With considerable confidence, it can be assumed that the following name has never appeared in any review of a Melvins recording: Woody Allen. Perhaps because, for starters, the work and sensibility of that diminutive and reticent filmmaker could not be more opposite from this very aggressive and deliberate band. Plus, one makes movies; the other makes music. And yet, a case could be made that the Melvins are steadily establishing themselves as the Woody Allen of rock and roll: efficient, productive, reliably original, and influential. They churn out new albums at a steady clip which hard core fans snatch up, and most everyone else gives a miss. Like most great things in this world, they are an acquired taste but after they get their hooks in you, it’s on. They are the kind of band you almost hate to love, because once you are on board, you eventually understand you’ll have to own everything they make. And, unlike Allen, the Melvins show no signs of slowing down or slouching toward stale self-imitation as they approach dignified middle age. All of which is to say, their latest release, A Senile Animal, is business as usual, and business is as good as ever, and better than one could reasonably expect, given that this band has been cruising along since the mid-’80s.
The good news is that this album comes highly recommended, and is actually an ideal introduction for neophytes. Which isn’t to say A Senile Animal is exactly accessible; this is the Melvins, after all. Still, if you unfamiliar with their body of work, this is as good a spot as any to jump in and, once converted, start working your way backward through the intimidating catalog. For casual fans (are there any?), there are enough new twists to make this an essential listen: this band burns through bassists the way Spinal Tap did drummers, therefore newcomer Jared Warren joins the fray this time around. And there is a new drummer! (What? How on earth could they ever get rid of Dale Crover? They didn’t! There are two drummers in the new configuration of the band. If that sounds at all gimmicky, disabuse yourself of any misconceptions: it is an inspired move that pays significant dividends.)
The onslaught is immediate, and the new line-up wastes no time flaunting the singular strengths of all involved. Coady Willis, the second drummer, augments the inimitable sludgy framework that Crover has supplied for the last two decades: the first twenty seconds of “The Talking Horse”, with seemingly double everything, drums (crashing cymbals and double-time rolls), actual vocal harmonizing (!!) and the signature slow-mo chainsaw guitar sound of Buzz Osborne (King Buzzo). As “Blood Witch” bleeds into “Civilized Worm” (more vocal harmonies — all four members are credited with vocal contributions, and it’s pleasantly apparent throughout), the drum assault is never flashy, never superfluous, and it is obvious the band made an inspired decision to double a good thing. At the one-minute-46-second mark of the third song (“Civilized Worm”), an authentic Melvins moment occurs: the guitar growl grinds down to mud, a smattering of trash-can rattles and then … nothing; then a pulse — after skipping a beat, the riff returns. Bliss.
Speaking of riffs, let’s talk about King Buzzo for a moment. the Melvins have always drawn comparisons to Black Sabbath, which while complimentary, are a bit lazy and unimaginative. Sabbath certainly had their sound, and spawned a million miniature hair metal monstrosities, but it is to the Melvins’ considerable credit that they’ve carved out their own original, influential sound, something very few bands ever achieve. Tony Iommi, the metal-riff master, had an eight-year run while at the top of his game with Sabbath; Buzz has been pulling oily, oozing riffs out of his ‘fro for more than twice that, and is steadily making a case as one of the indelible, if all-time overlooked guitar gods. Over the top? Spend some time with “A History Of Bad Men” and consider that craftsmanship alongside his incandescent contributions to side project super-group Fantomas: just in this young century, Buzzo has delivered goods that many musicians would kill to call an entire career. It is almost too much to ask for, but King Buzzo is actually getting better with age, and continues to refine and define a sound that is his alone.
If A Senile Animal lacks the effortless intensity of, say, Stoner Witch, it is worth noting that a positive review of that album in 1994 very well may have observed that it did not have the effortless intensity of, say, Bullhead. So, is this a more refined Melvins? Maybe. Or more to the point: who cares? If the pace is a bit brisker here, the old school sludge is very much in effect, alongside the double-drums and layered vocals. Out of several viable candidates, the album’s high point may be the second-to-last track, “The Mechanical Bride”, which calls to mind the sublime “Hag Me” (from Houdini): it’s all in there, the centrifugal force of that muddy undertow — the sound of a band jamming in their own time, as though a collective joint pain forces the pace to roil at its own speed, simmering in its own fevered juices. It is the sound of an impossible pain that somehow feels good. It is the sound of the Melvins.