20th century sludge metal finally emerges from a decades-long morass. Was it worth it? Don’t believe the hype.
Label: Sub Pop
Title: Three Men and a Baby
US Release Date: 2016-04-01
UK Release Date: 2016-04-01
What does it say about a group if they can go nearly 17 years between when the tracks were originally recorded and when they are finally completed and released with little to no change in sound? Is this the mark of a musical stasis or an unwavering adherence of vision that remains in focus for nearly two decades? In the case of Mike and the Melvins, it’s more that the sum of their collective parts hasn’t really changed all that much since the started dropping low-end heavy, muddy sludge rock on the masses some time in the mid-'80s. And somewhat fittingly, both the album’s title and “nom de song” are cribbed from ‘80s pop culture. It’s not that either the Melvins or former godheadSilo bassist/vocalist Mike Kunka found themselves stuck in a particular time period, more that in a particular time period they found a sound that stuck. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So instead of attempting to reinvent the musical wheel, the co-mingling of Kunka and the Melvins sounds pretty much how you’d expect such collaboration to sound. It’s heavy, muddy and with massive emphasis on the low end. In this, it comes as little surprise that, after initially coming together in 1999 to record and release their debut album, Mike and the Melvins have done just that in 2016 with Three Men and a Baby (the title suggesting Kunka to be the titular baby). The musical and cultural landscape have changed a great deal in the intervening years, but you’d never guess based on the sounds they’ve amassed here. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to date stamp what was recorded in 1999 versus what was recorded in 2015.
Opening track “Chicken ‘n’ Dump” essentially sets the tone for much of what’s to come in its bottom-heavy walls of distortion and Kunka’s somewhat strident tenor voice. From there its pure pummeling underground rock; filthy, gritty and with just enough tempo variation to keep everything from running together into one long noise fest. The decision to flesh out these songs with three basses rather than the usual assortment of guitars helps achieve an impressive elephantine, disorienting sonic morass that, while never really going anywhere, offers enough heaviness to appease those hoping for the usual round of bottom-heavy sludge rock from their beloved Melvins.
In this, “I don’t like your kids / But you do” on “Limited Teeth” could well serve as the album’s tagline, its overall appeal remaining largely with the existing Melvins/godheadSilo fan base. That it functions simultaneously as a piece of nostalgia and wholly new recording further muddies the waters. Essentially, there is nothing revelatory about Three Men and a Baby save the fact it took so long to come out, let alone come out at all.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad record, rather both have done better elsewhere. Together they’ve little in the way of anything declarative or career defining to say musically or otherwise. Instead it plays more as a group of like-minded individuals coming together on a collaborative project simply because they could. And it’s not all heavily distorted, driving sludge rock -- though it does make up the majority of it. “A Dead Pile of Worthless Junk” is a woozy, nightmare funhouse that helps cut through the homogeneity of the rest of the record in a way that helps draw the listener back in. So too does “Dead Canaries", its stuttering, club-footed metal funk and atonal screeches coming together to form, somewhat bizarrely, the most traditionally structured song on the album. Unfortunately these moments are too few and far between to make it more than a curio from a bygone era.
Ultimately, Three Men and a Baby will appeal to fans of both groups’ previous output who will no doubt find much to like. The rest will find only passing amusement in the appropriation of a Genesis side project and Steve Guttenberg tour de force with song titles straight out of the ‘90s (“Bummer Conversation", “Art School Fight Song", and the aforementioned “A Dead Pile of Worthless Junk", to name but a few). It’s only fitting then that it would be released on April first. And given the album’s origins in a world that, from a contemporary standpoint looks rather quaint, it’s little surprise that it does not possess the potential impact it might have if released when initially recorded.