The 1990s were a strange time. In the wake of the success of bands like Faith No More and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, US major labels invested in more off-kilter and odd iterations of rock and metal outside of the hair metal that had made up much of the previous decade. Across 1990-1991, an array of artists from the Pacific Northwest – The Posies, Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains – had headed to majors or subsidiaries alongside underground stars from elsewhere like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. In the aftermath of Nirvana, the gates opened even further, and some genuinely unique visions received big money backing.
One such late-comer were Melvins. Among the founders of grunge, the founders of what would become drone or ambient metal, a touchstone for so much of the alternative metal of today, Melvins were too original to be snatched up any earlier. Atlantic Records seem not to have been the most comfortable of hosts and held onto Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover’s group for just four years, 1993-1996. It’s a shame because, for much of that period, Melvins showed what could be accomplished if a band used the additional resources a major could offer without ever compromising their vision and questing intelligence. At the Stake: Complete Atlantic Recordings 1993-1996 captures this productive spell across three discs with bonus tracks and additions.
Having said that, their first album for the label, Houdini, was pretty compromised. Drugs were making a mess of things. The record label demanded Kurt Cobain‘s name on the end product. Jonathan Burnside, the engineer and producer who had worked with Melvins for several years, was unceremoniously relegated with the album listed as “produced by Melvins” or “produced by Kurt Cobain and Melvins”. Kurt Cobain was a vague presence at best: happy to help his friends satisfy the label’s demand for his involvement, given he was a personal fan of Melvins who knew how much he owed the group that had given him his first roadie and on-stage experience… But aware he was being used while being too fucked up to do more than sleep on a couch in the studio and make the occasional helpful suggestion.
Houdini feels cobbled together. The bass whips the speakers on the first couple of tracks. It’s intense; it’s claustrophobic in awesome ways. But “Hooch” and “Night Goat” sound like parts one and two of the same song. Repetition starts to tell across “Going Blind”, “Honey Bucket”, and “Hag Me” – though every one of the songs feels like Melvins doing what they did best. “Joan of Arc” and “Copache” are high-energy mid-album highlights too. There’s half an album here that feels like magnificent business as usual.
“Lizzy” and “Set Me Straight” feel like demos, “Pearl Bomb” is too reminiscent of Houdini‘s weaknesses, while “Sky Pop” (which features some feeble shred of guitar from Cobain) is a genuinely timid and whimpering cur of a creation. Fifteen minutes is then given to closer, “Spread Eagle Beagle”. On the one hand, Dale Crover is one of the finest percussionists ever to grace the face of the Earth, but even he can’t turn this mid-tempo pounding and thumping into Melvins’ answer to “Bonzo’s Montreux”. These weaker elements add bulk to the record without giving it more weight. Whimsical sequencing allows lackadaisical efforts to undermine momentum, adding to the sense of a ramshackle release from a band in a rare moment of uncertainty and discomfort.
Stoner Witch (1994) suffers from no such compromises. The first 30 seconds of “Skweetis” feel like the exploding treelines of Apocalypse Now. The whole song is out in just over a minute: a fine example of hardcore punk’s concision and impact – Buzz Osborne and Crover were back in business. The following three songs – “Queen”, “Sweet Willy Rollbar”, and “Revolve” – fly past like good conversation with Crover stretching way beyond boom-bap basic drumming into something enthralling and expressive, while Osborne’s guitar lends an oily, curmudgeonly, sullen counterpoint.
“Goose Freight Train” changes the vibe without any loss of momentum; there’s an echo of horror film jump-scares in its flight from low-down dirty grooving to high-note stabs. “Roadbull” should have put Melvins on many more indie playlists with its head-nodding indie goodness, Osborne’s winsome vocals and whistling all matched to martial drums. “At the Stake” is Stoner Witch‘s centerpiece and feels like the school’s least popular kid beckoning unheeding classmates to a whole new playground that various post-rock maestros would eventually take credit for discovering.
There’s not a single leftover or filler track anywhere on Stoner Witch. “Magic Pig Detective” plows the sound field to dust before letting the listener unwind with two minutes of pure rock joy: Melvins’ innate intelligence is visible in choosing to make this a single piece, therefore keeping the listener off-kilter, unable to find their feet. “Shevil” shows their confidence in its instrumental show of strength, with no one seeing a need to interrupt the groove with vocals until two-thirds of the way in. “June Bug” is all gorgeous lead guitar and stomach-lurching plummets before the ambient twitch and shade of “Lividity”.
Whatever was going on politically, Melvins’ music just kept climbing, with 1996’s Stag providing a spell-binding close to their time on Atlantic Records. Interspersing the albums with instrumentals – “Hide”, “Yacobs Lab”, and “Soup” – it really felt like Melvins had considered precisely where and when to change mood or velocity to best effect. Osborne is in dramatic form, deploying a vast array of whispers, near-croons, and dry roars while leaving plentiful space for songs to stretch out wordlessly. “Black Bock” is the album’s indie pop gold nugget – it’d be worthy of Pavement or Sebadoh – with its catchy chorus of “do-de-do-de-do, la-la-la-la.”
Stag is full of baroquely effective touches and surprises: the sitar intro to opener “The Bit”, the brass section and DJ scratches inculcated into the fabric of “Bar-X The Rocking M”, the twinkling interstellar intermission of “Yacob’s Lab”, or the hover and hiss of “Soup” which dwells in unresolved tension for its entire run-time. “Sterilized” is panic-inducing metal-on-metal and clattering eruptions of percussion made no less creepy by Osborne’s breathy vocals panning low in the mix.
Even the more straight rock songs show Melvins busting open crates of tricks that all work seamlessly as part of the whole. “The Bloat” is a sun-drenched desert song laced with cut-up gnomic declamations – “The more you know the brain, the more it homicide. Belt strip telephone, give me 46, give me 45.” “Lacrimosa” is a creaking ghost ship that gives way to the stripped-down garage rock opening of “Skin Horse”, which works well as a contrast to the gorgeous overload of so much of Stag, giving smooth hold and release before the entire song is doused in helium for high-pitched fun. “Captain Pungent” offers some astonishing surges of energy, along with the hard chug of “Buck Owens” and “Berthas” – straight thrills amid the tracks that reward contemplation as well as neck-snapping action.
This three-album collection on Cherry Red offers a fair-priced summary of a powerful spell in Melvins’ existence, but for those who already own the records, the bonus tracks are the lure here. The extras are worthwhile, a handful of songs appended to each album rather than the full double-disc depth of the label’s excellent Dinosaur Jr. reissues. The additions to Houdini include “Rocket Reducer #62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)”: a full-on assault on the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll condensed into just a few minutes – it slays! A range of live tracks, edits, demos, and the odd cover are all pleasant without being wildly consequential – you wish for a whole live show to be appended to this otherwise excellent box set. Still, the quality on offer on At the Stake is substantial, a band that discovered they could make hay while the major label sun was shining.