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25 Years Later: Melvins – Stoner Witch

Few things out of the way before we get started: 1) I know damn well that the band name is simply “Melvins,” but “The Melvins” rolls off the tongue better. And I genuinely can’t help myself, so I’m probably going to mistype it the whole time. You’ll just have to deal because editing is for squares.  2) Indy Metal Vault, as a collective, is a pretty big fan of The Melvins, with this being the 24th review/interview/feature to include or namedrop them. They’re a big presence here, just like they are in whatever bizarre musical scene they inhabit at any given time. And with that in mind, I feel it’s necessary to point out that I’m kind of a passing fan in all honesty. But in some strange way, I think that actually helps when trying to contextualize Stoner Witch. This is a bizarre album from a bizarre period in a bizarre discography from a bizarre band, and from the periphery looking in, I think that makes it all the more fascinating.

If you understand the saga of Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover’s merry band of weirdos in even the vaguest sense, you’ll know that, in the simplest possible terms, they’re the type of band that marches to the beat of some invisible drum from the fifth dimension. The group is named after an asshole that Buzzo used to work with. They were high school BFFs with Kurt Cobain. They sort of accidentally invented sludge metal by playing hardcore punk extremely slowly. Shirley Temple’s daughter played bass for a few years. They managed to write sub-three-minute drone songs. For about a decade, they had two drummers who would line their kits up side by side and share the floor toms.  Their lyrics are uniformly just random words in no real order with no real meaning. They have a total of 173 official releases, according to the Metal Archives (making them the 13th most prolific metal band of all time). They’re a weird band is what I’m saying.

I am very stoned and very confused, please send snacks

And that’s why their tenure on Atlantic Records is so funny to me. Rock music was a lawless wasteland in the 90s. It was a time of upheaval that saw a band like fuckin’ Primus of all groups become a platinum-selling smash. But even with the environment being the twisted dreamland that it was, Melvins had absolutely no business being where they were. Nirvana had become the biggest band on the planet in the early 90s, and grunge fever was sweeping the nation. Labels were snatching up anybody who either A) was from Seattle or the Pacific Northwest in general, B) sounded like Nirvana, Soundgarden, or Pearl Jam, or C) was a band that Kurt Cobain liked.  Melvins, while failing criterion B, were close enough to a hat trick for it to be an easy choice for any major label at the time to roll the dice on them and Atlantic were the suits who stepped up. You’d figure somebody would’ve listened to them and realized they weren’t grunge rock as much as they were some unholy amalgamation of sludge metal, drone, noise, and nightmares. But again, it was the 90s, and nothing made sense anyway, so why not take the gamble?

Well… the gamble didn’t exactly pay off for anybody. The band found themselves seeing almost no mainstream success in the long run since the alternative bottle was already overflowing with lightning, Atlantic wound up getting frustrated and dropping them after three albums, apparently deciding that since Kurt had passed away by that point they didn’t have any obligation to keep his favorite band around since they weren’t selling any records. This trilogy of albums is where we find ourselves today, in between Houdini and Stag, we had the glorious little disaster that was Stoner Witch.

Houdini was, honestly, not very good. It felt like, to me, the band was at least trying to play by major label rules in good faith while still being themselves. As a result, the album was unfocused and loaded down with filler. There are some stunners on there like the stoner/thrash mosh anthem “Honey Bucket,” and I think the more radio-friendly “Lizzy” is pretty good for what it is. But on the whole, it’s just kind of a flop for both new and old listeners. Stoner Witch feels like the band just kinda collectively shrugging and saying, “Oh well, we tried” and then going back to playing to their strengths. They get a lot of comparisons to Black Sabbath, but I honestly think they slot in much nicer next to Black Flag’s more experimental albums like My War and Slip It In. That’s about what Stoner Witch sounds like, albeit put through the patented Melvins Weirdness Filter.

Stoner Witch was famously recorded and finished extremely quickly, with the entire mastering process being done in like one day. This was the first (and I believe only) time Buzzo and the gang had the opportunity to work in a huge studio, and they utilized this opportunity to experiment with as much as they could. You can almost feel the album breaking down in real-time, and that’s exactly what makes it so fascinating to me. The opener, “Skweetis,” is a very hazy, drunken slosh of riffs and way-too-loud drums, lasting a little over a minute before the band just abruptly cuts to the next track. That’s the kind of thing they did in their early days that worked so much. The Melvins are a very unrefined band who are unafraid to boldly experiment by throwing everything they can at the wall and not caring if it sticks or not. This is their major-label follow-up to a middling album that failed to really capture the listening audience’s imagination. And they had the cojones to start the album with barely a minute of slow riffs and rattly screaming at a snail’s pace before just dropping it like a hot potato and moving on to the next idea. I absolutely love that brazenness.

