Photo: Ipecac Recordings

Melvins’ ‘Tarantula Heart’ Marks Their Strange Trip

Melvins are masters of their craft, still able to make songs that stand with their finest work precisely because they’re never trying to recapture that past.

Tarantula Heart
Ipecac Recordings
19 April 2024

Any band that endures for several decades encounters the challenge that the same methods will eventually create a known range of results. In many cases, that matches the ambition level of the individuals involved, and they settle into the musical easy chair of greatest hits-festooned nostalgia tours, accompanied by records that masquerade as fresh material while actually cosplaying past work.

Other groups spend years trying to galvanize their excitement about making music by indulging in novelty and faux achievements because they can no longer take genuine creative risks. Metallica are the quintessential example with their FreezeEm All gig in Antarctica; Through The Never concert film; go-rounds with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra; execrable The Metallica Blacklist tribute compilation; famously awful – though at least artistically bold – Lulu collaboration with Lou Reed; all accompanying two decades of albums that have been too moribund to live up to “comeback” billing.

Melvins, by contrast, are still thrillingly unpredictable. The last band standing from the Deep Six compilation that kickstarted what would become the Pacific Northwest scene of the late 1980s; critically important to whatever ‘grunge’ was and vital to Nirvana ever making it onto a stage in the first place; foundation stone – alongside Swans – of drone/ambient metal which has become such a dominant form in the 21st-century experimental scene. Melvins have been a cascade of wild ideas for four decades, always willing to test themselves to destruction if it might seed soil for the future.

Their 27th album, Tarantula Heart, is yet another fresh experiment – and a productive one. Buzz Osborne, the lead vocalist and guitarist, explains: “I had Dale (Crover) and Roy Mayorga (drummer with Hellyeah, Stone Sour, and now Ministry) come in and play along with Steven (McDonald, formerly of Redd Kross, now full time-Melvins) and I to some riffs, then I took those sessions and figured out what parts would work and wrote new music to fit. This isn’t a studio approach we’ve ever taken. Usually, we have the songs written BEFORE we start recording!”

This multi-stage approach is a curious one, taking initial riffs and ideas, working them over live in the studio to demo possible approaches to complete songs, then taking it all away to turn it into written music, and then re-recording the results in the studio. The result is a series of songs that have the expansiveness of improvisational music, disciplined into the taut power of rock – a fair point of comparison would be the Stooges in 1973 when the band had been drilled to the point that Iggy Pop could vanish off into whatever on-stage madness he wished and the band could still react the very moment he snapped back in.

That is on full display with the 19-minute “Pain Equals Funny”. Verse-chorus-verse is seemingly left way back in the rear-view mirror as the song soars from a tentative first minute, across triumphal opening fanfares and deft vocal harmonies, on into a breakdown that leads out into a locked-down heavy riff that, encircled by creative guitar work and a strong lead vocal, dominates the next section – ten minutes gone in what feels like zero time at all. The song almost grinds to a halt but rebuilds piece by piece, sound by sound, a glowering sense of threat, like a chainsaw blade held next to one’s face, forever threatening to rip back to full throttle. At the 14-minute mark, it all roars back into full horror film pandemonium.  

With Tarantula Heart‘s clear centerpiece discharged as the full first half of the record and its opener, it’s hard for the four songs to feel as significant despite their varying levels of excellence. There’s a feeling that, to contrast with the sheer scale of “Pain Equals Funny”, the album’s second half has been designed for ever-building velocity and pressure. It starts with “Working the Ditch” which measures up to its title, very much that classic Melvins’ doom trudge through the mud – I mean that as a compliment.

From there, there’s the pop-rock confection of “She’s Got Weird Arms”, with Osborne creating all kinds of twitching and jolting earworm vocal moments against sunshine bright harmonies – then tossing the song down helter-skelters of the distressed guitar. There’s not even the slightest hint of sweetness or sugar to ease the chemical tang of “Allergic to Food”. This is straight-up acid-fried bad vibes howled through the vortex from anywhere on the entire timeline of Melvins’ work; it’d fit on pretty much any LP they’ve ever done, again, a compliment. Everything closes out with the efficient brusqueness of “Smiler” which keeps up the hard-pressing and relentless vibe, each track on Side B turning the dial further and further into the red.

And that’s it; we’re out. This is pretty much a perfect encapsulation of Melvins in 2024: mischievous masters of their craft, still able to make songs that stand with their finest work precisely because they’re never trying to recapture that past. They’re too busy moving forward to see what infernal conjurations they can magic up from the base matter of rock music.

RATING 8 / 10