The Melvins – At the Stake – The Atlantic Recordings, 1993-1995
Led Zeppelin; Aretha Franklin; The Bee Gees; Foreigner; The Melvins. Of course, this is simply mischief – for every Hall & Oates there was an MC5, but make no mistake, the signing of The Melvins by Atlantic Records did raise eyebrows. In 1993, the alternative rock bombardment of the mainstream was in full swing, with bands like (obviously) Nirvana, Primus, and Afghan Whigs, not just signing to major labels but retaining their integrity whilst selling records and pleasing the critics. There were still plenty of bands out there waiting to be snapped up from indies enjoying all their Christmasses at once, but we’d reach the stage where A&R staff were spending their evenings hiding behind the sofa. Could Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr behave themselves at the grown-up’s table? Could anyone survive The Melvins joining a major label?
Kurt Cobain’s coming aboard as producer eased fears on the label side. A gesture of appreciation from the band, given Cobain’s relentless namechecking of the band in interviews, which doubtless contributed hugely to The Melvins being signed in the first place. With his name on the sleeve and his guitar playing featured on the track, ‘Sky Pup’, it was a dream of an endorsement, though the reality of the situation was quite different. Cobain was in the full grip of heroin use and even for a band as visceral and uncompromising as The Melvins, it was too much. With admirable decorum, leader, Buzz Osborne, ‘had a word’ with Atlantic and Nirvana’s manager, and the band took control of production.
The most surprising fact about this period in the band’s history isn’t that they signed for Atlantic – it’s that the label did nothing to interfere with their creativity. There were no caveats or censoring and, on their part, no diluting of the output by the band. ‘Houdini’, the first album of the three they created, remains The Melvins at their most accessible, but this is relatively speaking. Riffs are pummeling; drums feels like defibrillator shocks; lyrics still feature Osborne’s interpretation of nonsense verse:
“You sink a my swan
Rolly a get a worst in
May-be minus way far central poor forty duck a pin”
That’s from ‘Hooch’, track one on the album. Despite their approach being definitely ‘Melvins’, the general listening public, frothing at the mouth for anything deemed edgy or from the Pacific North West, gave the thumbs up. The video for ‘Honey Bucket’, despite openly ridiculing sections of their audience, received not unhealthy play on MTV – it even got more than a few showings in the UK. What was unthinkable five years ago was now a reality.
There seems to have been a little bit of retrospective backlash against ‘Houdini’, the complaint being largely around them not being experimental enough. This is absurd – I’m not even sure I can be bothered to justify this. Yes, I can. This is primal Melvins just as much as their earliest work – you don’t need to sit there sucking the end of your ball-point musing over the lyrics – what you have is the disgusted fingers of Osborne teaching his guitar strings a lesson and Dale Crover exercising such control of his kit in terms of both dynamics and skill that it’s a wonder they both don’t regularly appear in their respective ‘best’ lists. ‘Hag Me’, a seven-minute agonised crawl over broken beer bottles is both enriching and upsetting. Their cover of Kiss’s ‘Goin’ Blind’ is the band giving you their business card. Both the band and the label have so much to be proud of here.
1994’s ‘Stoner Witch’ received far less promotion from Atlantic, no major issue for a band who were releasing the album they’d have made regardless of who put it out. Mark Deutrom on bass replaces Lori ‘Lorax’ Black, and along with Osborne and Crover delivers an album of almost health-warning-worthy volume. Some of ‘Houdini’s’ sludge had been ladelled off somewhat and instead festooned with metallic bone-cracking, animalistic savagery exemplified by ‘Sweet Willy Rollbar’s’ pig-snorting intro. ‘At the Stake’ is so regally monolithic that it feels like the band’s attempt at creating something for an unholy Mass in an upside-down cathedral. As the album progresses, with the power come unwieldy rhythms and tangled guitar stabs, the band working without constraints but still creating something which works perfectly as a whole, though more as a live set than a studio album.
It’s 1996 and it’s entirely possible that Atlantic had forgotten they were paying The Melvins to record albums. Zero promotion and a quiet goodbye chugged towards them over the horizon but the band weren’t leaving quietly. ‘Stag’ is the band’s diatribe at the world around them which was spitting out what could be easily digested and slurping on pink puddles of bubblegum gunk. ‘Goggles’ is the kind of track you’d expect The Melvins to make for a major label – discordant, mean and like lancing a boil over your mother-in-law’s Sunday dinner. ‘Captain Pungent’ has a strange sort of sassiness, should a hippo in a china shop have decided it had sass; ‘Berthas’ sounds like Thin Lizzy underwater; ‘Bar-X-The Rocking M parps along the beach in lead boots; ‘Black Bock’ is a stumbling country porch ballad leaning heavily on a dream pop cushion. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ of everything The Melvins were and are – grotesquely loud, yes; perversely constructed, yes; but also funny; skilful and never settling for simply copying what went before. It’s a jumble but it’s far cleverer than it was given credit for.
Extra tracks across the set, alas, offer nothing fans won’t already have: the MC5’s ‘Rocket Reducer #62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)’, a cover of The Germs’ ‘Lexicon Devil’, a take on Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, the odd live track and demos. Inside the beautiful clamshell is distressingly little – mini envelope sleeve covers for the discs but nothing beyond the original, very sparse inlays in terms of info. Once again, in the manner of one of Osbsorne’s heroes, David Lynch, the audience is left to fend for itself, with not so much as a seatbelt to secure them.
You can buy At the Stake by The Melvins here