The Agit Reader

Metal By Any Other Name

August 10th, 2017  |  by Brian O'Neill

Melvins

Encyclopedia Metallum is an excellent resource for all things metal—except when it’s not. While the website does a fantastic job cataloging more than 100,000 bands (and counting), it also comes under fire for strict definitions of what exactly qualifies as metal. Debates can sometimes be contentious, and some have accused the online reference of being arbitrary about what is and isn’t metal, excluding bands over personal animus rather than basing its decision on whether or not those bands are loud enough.

The line between what is and isn’t metal will only get blurrier as more and more musicians continue to straddle it. It’s worth noting that the Melvins and most of Neill Jameson’s bands have been included on those hallowed pages, though his project with Jenks Miller, Poison Blood, has yet to be listed. But then, neither has Horseback, Miller’s other heavy project.

Melvins
Union Transfer, August 5, Philadelphia

For an indie rock group from Brooklyn, opening band Spotlights sure gets around. They were personally invited by the Deftones to open their amphitheater run with Refused last summer and now get to spend this year’s warm months indoors with the Melvins. You definitely wouldn’t want to go after them when they read their “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay to the class.

The trio is led by married multi-instrumentalists Sarah and Mario Quintero, though live they stick to a standard guitar-bass-and-drums setup, with drummer Chris Enriquez rounding out the lineup. They play shoegazing melancholia that’s fuzzy and sometimes sludgy enough that metalheads will be fooled into thinking that they’re the target audience. It was a perfect way to kick off a concert headlined by a band that has spent a long career serenading indie rockers and heshers alike.

The Melvins (pictured top) have become the Flaming Lips of grunge, even though crazy-coifed bandleader King Buzzo would likely hate everything about that description. He’s gone on record opposing the grunge tag thrust upon his band when they found themselves unwitting Pacific Northwest inspirations some 25 years ago. Starting their set off with a Flipper cover (the bludgeoning “Sacrifice”), the Melvins made it clear that they play what they want, how they want, when they want, the way they want.

They wear what they want too: in Buzzo’s case, a ritualistic tunic of some sort with a swirl symbolizing who knows what emblazoned on the front. The rest of the band, though, donned standard issue black tees and jeans.

For all the experimenting in the band’s three decade–plus history, the Melvins don’t really mess with any of it once onstage, at least not now. Kind of like how the band’s latest, A Walk with Love and Death, is a sprawling double-album that sorts the band’s meat and potatoes riff-revolving Stonehenge rock onto one disc and the oddities onto the second disc. At Union Transfer, the band didn’t fuck around with dub reggae, ambient excursions, electronic noise, or any of the other unique forays that mark the band’s lengthy discography. No, they plugged in, tuned down, and dropped out. The most powerful of power trios, it’s like they reinvented Foghat as a jam band—I swear to god that’s true even though the band would likely give you withering looks and disdainful mocking if you called ‘em hippies.

But who cares? Sabbath were hippies, they just knew that the world ending made better theater than saving it. The vehemently anti-Trump merch the band was selling shows they know they have a front row seat to the coming apocalypse and theirs should be the soundtrack.

Instead of long jams, the Melvins mashed a whole bunch of actual songs into a seemingly never-ending nirvana. The set spanned from the pummeling “Oven,” off their 1989 sophomore release Ozma and whose 90-second running time is nobody’s idea of a freeform exploration, to a handful of tracks from the new one—all of them from the rocking “death” disc, of course. There was zero time or space in between for introspection, retrospection, adulation, and barely respiration, only perspiration. Without improvisation, the Melvins still jammed.

Joining Buzz Osbourne and the ubiquitous Dale Crover on drums was Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald, who fit in perfectly. The band even teased Redd Kross’ “What They Say” before running it into new track “Edgar the Elephant,” whose laidback psychedelic groove seemed a lot heavier live than on record, especially when segueing into another new cut “Sober-delic (Acid Only),” probably the only time during the entire set the band turned things down a few notches.

If other bands attempt volcanic explosions of intensity, the Melvins are the resultant molten lava flow that slowly and assuredly takes out everything that gets in the way. Blowing shit up is easy; blowing minds is a lot more difficult. Even after the better part of three decades, the Melvins still leave caved-in craniums in their wake. Long may their slow, doomy journey continue.

Poison BloodPoison Blood
Poison Blood

The Melvins are unlike most artists in innumerable ways, but foremost among them is that they have no problem churning out releases that blatantly deviate from the band’s trademark sound under the Melvins banner. Most musicians who wish to stretch their creative legs in the sometimes fickle world of underground metal are not afforded the same luxury which is one reason why there seems to be a glut of side projects involving prominent metallers.

In the past several months alone, we have seen Behemoth’s Nergal channeling Johnny Cash and Nick Cave with Me and That Man, the power pop of Beachheads featuring members of Norwegian djent heroes Kvelertak, and a prog-rock debut from Arcadea with members of Mastodon and Withered.

A contributing factor is how much easier it is now than ever before to stop, collaborate, and listen with modern technology and instant lossless communication that allow musicians to record entire albums without slogging it out in a garage. In fact, Neill Jameson, vocalist of the legendary American black metal band Krieg, and Jenks Miller, multi-instrumentalist for indie rockers Mount Moriah and heavy psyche outfit Horseback, have never even met in-person. This hasn’t stopped them from forming Poison Blood.

The two purportedly bonded over a mutual love of the relentless drone of Beherit’s classic 1993 Drawing Down the Moon and British anarcho-deathpunk troupe Rudimentary Peni. They don’t overthink things, as Poison Black’s self-titled debut (Relapse Records) is eight songs that last less than 20 minutes. While it certainly has a minimalistic charm, it’s not even close to being as anachronistic as one might expect.

Mainly this is because of Miller’s extensive keyboard work, which lends a classic-rock feel to the album. Opener “The Scourge and the Gestalt” is slow, crusty, and doomy, but the psyched-out swirling synths throw the whole proceedings back to Hawkwind, even if Jameson’s throaty grunts would seem out of place even in the Lemmy years. “Deformed Lights” is your basic two-and-a-half-minute punk-rock banger—assuming it was done by Uriah Heep. “Shelter Beneath the Sea” and “From the Lash” imagine a world where proto-garage act The Monks added grind to the long list of genres they helped inspire.

The longest track on Poison Blood is closer “Circles of Salt,” a slow-burning, shoegazing psychedelic storm that rises slowly to a crescendo, punctuating how remarkably accessible the project is given the minds and inspiration behind it. It would be amazing to see this track performed live, but I guess we have to get them in the same room first.

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