy," mostly by slowing down what had previously been defined as sped up. There seemed to be a movement toward an idealized sort of heavy metal -- one where the sheer mass of the music would literally outweigh any of the genre's prior concerns. Gone were the flagrant solos, the virtuosic displays on guitar or drums (though the virtuosity was still there); likewise nixed were metal's banal little odes to scoring pussy, driving fast, munching corn dogs with Satan, or the healing balm of suicide. The Melvins' results were often painfully slow; some riffs took what seemed like more than a minute to turn around, and thus even be recognized as riffs. Parsing out the truly ominous from the merely goofy became a non-issue; you could laugh or cringe at your discretion. Nothing like it had been heard before.

The Melvins' stylistic success had something to do with Buzz Osborne's gibberish lyrics, overstated vocals, and detuned guitar riffs, but was built upon drummer Dale Crover's uncanny approach to rhythmic structure. (The Melvins' revolving service of bass players was generally superfluous, up until Mark Deutrom joined the lineup for good in 1993. And that includes Lori Black, Shirley Temple's daughter, who played bass on my favorite Melvins records, Eggnog and Ozma, under the name Lorax.) Even Black Sabbath -- another band less concerned with how silly they looked than with creating a truly imposing musical horror show -- had never gotten quite so plodding, or quite so great. The Melvins' music was funny, tedious, frightening, and hypnotic, all at once.

But at some point in the process, the Melvins acquired the unfortunate ability to release mediocre albums (like the recent Honky), and even bad ones (like Prick). More distressing: They seem to enjoy doing so.

We could be grandiose and lay the blame on the gassy inflation and inevitable collapse of altrock. We could be sanctimonious and finger Atlantic Records, presumably hits-minded, who "parted ways" with the Melvins after hits proved scarce. Hell, if we really wanted to, we could dragnet the entire drunk-with-power record industry, which, callous pop-culture baleen feeder that it is, only releases albums to attract krill. But stuffing Atlantic and all the other cetacean plutocrats in the drunk tank for trying to do what industries, by definition, try to do, is pointless. (Though I'm sure even Greenpeace wouldn't object.) It was the Melvins, after all, who elected to sell us poor albums through independent routes. Therein resides both crime and motive. Honky and Prick aren't bad because of the record industry, but because they're about it.

Prick came out on the Minneapolis noise label Amphetamine Reptile just prior to the release of the Melvins' second Atlantic title, Stoner Witch (which, despite being one of the most accessible, almost Van Halen-like Melvins albums, was still a dandy one). We could call Prick a "Snivlem" album (since it was released under that mirror-image Melvins alias), but it was still an Osborne/Crover/Deutrom property. Unfortunately (and deliberately), Prick was also unlistenable, sopping track after track with flat jokes, empty overtures, and an inflammatory disregard for content. One "song" consisted of nothing but a cockneyfied voice saying, "And now, for your listening pleasure, a moment of pure digital silence" -- followed by just that. Not just a waste of space, but an old joke. (Consult Cage, and then dada.) For all its indulgence, Prick apparently served as a refreshing dip back into the underground, where album sales need not be contended with -- refreshing for the Melvins, that is. All the record-buying public got was the sense of a lot of water being displaced by the band's collective fat ass. If the label suggestions that resulted in the toned-down gestures of Stoner Witch were irksome, then Prick was a vast overcompensation.

Honky, once again through AmRep, arrives after the weird and engaging adios to Atlantic, Stag. It's eminently more enjoyable than Prick, if only because it contains actual, though dull, songs. But still, there's the sense of pressure being vented, steam being blown -- in this case, from the entire overbearing patronage by Atlantic.

