Freak Puke only barely warrants the name change to Melvins Lite and is a weird thrill.
The Melvins have been playing the same kind of songs over and over for years. Somehow, it hasn't gotten tiresome and it's always warranted praise. However, with Melvins Lite they do what many bands before them have done: tried to shake things up with the end result being ... not too different from what they were doing before. With something as bold as a name change (they've decided to make this project associated/attributed to the name Melvins Lite, though the cover art doesn't reflect this), a lineup cut-back (and in one case, member switch), and the replacement of a bass guitar with an upright bass all pointed towards a shift more drastic than what Freak Puke turned out to be. All of the classic Melvins staples are in place: the droning vocals, the heavy bursts of guitar, and a slightly foreboding ambiance.
The only moment that truly stands out as something different and unique in the band’s now legendary discography is the thrilling upright bass-heavy instrumental "Inner Ear Rupture". In that song, the band finds a healthy dose of invention and ends up emulating Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood. "Inner Ear Rupture" comes in as the second track and leads into the third brilliantly. Unfortunately, their sequencing only punctuates the fact that this record, had the band committed to something more left-field, been an absolute masterpiece rather than a slightly confounding retread.
What makes this especially frustrating is how great their free EP from earlier this year, The Bulls & The Bees was. On that EP, they flexed muscle, showed teeth, and balanced bombast and restraint admirably. While Freak Puke certainly does that at times, it doesn't do it with the consistency or regularity of the EP. Unfortunately, at times it's difficult to tell whether Melvins Lite sounds tired or inspired, making it difficult to tell whether the project was born out of necessity to try and flee the main project, if only briefly, or if it was a case of the project being what the band felt was an exercise in genuine creation.
Luckily, there are moments on Freak Puke that don't hesitate to take a stranglehold on the listener’s ears and reward their attention greatly, like the excellent "Leon Vs. the Revolution", which ends in a chant of "Fight! Fight! Fight!" Which brings up the point of the shorter songs being the most inventive, captivating, and worthwhile within the confines of this project. On the shorter songs, the band fits everything they need to say in at breakneck speed and don't hold back their punches. On the slower tracks, they succumb to a post-rock dreariness that never really connects. Which is strange because, in the Melvins, the songs with the strongest post-rock tendencies often stood out as some of the band’s best and most intriguing work.
By the time Freak Puke's 10-minute epic closing track, "Tommy Goes Beserk" kicks in, it's difficult to tell what the aim of Melvins Lite was exactly. As the song progresses, it becomes clear that everything the band was hoping to achieve with Melvins Lite was probably put into the song. "Tommy Goes Beserk" runs the gamut of their palette fairly impressively, only cutting out the avant-garde neo-classicism of "Inner Ear Rupture". It's a fairly fulfilling end to a very scattershot record that confuses just as much as it impresses. A very worthwhile listen, especially if you're a Melvins fan, but, apart from "Inner Ear Rupture" and "Tommy Goes Beserk", nothing all that new. Then again, isn't that sort of the beauty of the band in the first place?