The next stretch of three tracks is probably the most “normal” The Melvins ever were, and I’m kind of ashamed to admit that they’re three of my favorite songs out of their entire career. “Queen” and “Revolve” are genuinely well-crafted songs with muscular hooks and atypical for the radio (but extremely atypical for the band) verse-chorus structure, and “Sweet Willy Rollbar” is the “Honey Bucket” of Stoner Witch, being a short blast of energy that can snap any headbanger’s neck. I think the fact that these “normal” songs are so good says a lot about the band as a whole and how talented they are as songwriters. You can view it one of two ways – either these songs are categorically easier to write due to their simplicity (thereby affirming that the band is usually operating on a much higher plane, challenging themselves to insane degrees). Or it’s merely a different set of skills that need to be utilized to do well (thereby proving the band’s insane versatility and talent across the board). Either way, “Revolve” is almost too catchy to exist, and I’ve had the chorus stuck in my head nonstop for literal years. “Queen” is a bit more subdued in its approach, but the overwhelming heaviness and infectious groove should have been a smash hit in an era where White Zombie was becoming a household name. Hell, I’d even argue that Rob Zombie himself must’ve taken a lot of vocal cues from Buzzo considering the similarity in their voices. But I’m sure there’s a much closer comparison to some obscure hardcore band that I’ve never heard of.

After “Revolve,” the album plummets. Not in quality, mind you, but in mainstream appeal. I’ve always described Stoner Witch as something of an acid trip, and it kicks into high gear on “Goose Freight Train.”  From this point until the end, everything becomes a squamous monolith of distorted drones and thumps.  The last 38ish minutes or so feel like they take three hours, and for once, that’s a good thing. I don’t want this peyote-soaked nightmare to end once it starts. Despite this being the weirder part of the album, I find it harder to talk about simply because it’s so minimalist. In the last seven tracks, there are only three brief moments where the music has any spike in octane rating, and they’re all incredibly short-lived. “Roadbull” starts typically enough, along the lines of the opening quartet, until the 30-second mark where Buzzo explodes with “BULL! YOU SQUARE!” and a few hammering drum beats pierce the ensuing silence before being hushed by a haunting bassline. Apart from a few scattered yells, the rest of the track is occupied by that ethereal bassline and a whistling melody. “Magic Pig Detective” spends the first four minutes toying around with unsettling experimental noise before the band seemingly snaps out of their trance and starts playing a slightly slower rendition of “Sweet Willy Rollbar” complete with vocals that sound like Buzzo has wrapped his teeth around the microphone head. And lastly, there’s “June Bug,” which is so random that it’s only really worth mentioning for its absurdity. In a vacuum, it’s just two minutes of instrumental punk riffing with a flittery melody, which isn’t all that strange for a band like this to chuck in near the end of an album. But the fact that it’s bookended by “Shevil” and “Lividity” (two very drawn out and sprawling ambient pieces) makes it pop out.

But every last one of those tracks is surrounded by largely ambient and mellow tracks, and even then, many of them sound vaguely malicious in their minimalism. There’s a creeping tension of anxiety involved here because you never know when the loud parts are going to come back. So these 10+ minutes of quiet psychedelia wind up vaguely sinister despite what they are on their face. This arguably makes the album pretty uneven, but I tend to view it more like an expert screwball than a wild pitch. The Melvins are just toying with the listener at this point, playfully poking and prodding them at random intervals. It’s like an acid trip.  One minute you’re sitting alone in your apartment plucking away at a bass, watching the notes grow legs and waltz together, and then the next minute you’re in the Aetherfields of Kashkabald being judged by the Wizards of Time. The difference is that the band is not allowing you to spectate on their trip. They are the acid, and only they know what color you’re going to taste next.

So hopefully, I’ve made it clear. Despite the appeal of “Queen” and especially “Revolve,” Stoner Witch is a very anti-mainstream album, released on one of the biggest labels in the business. This is the sound of Melvins, essentially giving their absent benefactors the finger and seemingly deliberately trying to release something that had no chance. Of all the bands that won the “Having Kurt Cobain’s Phone Number” Sweepstakes, Melvins always had the lowest chance to succeed. And instead of trying to make it work, it seemed like they never really had any intention of playing along. They were given a major platform and chose to use it to be nobody except themselves, and I have a lot of respect for them for that. The first handful of tracks are the most melodic and structured they’d ever been up to that point (something they immediately dropped with Stag two years later). But beyond that, they seemed to pick up right where they left off after Bullhead and loaded this major label release with dense, inaccessible drone and ambient noise. And really, what better aligns the spirits of both metal and punk than pissing on the floor of The Man’s office on your way out the door?

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1 comment

On a Rocking Horse of Time...
On a Rocking Horse of Time... October 21, 2019 at 5:13 pm

My gateway to their entire catalog.


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