Here and there we can see those good old Melvins perks. Like the moment where the chugging open-string riff on "In the Freaktose the Bugs Are Dying" picks up a major-to-minor seventh slur, and the series of silly blips and percussive noises on "Grin" that (surprisingly) work well within the track's skeletal structure. And then there's "Lovely Butterfly," where Osborne babbles once again:

Have you ever only eaten what's alive
Cut the thing for meat
Skin cooker for the hive
Cooked on the inside
I have a bellyful of brine
Crawling through my intestine
Gristle-thick pork chop rot-tine
The lovely butterfly

Much to this writer's delight, the word "intestine" is forced to rhyme with "brine." I don't know what sort of vaunted position a "skin cooker" might hold in "the hive" -- wherever that is -- but it sounds like good, dumb fun, and certainly unpleasant enough for metal. The Melvins have always reveled in rendering the childish sadistic, or vice versa; this is especially evident in their album art -- the two happy bunnies hauling a baroque Easter egg on the inner sleeve of Eggnog, or the cheery, two-headed puppy on Houdini. But the drum and instrument tracks are grievously redlined, exuding the sort of squall that can repel fleas. "Lovely Butterfly" might have been a keeper. Instead, it falls victim to self-inflicted vandalism.

A similar spirit of fucking off pervades Honky. "Air Breather Deep in the Arms of Morphius" is disjunct and clumsy in its gulps for atmosphere. (Flighty prog, or numb ambient?) The track titled "HOW --++--" offers nothing but tritonal feedback and atonal noodling while a drum machine gradually speeds up. "Harry Lauders Walking Stick Tree," with its mush-mouthed vocals and reverb torpor, sounds like poorly executed Ween.

But the most damning track on Honky -- and the one that betrays the album's true nature -- is "Laughing With Lucifer at Satan's Sideshow." Here, between silly flourishes of circus funk, we are treated to various recorded voices. What do you know? It's the hypocritical scions of the music industry! "You'll always have a home here to make whatever kind of records you want." "We don't do special packaging for bands that haven't gone gold!" "They rejected your video. So what do you want us to do?" "You should consider yourself lucky. Any other major label would have dropped you by now." "The people here in radio just don't like your band." "At least your records are in the stores." "Well, we won't do a thing unless the single moves it." "He's in a meeting. Can he call you right back?"

Obviously, "Laughing With Lucifer" has something to do with Atlantic. But this, setting aside the amusement for listeners, and the general fun of poking an unctuous entertainment conglomerate, poses a question: Did it ever occur to the Melvins that people shouldn't, and in some cases even don't, give a flying follicle about the music industry?

Granted, in the silly culture of fandom -- where people pretend that musicians, actors, and the like are both their gods and their personal friends -- folks make a show of caring about what happens behind the scenes in the entertainment world. But only a rock journalist or a publicist would claim that any of it really matters -- that the antlike scramblings of producers and investors are more fascinating in a show-biz setting than at a bank. And I can't conceive of any life form with even a single, supple thread of nerve ganglia at its command -- be it a lamprey, a fluke, or a music editor -- that believes that the record industry is built on altruism. An original work of art is something that by definition has never been made before; yet the record industry believes in track records, proven courses, the surest routes to revenue. Return on investment? Why ... I'm scandalized. Go ahead and write an indulgent little ditty about it, release a filler-larded album because of it. I'll be bored.

Smaller outfits like AmRep are both invaluable and problematic: They're an easier point of entry for the multitudes who believe they have talent. AmRep will basically release anything, simply for the love of it, or for the hazy and distant mirage of profit. The Washington book company Loompanics, which puts out titles like Sell Your Body to Science! and Economic Sodomy, serves roughly the same purpose. Both Loompanics and AmRep issue the occasional gem -- a book or CD more dazzling than anything bobbing in the mainstream -- but in doing so they also generate a lot of waste, simply because ... they're an easier point of entry. Most of the multitudes who believe they have talent don't. With none of the majors' bothersome filters, which determine merit on our behalf (evil), we're left to strap on latex, stick our hands in the dank muck, and grope for merit ourselves (annoying, expensive).

Which gets at the real shame behind Honky, and Prick before it. The Melvins know how to make good albums; they've done so many times for both the minors and the majors. The Melvins' three Atlantic records -- Houdini, Stoner Witch, and Stag -- are entirely peachy. The band has only fallen back on AmRep to release slipshod albums on purpose. It's imperfection as a process -- a perversion of any good that independent labels might hope to do. Instead of having the chance to discover treasure from a band we've never heard of (in the name of artistic freedom), we're given crap by a band we know (in the name of self-indulgence). Despite itself, Honky makes an excellent case for consumerism.

About The Author

Michael Batty

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